Playing God

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The blue-furred, sapient Dedelphi have ruined their planet by incessant warfare. When the two major factions sign a truce, asking a human corporation to restore their world, the company and the Dedelphi leaders both know it is a last-chance effort. But mutual mistrust is more compelling than reason to many of the Dedelphi. Another war, brutal kidnappings, and the implosion of a habitat spaceship all follow. Only after Lynn and her alien friend Praeis go through their own crises—Lynn’s realization that she cannot manage everything; Praeis’s actual physical transformation—can they get the plan back on track.

The Dedelphi have some unusual cultural and reproductive traits; human crew members privately refer to them as Pogos. But the worldbuilding—in either sense—takes second place to a tale of peril and personal struggle. Lynn, happily married and taking on the biggest challenge of her career, finds both commitments tested when she meets up with Aaron, an anthropologist and her former lover, who has gone native. Praeis, wanting to give her daughters security in an extended family, instead sees her sister undercut her, impersonate her, and take one of her daughters hostage. The dangers to both women are almost nonstop and the treachery they face is full of heart-skipping twists.

Playing God’s imagined future, with humans as the good guys rescuing another species, is rare in much science fiction. A benevolent corporation is even rarer. Both may draw “Aha!” surprise reactions from readers. The premise that war has released deadly, mutating viruses is plausible and timely.

Science fiction has a long tradition of using alien behavior to illuminate human problems. Sarah Zettel’s Afterword, explaining the Dedelphis’ violence by sociobiological theory, is more confusing than helpful here. Some readers may wish she had, instead, accounted for the aliens’ unique gender arrangement.

This quibble aside, Playing God is an exciting adventure story and an insightful drama of character.