"In the Company of Others," Julie E. Czerneda

Pros: Interesting story; very human characters; non-stereotypical character interactions
Cons: Expositional lumps; some character problems; some dialogue problems
Rating: 3 out of 5

First published 5/10/2002

“In the Company of Others” has an interesting premise. Around the time that Earth started terraforming worlds for humanity’s inevitable (and necessary) expansion, people discovered an odd lifeform called the Quill. Quill are these little filament-things that somehow mimic the DNA of the first person they come in contact with. From then on, that person and his immediate descendants are the only ones that Quill will happily interact with. The Quill wraps around the person’s wrist and does something to make him calmer, more in control of himself.

Then something awful happens. The Quill infect the newly terraformed worlds, and the first waves of settlers all die. No one can tell how, though — the bodies seem perfectly healthy.

Enter the first main character, Gail, who is determined to find a way to get rid of the Quill. Of course, since Quill mimic other lifeforms, scans can’t detect them. No one’s ever been able to get a Quill from one of those now-quarantined worlds in order to study it. But that’s okay. Gail has a plan that involves creating suits coated with a match of the DNA of the scientist who introduced the Quill to a given world, in hopes that the Quill, having bonded with that scientist first, won’t kill such people. But first she wants to find a specific, unspoiled world that people don’t really know about. To do that, she needs the logs from a certain ship.

Enter the other two main characters: Aaron Pardell and Hugh Malley. Aaron was actually born on one of the Quill-infested worlds, although he doesn’t know it. This has a lot to do with why he finds the touch of people physically painful. Malley is just a big guy with a voracious appetite for knowledge and a big temper who grew up with Aaron and is protective of him. The problem? Both Aaron and Malley can be found on one of the space stations. The space stations and Earth don’t get along well right now. When the Quill scare hit, all those would-be colonists who’d gone to the stations in preparation for landing on terraformed worlds weren’t allowed back to Earth. Quarantine, of course. Which meant that the stations were dangerously overcrowded with very angry people.

Exposition, Dialogue and Flashbacks

I might as well jump right into the problems this book had. None of them were deal-breakers, but they did mar my enjoyment of the book.

For instance, there are some serious expositional lumps in here. There are also a couple of flashbacks (two that I particularly remember). Neither one was necessary; the information involved was better conveyed in the present material. All either one did was serve to pull the reader out of the story.

The dialogue is reasonably good, but it isn’t allowed to stand on its own.

Characterization

The characters sometimes seemed a bit too similar in ways. One of the three main characters (Aaron) didn’t have much personality until very late in the game; by then it was too late to escape the feeling that he was a sort of faceless, beige person.

There was also the weird prevalence of eerily intelligent people. It was stressed over and over how the main characters (plus one or two other people) tended to make mental leaps other people couldn’t. This at least made sense for Gail, lead scientist on a very important project. It made less sense for Malley and Aaron, and did lead to a certain unfortunate sense of sameness among the characters.

It also led to a bit of a feeling of being used. The whole extreme intelligence thing was used to explain some large leaps in logic that of course were usually correct. It was also used to explain why people kept being able to outsmart other people who quite possibly should have known better. But it didn’t explain some obvious conclusions that people just kept failing to draw until it was dramatically convenient.

One thing I did like about the characters, however, was some of their interactions; those were at least much less stereotypical than usual. For instance, there’s the military… but I’ll leave that for a surprise, since it’s actually rather interesting. Ms. Czerneda does a good job of subverting some of our expectations regarding the way people will treat each other.

The Story

By and large I really enjoyed the story. There were bits of it that I sometimes had trouble with, though. Unless the explanation was in one of the expositional bits that I tended to skim, I had a bit of trouble figuring out how it was that everyone came to the conclusion that the Quill were responsible for the planets being off-limits.

I mean, no scanners could detect them. They’d always been harmless up until then. No one had any reason to know that the Quill would have multiplied on those worlds, since it had never been seen done before. And most telling, the people who died had no marks or wounds that anyone could detect. So, tell me — how is it everyone knew to fear the Quill? Why wasn’t it just one big mystery? And how come, at the end of the story when they got to one of those planets, their equipment could suddenly display where the Quill were, when supposedly no one had ever been able to do that before?

Okay, I’m being nit-picky. Again, these aren’t deal-breakers, and it’s possible I missed a sentence somewhere that explained the whole thing. But it still left me a little dissatisfied.

Ultimately, there’s some really creative stuff in this book. The station part of the book takes place on is really very interesting. The characters interact in unusual but reasonable ways. And the story is neat, if not amazing, with an unusual and kind of cool climax. Buy it if you find it cheap or you aren’t as nit-picky as I am. I expect you’ll enjoy it.

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