City of Pearl is, on one level, another entry into the proud tradition of brutal challenges to the Campbellian notion that humanity is a special case. Its particular lens for focusing this argument is ecological: the wess’har, or at least the ones we meet in this novel, are environmental fundamentalists who consider all living things to have equal rights – Aras refers to rats as “people” – and who live with as little imposition on other beings as possible. They’re also possessed of a technology level capable of wiping out large cities – say, those of the isenj – and restoring the landscape left behind to a wilderness state without too much difficulty, which makes them exactly the people you don’t want to have taken custody of a planet when you’d like to settle on it.
The first humans to reach Bezer’ej are spared by dint of the fact that they carry a gene bank of Earthly life, and found the agrarian Christian commune of Constantine. A later expedition of scientists with a military guard, led by City of Pearl’s protagonist Shan Frankland, is allowed to land because Aras is curious; it’s a decision he comes to regret.
The conflict between wess’har and human psychology and morality has strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, having a viewpoint character with such an absolutist worldview as does Aras enables Traviss to throw her readers off balance every so often, to make them question their assumptions – as with the remark about rats noted above, or as when Aras corrects Josh, the leader of Constantine, about humans “detecting” other alien species, rather than “discovering” them; or when Josh himself mentally tuts that Shan only recognises Bezer’ej as “inhabited” when there are sentient aliens in the frame. And the colonists of Constantine, who carried their own ecological morality with them from Earth but have followed the wess’har’s lead, philosophically, during the decades of their tenure, are an interesting bunch that I wouldn’t have minded spending more time with.
But as the narrative (inevitably) heads towards conflict, it stumbles. When he allows Shan and her companions to land, Aras sets some ground rules, of which the most important is “no samples of living material”: not a blade of alien grass. It’s clear almost immediately that for most of the scientists in Shan’s party this is an unacceptable restriction on their research, but it’s not until half-way into the book that one of them manages to pick up what appears to be a dead organism from the shore and bring it back to base camp. When that happens, some of the party do object, but the scientist in question locks herself away and begins a dissection before Shan arrives to stop her.
This, of course, is enough to initiate a diplomatic crisis, and for a few pages it looks like a quite interesting one: the scientist’s actions are against wess’har morality, and though they surely have the right, and the power, to set the local rules, they can’t help seeming excessive to us; while even as we disapprove of the scientist’s actions, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her curiosity. (She has, after all, given up her life for the opportunity to visit another world: with slower-than-light journeys and cryogenic suspension, nobody she knew on Earth is going to be alive when she returns.) But quite quickly it’s revealed that the organism wasn’t dead, after all; and moreover that it wasn’t just any organism, it was a juvenile bezeri; and so the scientist, monstrously, has been dissecting a living child. This, I can’t help feeling, is much less interesting, because it horrifies us as much as the wess’har, which means that when Aras demands the death penalty for the scientist’s crimes, it’s a demand that comes from a recognisable place (even if we abjure capital punishment ourselves). How much more challenging it would have been to empathise with Aras if the scientist’s actions had been a crime by wess’har standards only.