Environmental themes aren't unheard in science fiction, but they're not the standard-bearers of the genre. In Bruce Golden's newest novel, Evergreen, he goes green in a big way. He asks, without asking, are unclaimed planets in space just there for humans to use as they will? And by logical progression, is our own?
Golden doesn't hit his readers over the head with this theme—
There are two main storylines in Evergreen, which eventually converge. One follows a heretic priest who, because of the discovery of an ancient artifact, believes the mythical City of God might actually exist on the planet Evergreen. He and his followers lead an expedition through unexplored regions of the world, where they discover something totally unexpected—
Her first thought was that it must be a fantasy—
a nightmare some creature paid homage to on a cave wall. It must have been some terrible dream she thought. It certainly couldn't have been real. Because what it showed was Amanda's ursu fighting against the forest itself.
Amanda is an exobiologist who's been living on Evergreen, studying groups of primate-like creatures (the "ursu") she believes may eventually evolve into sentient beings. So far in this particular future universe, several inhabitable planets have been discovered—
As is typical of any "expeditionary" tale, along the way the characters undergo conflict and change. While this aspect of the book isn't particularly revolutionary, the revelations these explorers discover are. (To say more would be to giveaway the essence of the plot.)
The second storyline begins with a young man from Earth who's come to Evergreen to find his mother's killer. To do so, he's joined a group of lumberjacks that consists mostly of indentured workers, former criminals, and outcasts. One of these "timber jockeys" is trying to forget something terrible from his past, and uses the local narcotic to dull his memory—
He smelled it before he saw it. It was a human hand, and part of an arm, poking out from underneath the scrap of the forest floor.
"Jesus," said Cayenne, covering her mouth and nose.
Gash brushed away the thin blanket of dirt and needles—
enough to reveal that there was an entire body there. At least what was left of it. It had been there for some time— weeks guessed Gash— not quite buried, yet fit snugly into a depression around the base of a sapling like so much mulch.
There are characters aplenty in this book—
Like in Golden's previous novels, Better Than Chocolate and Mortals All, the dialogue is authentic, rarely hitting a false note.
"I know you can spend only so much time watching me brush the dust from buried bones and piece together pottery shards. I'm sure you thought when you married me that gallivanting around the world with an archaeologist would be much more fun."
She had thought so, but she would never tell him that. "I do enjoy it . . . at times. I'm with you now aren't I?"
"And I'm glad you wanted to come."
"Who wouldn't want to visit a strange new world?"
"You didn't feel the same way when I went to Mars, and that was the most important dig of my career."
"I know. At the time it just didn't seem that exciting. All those pictures of Mars you showed me looked so dreary."
So how do you know good dialogue when you see it? You don't. Or more exactly, you don't notice it. It's the bad dialogue you notice. It's like an umpire in baseball. No one notices him until he makes a mistake. Bad dialogue stands out like that. Except for the occasional memorable line, like one retort to someone claiming to be a vegan: "Even broccoli screams when you rip it out of the ground." You don't notice good dialogue. The scenes just flow and you're caught up in the conversation. Because that's what it sounds like to the ear—
While the scenes with dialogue are great, I was disappointed Golden didn't take more time and detail with his descriptions. You won't find any purple prose here, but I would have preferred, at times, that he let me smell the trees and feel the sunlight a little more. A picky little criticism, I know, but I'm a greedy reader. I always want more.
One of the best aspects of this book is the way Golden sets up each and every storyline payoff. The foreshadowing is subtle, but it builds dramatically and informatively. We get a little piece here, a little tidbit there, until the entirety of it unfolds. It's the same with the characters. We don't learn everything about them the first time they walk onto the page. As we get to know them as people, we begin to learn more about their backgrounds, their innermost fears and desires.
Not only are plot and characterization built gradually, but so is the theme. There's scene in a garden early on which hints at thematic things to come, when a young man cuts a rose to give to his love, and the gardener takes umbrage.
"What you doing, mon? I can't believe what you do." An old, ebony-skinned man, the gardener by his outfit, came at them, poking the air while glaring at Max. "You don't cut me roses, mon. No, no, you don't cut me roses."
Max looked properly chastised. "I'm... I'm sorry. I was just going to give it to the lady."
The gardener threw his hands back behind his head in a gesture of frustration. "I don't care, mon. You still don't cut me roses. Me roses is like me little children. You don't cut little children do you?"
While the smooth dialogue and use of multiple characters is reminiscent of his previous works, this novel is nothing like Golden's other books. There are no robots, androids, or andrones, and of course, it's set on a world other than future Earth. The worldbuilding is very detailed, both in a planetary and a societal context. This is a frontier world, not unlike a frontier town of the Old West in some ways, built initially by the timber mining its great forests. But many of the colonists and the timber jockeys are unhappy with the way things are being run. Insurrection is brewing.
Evergreen is a beautiful world as Golden describes it—
Evergreen manages to be an adventure tale with lots of action and mystery, while being, at its heart, a character story, with people driven by such emotions as revenge, redemption, obsession, love, and lust. It's not a combination I find very often, but Evergreen manages a successful mix of these elements to go along with a fantastic climax—
Will there be a sequel? Can there be a follow-up to this? What happens next? I don't know, but I'd love to find out.