Susan R. Matthews
HarperCollins Eos / 304 pages / October 2000
She amazed and chilled readers with the harrowing life of a master torturer in the Koscuisko series and took us into the midst of a religious conflict about to turn to war in Avalanche Soldier. Now, Matthews may just have topped herself with the far-reaching space adventure of Colony Fleet. It’s a step in a new, exciting direction.
Hillbrane Harkover, known to Jneers and Oways as “Aitch Harkover,” known to Mechs as “Chelbie,” is a woman coming of age in a tense situation. Every character in the book, actually, is living life on the edge. Life in the Colony Fleet, four hundred years out from Earth and four hundred years away from its final destination, is a reality of ships, carefully managed resources, and dedication to a mission. Generations have been born and died on the journey to five livable worlds, all without ever knowing what it is to stand under an endless sky.
It is a comfortable existence for the Oways and a pampered one for the privileged Jneers who primarily dwell on the Noun ships with their artificial habitats and pleasures. For the Mechs who are maintaining the fleet it is a life of stark interiors, make-do, and constant vigilance. Because all are not equal in the fleet; over the centuries of their journey, a rigid caste system has formed — as severe and blatantly unfair as all class distinctions. And this one is about to explode into a major rift in the Fleet.
As the novel follows Harkover in her own journey of discovery, readers follow closely on a tour of life in the Fleet through a variety of filters. With each passing day, we seem more clearly as the layers of preconception fall away from her eyes. Her maturation is an awakening for all of us, and she is determined to force a similar awakening on all members of the vast Fleet. Her persistence and vulnerability make her a heroine worthy of the name.
Harkover is not the only strong female in enormous scope of Colony Fleet. Through the character of Podile, the Oway, comes a completely different view of the situation. Her classification condemns her to life always in the middle, siding with Jneers and loathing the supposedly “unclean” Mechs. As fascinating as Harkover’s character is, it is Podile who is the voice of reason and the touchstone of reality. This woman between the extremes is a fascinating, endearing character. She may be doomed by birth never to join the elite ranks of the Jneers, but her analysis is sharper and more practical than any of the privileged ones she waits on.
Alas, I cannot give away the story, but I will tell you that the story of what happens to the first group to settle on Waystation One is as tense and relentless as any moment in science fiction. It moves from fear to panic to numb horror in a flawless display of building suspense that should stand as an example to readers and writers of every category of fiction.
Susan R. Matthews is one of the most talented, imaginative voices in the genre. Colony Fleet is her finest work..yet. Keep an eye out for her name in the 2001 Hugos and Nebulas. If there is any justice in the world, it will be there on the final ballot.