While working on another blog post (still to come), I needed a point of comparison, so I decided to re-read one of my old favourites.
Decision at Doona by Anne McCaffrey
At its core, this 1969 novel is a soft sci-fi first-contact story. You have humans and an alien species known as the hrrubans, and they both wind up missing each other’s surveys and colonizing the same planet at the same time… for the same reason.
Both species are horrendously overpopulated and, to cope with the overpopulation, have pacified their cultures to the point where youth suicides are up, apathy is causing a labour shortage, and the colony on Doona/Rrala is an experiment into returning to an earlier stage of their cultural development.
According to Ms. McCaffrey’s Wikipedia page, the idea for it actually came to her when, at a school play, she watched a teacher tell her four-year-old son to quiet down.
The core driving conflict is that, in both cases, their governments have a “no contacts” policy which would pull everyone back to the overcrowded tedium they thought they’d escaped. For the humans, the big conflict comes from trying to do the wrong things for the right reasons. Specifically, this is humanity’s second first-contact, and an innocent mistake in their first went so disastrously wrong that the other species committed mass suicide. The result was a deep and lasting sense of guilt and a law that says no contact is to be made with indigenous populations under any circumstance, and, as far as they’re aware, the hrrubans are not space-faring.
(Of course, the grin-inducing part is that the hrrubans are actually more technologically advanced, to the point where their village wasn’t found on surveys because they have matter-transmitter technology and brought the whole thing home for the winter.)
I’ve always enjoyed Anne McCaffrey’s work and I’ve always enjoyed first-contact stories, so, on that front, the only thing I would have wished for is more time spent looking at humans from the perspective of hrruban characters. It’s also got two sequels, the latter of which involves humans and hrrubans engaging in first contact with a third species together.
…So, what are the noteworthy characteristics?
First, I like how it introduces things. The first chapter gives the colonization plans from the perspective of the hrruban government officials… but it’s so familiar that, if you skipped past the list of characters at the beginning of the book, it’s easy to mistake titles like “First Speaker” for fancy sci-fi human titles until chapter 8, when they refer to the aliens as “bareskins”. It’s a nice touch for a story intentionally built around how much the two species have in common.
I also like the world-building in details like the hrrubans having developed a treatment for the weak, porous local wood which involves boiling the sap of a local tree until it turns into a penetrating varnish which reinforces and seals it.
(And, while it’s in one of the sequels rather than the original, I just have to mention the pun that easily stuck in my memory for the two decades where I was too distracted by other things to read any Anne McCaffrey: A pilot named Mr. Horstmann who called his ship The Apocalypse just so he could make a Dad Joke everywhere he goes.)
Now, about the downsides…
The first downside is one I don’t consider a downside, but others might. I like Anne McCaffrey, but my brother doesn’t because he feels that all her stories feel a bit too much like rural contemporary stories transplanted into other settings. I don’t get that impression strongly enough for it to be a problem, but you might feel differently.
The second downside is one that will only get worse over time, and which Decision at Doona is probably more hard hit by than her other stories, being both sci-fi and family-centric: While she did a better job than various male authors I’ve read from the same period, and the book clearly wouldn’t pass John W. Campbell‘s dictates as editor-in-chief of Astounding Science Fiction (later Analog) that humanity is always to be depicted as superior to aliens, Ms. McCaffrey couldn’t completely rid her futuristic family-man main character and his wife of 1969-isms.
That shouldn’t be as big an issue if you’re reading a story about a setting like Pern which has regressed to pre-industrial pseudo-fantasy, or one of her other series with an independent woman as the lead. However, reading Doona in 2020, it’s noticeable how important it is to the main character’s psyche to remain “in charge” as a father, and all I can remember about what his wife actually does is that she takes care of the kids and cooks.
To be fair, the book is only 245 pages long and there is a fairly sharp drop-off in how much focus is given to secondary characters so it could partly be that having the main character and his son being primary characters and her being part of the secondary cast exacerbates the sense of implausibility of having a woman of the future having no apparent noteworthy traits outside of the core traditionally feminine pursuits.
To compound that impression, there was a scene which I was certain was alluding to him having spanked his 6-year-old son (whose incorrigibility is very significant to the plot) but, later, that gets called into question when one of the girls who was watching him winds up suffering from alien poison ivy on steroids and the line “She’s never hurt anywhere in her life. How do you explain pain to her?” comes up.
It also occurs to me that, given how many of her books have female leads, McCaffrey may have been accidentally overcompensating in writing Doona, and folded a few too many 1969-isms back in while trying to prevent her male lead from coming across as feminine. It would make sense, given that Doona is the earliest McCaffrey story with a male lead that readily comes to mind.
But, whatever the reason, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” I don’t want to give an overinflated impression of how much these flaws grabbed my attention while I was reading. It’s still an enjoyable read and I didn’t notice them at all as a teenager. Likewise, there will no doubt be many people who grew up with fathers like the main character. …I just think it’s something that’s going to only get more discordant for future generations as more families don’t yet have interstellar travel, but have already achieved men not seeing dominance as an essential part of their self identity.
All in all, I’d give it a 4.3 out of 5 rating and, without the anachronistic elements, it’d be a 4.5 for how much I’ve enjoyed my various reads of it over the years. Definitely something to try if you like Anne McCaffrey’s style and the length and style are well-suited to a teenager looking to grow beyond Young Adult fiction.