Colony Fleet by Susan R. Matthews
Mass Market Paperback - 304 pages (October 2000)
Harper Mass Market Paperbacks; ISBN: 038080316X
Review by Ernest Lilley

Four hundred years from Earth, a fleet of generation ships nears the first of five planets planned for colonization. Behind them, Earth has fallen silent, and the carefully balanced society of engineers, administrators and technicians has gradually fallen into an ordered caste system with the Jneers on top and the Mechs on the bottom.

When Jneers finish their education and apprenticeship, they undergo a ritual called comparisons testing where they each analyze another Jneer candidates case and probe it for weakness while that person does the same to them. Itís sort of a WWF consulting exercise because by tradition everyone leaves an obvious flaw in their final case study so that they can accept a tie score with their opponent. Until now.

Raleigh Marquette isn't willing to accept the win-win scenario carefully maintained by generations. Painfully aware that heís not the best and brightest of Jneers, he knows he can only rise to the status he hopes for if he devastates his opponent. Then and only then can be sure of position, privilege and a life with the Jneer of his dreams: Hilbrane Harkover, a woman who matches all the ideals physical and mental, of Jneerdom.

Out of all the students, naturally Hilbrane draws Raleigh as an opponent, and though she fights to tie, he is committed to his victory and her defeat. By chance as much as skill and even though the examiners suspect him of treachery he does prove her case flawed and his faultless. Faced with an unprecedented scandal, the examiners take Hilbrane up on her heated suggestion that perhaps she doesnít actually belong in the Jneers caste.

So a hotheaded remark exiles her from her world and into the underworld of the Mechs, the technicians that keep the fleet running, scraping by with makeshift solutions rather than the clean analytical artistry of the Jneers, bonding together in cooperation and teamwork to get the job done. Itís all very un-Jneer.

Now, the Jneers don't trust the Mechs. Incidentally, the third caste, the Oways, don't actually figure much into this at all, they push paper around, mostly at Jneer bidding and bring meals. But the Jneers believe that the Mechs are hoarding supplies and lying about their material stocks. They donít have evidence, yet, but that wonít stop them. Maybe that Jneer who broke with tradition and turned in an unflawed final case study could dig it up for themÖkeeping him out of the public eye while the scandal cools down.

So both Raleigh and Hilbrane are sent down to the Mechs, and they see them through different eyes. Hilbrane comes to understand and appreciate Mech strengths, and see how vital they will be in the fast upcoming planetfall, and even finding a place for herself with them

Raleigh finds what he expects, or actually in the absence of finding any real evidence, he concludes that the Mechs are cleverer in their treachery than the Jneers even feared.

Hilbrane is determined to speak up for the Mechs at Allmeet, the annual gathering of members off each caste, but will her voice be heard?

Author Susan R. Matthews has added a fine tale to the lore of generation ship colonization. With four more planets to go, one hopes she's conceived this as a series, and my mind leaps ahead to the fifth world.

I did get snagged on what seemed to be a technical inconsistency two thirds of the way through the book. First she says that each colony world, Waypoints as they call them, will only get a flyby as the fleet is moving too fast and it would take too much energy to stop them. Good thinking. It makes sense and I kind of liked it.

So it bothered me a bit when she decides to leave one of the capital ships of the fleet behind. One of the "Noun" ships. If they are capital ships, does that make them "Proper Nouns?" One wonders. Also, Hilbrane adapts all to quickly to her new life in the Mechs. From a sort of pity and condescention at the beginning of the book to admiration and identification shortly after her recasting, sheís a heck of a lot more flexible than Iíd be under the circumstances.

So, while I liked Colony Fleet, it could use a bit of tightening up before zooming off two Waystation Two, if the author is indeed going to take us along for the whole ride.

Since planets seem to only come by every few hundred years, it's going to be an interesting challenge for the author to provide some continuity from book to book.