A Paradigm of Earth by Candas Jane Dorsey
List Price: $26.95
Hardcover - 368 pages 1st edition (October 2001)
Tor; ISBN: 031287796X Review by Asta Sinusas
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Reeling from the breakup with her partner Vik, the death of her father, and the quickly successive death of her mother, Morgan decides on a change of scenery. She is shocked to learn of the house she has inherited from her mother - one Morgan never knew anything about. The mansion had been used by her grandparents as a school and was most currently leased to a religious group. Nevertheless, a house in a different town seems to suit Morgan’s purposes, so she quits her job, packs up and moves. However, one by one, Morgan fills her large, empty domicile with tenants just as she tries to fill the emptiness in her life.

The course of A Paradigm of Earth changes abruptly when she interviews for a childcare position and ends up being the caretaker for an alien.  Blue is one of twelve that have recently landed on Earth, each into the care of a different government, with their memories erased. They are like newborns and the idea is that they are to be moulded by the society they are placed in so they can learn from the ground up about Earth. At first, Blue is kept in a secret location (memories of “Iceman” with Timothy Hutton come to mind) and Morgan attempts to raise it and teach it about life on Earth. As she does so, the alien begins to grow and Morgan’s grief begins to lessen in the face of the “child” she comes to care for. However, as Blue enters the troublesome teenage years, it runs away and ends up begging to live with Morgan at her house. Of course, there is an uproar when word gets out into the mainstream ultra-conservative society. Especially when some of the tenants are not what society deems appropriate as role models. As a result, the occupants are under government surveillance and hounded by the media at every turn. Even with these pressures, bonds begin to be forged between the members of the household, only to be shaken by internal events and murder.

In the wake of September 11th, the world has changed. A glimpse of a firefighter now brings a tear to the eye while the American flag seems to propagate everywhere. It is in this new world that I read A Paradigm of Earth. In the first chapter both of the main character’s parents die and one of the conflicts that runs through the novel is Morgan’s recovery and eventual healing. Also, there are three murders that occur through the course of the book to which the remaining characters have increasingly emotional responses. At any other time, I would be saddened by the events unfolding before my eyes, but continue reading. Again, the world has changed. The last thing I want to read these days is about more death. It’s no one’s fault. This book was conceived years ago and talked about in marketing meetings that occurred months ago. For those out there who have the stomach, you are probably watching CNN for updates. For those looking to escape the horrors of everyday life, this book is not for now.

Also, I happen to believe in the fairy tale. Guy meets girl, guy loses girl, guy gets girl back and they go off into the sunset to have perfect sex, perfect kids, and the perfect committed life together. A Paradigm of Earth is a complete reversal of that ideal. The main character, Morgan, is promiscuous, bisexual and any maternal instincts she possesses are focused on Blue and her tenants. Consequently, parts of A Paradigm of Earth and Morgan’s behaviour were uncomfortable for me, partially because I was not expecting them. The marketing copy only refers to A Paradigm Of Earth as “feminist science fiction” which is hardly necessary preparation for Morgan going from a heterosexual one night stand, to a lesbian affair with a disabled female, to having an affair with the alien. Most books do not need a rating like a feature film but I believe this one does.

A Paradigm of Earth is well written and Dorsey’s craft shines through. The plot becomes gripping upon the introduction of the alien into Morgan’s life. The three murders also add an element of mystery and make the reader absorbed in the outcome. However, there are also problems. The sudden change in voice from journal entries written in first person to a third person limited to omniscient was a bit much, but the most tolerable. Another shock was Morgan’s mourning process. At first, she exhibits classic symptoms including a disinterest in life and difficulty sleeping. However, at the middle of the story she comes out of her grief and quite rapidly goes from one sexual encounter after another. While I am sure everyone mourns in their own unique way, the change is abrupt and hard to process as a reader. Lastly, there are glimpses of life in this new society which are quite spectacular, especially in conversations between the characters, but never go anywhere. Part of Dorsey’s problem is that when you write about subjects that are close to your heart, such as the loss of a loved one, what you gain in emotional power and eloquence, you lose in objectivity. There are too many things going on; Morgan between her grief and sexuality, the tenants and the politics of the world that dislikes them and what they stand for, the alien and the sci-fi world Dorsey is trying to create. In the end, although A Paradigm of Earth is a spectacular effort, I had many difficulties with the work. This is not meant to discourage anyone from reading A Paradigm of Earth and there are rewards for those who do. However, I think people should be well prepared for the content.

© 2001 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu