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Remnant Population

December 10, 2018

Remnant Population, by Elizabeth Moon, was recommended to me by my friend Elizabeth, and it was balm to my soul in many ways, not least because it was such a page-turner that I stayed up really late one night finishing it.

Remnant Population is about a 70-year-old woman named Ofelia who has lived on a colonized planet for 40 years and decides to stay after the company who sponsored the colony, Sims Bancorp, declines to invest any further. They send ships to evacuate the colonists, but Ofelia stays behind. She enjoys being free of the rules, which sound like they were established by some kind of fundamentalist religious group. She resented her daughter-in-law’s “determination to enforce on her mother-in-law all the petty rules intended to preserve the virtue of virgins” including covering every inch of skin and her hair. More than the petty rules, however, Ofelia resents the way her natural curiosity and creativity have been continually confined to what her male relations consider appropriate to the low-status jobs they assign her–taking care of children, cooking, and sewing.

As the novel begins, the younger colonists, who’ve never had to move before, are puzzling over how to pack their clothing, and Ofelia designs luggage they can make with the material and sewing machines they have at the Center, a community building. “She had always enjoyed figuring out ways to do things, though usually someone just gave her directions.” Ofelia helps with the sewing and “when her shoulders tired, someone always noticed, and came to knead them and take a turn at the machine. Ofelia sat for a while in a padded rocker in the passage, telling stories to small children. They were not her grandchildren, but she had been telling stories to small children for so long it didn’t matter.”

After hiding in the forest for a couple of days while the spaceships take off, Ofelia makes the colony her own, turning on the power plant, cleaning out everyone’s refrigerators, and checking on the livestock. She lives alone as she pleases for months, until she hears an attempt to land another human ship on a different part of her planet go wrong, with what seem to be indigenous aliens attacking and killing all the humans.

Occasionally, then, we get a few pages of narration focusing on the way the indigenous people of this world see the humans. They were defending their nests, and they saw the ship as a “monster” and the people who came out of it as “monsters in gray and green….A lively debate followed, whether the stinking corpses of great flyers had been shells or garments or separate creatures, allies of the monsters.”

Eventually the indigenous people find Ofelia. She first meets them outside, in a street where she has come to look at the sky during the eye of a tropical storm–which she is used to and they are not, as her colony had settled in an area of the planet with dangerous seasonal storms. Rather than let them die, she invites them inside one of the houses, thinking “Killers. Aliens. Troublemakers. She hadn’t wanted them, any more than she’d wanted the other colony. But she would feel guilty if they died because she barred them out—and if they survived, they would be angry.”

Because Ofelia has lived with hardship, she isn’t too cowed by her first contact with aliens. When she shows them how to turn on the running water inside the house, “the creature reached out to the controls; its hard nails slipped on the metal control. Ofelia put her hand out to help, and the creature slapped her aside, hard enough to sting, but not a damaging blow. Ofelia glared, but years of marriage to Humberto suggested that the best thing to do was stand there looking subdued.” She continues to show them things and they begin to cooperate, demonstrating ingenuity and understanding, until Ofelia is so tired that “even as panic told her that they would kill her in her sleep, that she must not sleep, exhaustion dragged her down.”

During the next few days, the indigenous people and Ofelia discover that they can get nourishment from different kinds of food, but they share water and information. At first she thinks “they were like children, prying into everything. They tried the water controls of the sinks—so they had remembered what she taught them in the house. They opened cabinets, picked up and put down everything they could move, and even turned on the light in the other pantry. One of them came to her side, and very slowly touched her hand on the stirring spoon. It grunted softly.” The third-person narrator suggests that these two kinds of people are so different from each other that they can’t tell how softly they must reach out to touch each other or which utterances might be speech.

The two kinds of people begin to understand each other better when Ofelia warns them against touching buttons in the control room. “Did they know about electricity? ‘Zzzzt!’ she said, pretending to touch something and then jerking back, shaking her hand. ‘Zzzzt. . .’ It was the first sound of hers any of them had copied.” She capitalizes on that success, showing them that
“’the wrong place will go Zzzzt’….She walked over to the outlet where the cables linked to the power system. ‘Here it will make anyone go Zzzzt.’ Again she pretended to touch it, made the noise, and jerked back. ‘But here—IF you know what you’re doing, I can touch it.’ As she spoke, she mimed: finger tapping head…knows…a careful approach, looking all over the control board before deciding which button to push…a careful touch with one finger on one button. No zzzzt. The lights blinked; she had enabled a warning circuit that put all the center lights on slow flash.
Squawks and grunts and gabbles, restless stirring in the hall behind the frontmost creatures.”

After hearing about the attempts at communication from Ofelia’s point of view, we get a short section in which we see her from their point of view:
“Ornaments. It had ornaments hanging on it, ornaments it changed from day to day. What did that mean? A way of counting, a way of responding to the weather….If it had not been for the monster’s ornaments, they might have believed monsters cared only for boxes: they lived in boxes, kept things in boxes, cooked food in hot boxes, kept food in cold boxes, had pictures and noises in boxes.”

And then we get a section from the point of view of the human “Contact team” on its way to the planet to evaluate the potential intelligence of the indigenous species: “What little data we have suggests that the native (?) culture responsible for the recent debacle is a social nomad living in one region only, and herding the local equivalent of grass-eating cattle. Since neither grow in the tropics, it may not yet have found the Sims Bancorp site. But if it should, and if that powerplant is indeed functional (as Captain Vasoni’s data suggest) then we have a crisis. Such an aggressive, hostile species must not be handed advanced technology too soon.”

About halfway through the story, the indigenous people send an ambassador that Ofelia calls “Bluecloak” who “seemed so much more responsive than the original creatures. Was this why they had brought it? If they were anything like her own people, if the first ones who found her were scouts of some kind, then Bluecloak might be a specialist of some kind. A specialist in languages?” Bluecloak and Ofelia make great progress with language, enough to get across complicated concepts. “Bluecloak,” she explains, is a “nest guardian, most sacred of mortal beings,” and she also confers this title on Ofelia, who has clearly been a nest guardian of her own people. Soon they ask Ofelia to take on that role with their people, as one of the original scouts is about to give birth. Ofelia is asked to become the nest guardian for the new babies; she is told that her role will be “the click-kaw-keerrrr, equivalent to the aunt in the storybook, [who] protected nestlings from the various threats, and between times held the nestlings, soothed them, sang to them.” She agrees.

Just as the babies are about to be born, the Contact team lands and gets in the way. They have little regard for Ofelia, dismissing her as an ignorant and backwards former colonist, and give her little opportunity to share what she has learned with them. The linguist says to her one day after they’ve been on the planet for about a week “’you’re wise, even if you don’t have an education.’ The arrogance in that almost yanked a reply from her, but she managed to squeeze it back. Wise even if she had no education? What did wisdom have to do with education? Besides, she had an education; she had spent hours studying, nights and early mornings studying, long before this child was born. This…this chit of a girl who hadn’t known how to repair the pumps, who had blithely walked between a cow and her calf.”

The Contact team assume that the indigenous people and Ofelia will do as they are told, and one of their rules is that technology must not be shared with the indigenous people. This precipitates a crisis. As Bluecloak explains it to Ofelia,
“the good nest-guardians…wanted the nestlings to learn all they could about everything, to be ready for—eager for—new things. Bad nest-guardians wanted to make life easy on themselves by keeping the nestlings content with sameness. These humans, Bluecloak said slowly, watching Ofelia’s face. They destroyed nestmass. Now they want to keep us from learning new things. They are bad nest-guardians. Not like you. And they do not properly respect you.”
The indigenous people make it clear to Ofelia that they will treat with the humans only through her, and “she must make the other humans understand this.”

This is my favorite part, when Ofelia contemplates the enormity of what the indigenous people are asking her to do: “They were supposed to listen to her, to the person they thought of as a nuisance, almost an embarrassment….She had no education; she had no profession; she had no powerful family. She was bringing a message they would not want to hear; neither messenger nor message would please them, and she would be the one to take the brunt of their displeasure. They would laugh at her; they would be angry; they would ignore her.
The baby in her lap sat up, and tapped its right foot. She glanced down, and it stared at her, still tapping the right foot. Disagreement. Dissent. What was it disagreeing with? The bright eyes stared into hers, unblinking. Ofelia sighed.
This time, with this child, she would do it right. This time she would give what she had never really wanted to withhold. ‘You,’ she said to the baby, feeling a real smile relaxing her face. ‘You want me to do the impossible, don’t you?’
Now it blinked, once, and the left foot drummed. Impossible. Do it. It couldn’t possibly understand; it was only days old. But other humans thought she couldn’t possibly understand, because she was too old, too stupid. Maybe all the humans were wrong—she about this child, the others about her. But these are aliens, the old voice argued. No. These were people, people with babies and children and grandmothers who took care of the babies, and she could not refuse the eagerness in those bright eyes, the desire in those little taloned hands.”

Together, the indigenous people and Ofelia accomplish the impossible, and Ofelia becomes what the humans term “the human ambassador to the first nonhuman intelligence encountered in Man’s inexorable advance across the stars.” The People continue to call this important position “nest guardian.”

I thought this was a good way to imagine first contact, and a great character to experience such a thing, an old woman who still has lots to offer, if people can manage to give her the time and space to be useful.

It was balm to my soul because a woman who has been in support roles all her life gets in the habit of being needed and misses it when it’s gone. Like many women before my time, I’ve lived a life mostly without titles or recognition. No one ever thought my life was worth insuring. Now no one even wants to have to stop and hold a door long enough for me to get through it; it’s so easy to shove someone out of the way and so excruciating to have to wait and see where she is going and whether maybe she has had a roll of the kind of tape you really need at that very moment in her pocket all along.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2018 11:40 pm

    It is so easy to dismiss people, so hard to listen to them. That respect is what I still need – and what keeps me at my writing desk.

    • December 11, 2018 8:41 am

      The respect is extra, though, at least for Ofelia. She is doing what pleases her and what has to be done, and whatever anybody else thinks about it is immaterial in a very real way. It’s a bonus for others if they pay attention, but it doesn’t change her actions.

  2. Elizabeth permalink
    December 11, 2018 5:07 am

    Your write up is so much more eloquent than how I tried to share the book with you (Scifi! Old woman is the hero! It’s really good!)–and beyond that, I (oddly) feel affirmed that the book moved you in much the same way as me.

    • December 11, 2018 8:46 am

      “eloquent”! (beams)
      With books I like, I try to write up to their level in order to describe, in Jo Walton’s phrase, “what makes this book so great.”
      And it is especially satisfying when a friend likes a book in much the same way you liked it. I’ve been buying copies of this book to give away to other friends. You’ve really started something!

  3. December 11, 2018 10:44 am

    This sounds like the type of dystopia I like.

    Yes, women, especially my age, are invisible to society. I’ll make a point to call men someone’s husband so they can see what it’s like to never be acknowledged as a worthy person.

    • December 11, 2018 10:53 am

      The acknowledgement is mighty satisfying to the reader. I’ll argue that Ofelia doesn’t care, as long as she’s included in communal things sometimes and left alone to pursue her own interests the rest of the time. What really matters is the inclusion.
      I thought of this last night as I trudged up a hill in the dark and met a person who went to high school with my kids and who greeted me with “hello, mom!” I enjoyed it, because she used to call me “mama Griggs” as an acknowledgement of my role as one of the moms and now she’s shortened it as an acknowledgement of our former relationship, which was shorter and more shallow than the one we’ve had for the past four years, in weekly rehearsals together for the symphony (where we were both headed when we met).

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