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BOOK REVIEW: The Color of Distance by Amy Thomson

REVIEW SUMMARY: The Color of Distance works as both alien contact story and as a shining example of worldbuilding.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A human biologist named Juna becomes stranded on an alien planet where she becomes integrated with the native culture.

PROS: Incredibly detailed and captivating worldbuilding; excellent depiction of alien culture; events play out logically.
CONS: Although it seems more believable by story’s end, Juna’s abandonment of the Prime Directive seems a little sudden.
BOTTOM LINE: A wonderful story about one woman’s integration into an alien society.

Amy Thomson upholds one of the grandest traditions of science fiction — world building — and does so in a thoroughly engaging and page-turning way in The Color of Distance, a wonderful depiction of one woman’s integration into an alien society. That woman is named Juna, a biologist who becomes stranded on an alien planet at the outset of the novel. Members of the native population, the Tendu, rescue her from death by adapting her physiology to the alien environment. She wakes to find that she has claws, spurs on her arm, no hair, and skin that can change color. These are the traits of the Tendu, who live in the jungle-like environs of the alien planet, share their physiological state by joining their spurs in intense communion, and communicate not with words, but by changing the colors and patterns on their skin, with the color denoting their emotions.

Juna is taken to the village of the Tendu that saved her. Realizing that any chance of rescue is years away, she becomes acclimated to Tendu culture. She soon realizes that the prime directive of non-interference is just not going to fly; if she wants to survive among these beings, she’s simply going to have break those rules. Underscoring her transition into the alien culture is the way Thomson first uses alternating viewpoint chapters depicting overlapping events told from different perspectives, and then writes the chapters from a single “Tendu” viewpoint as Juna becomes more acclimated.

Juna’s situation is an excellent vehicle for readers to be introduced to the alien culture, but such details are only as good as the details and consistency provided by the writer. The good news is Thomson’s depiction of the alien culture is absolutely superb. Not only was it interesting to see how the Tendu live, their customs, and how they interact with other communities, but it was described in vivid detail, making it quite easy to visualize. (For better of worse, I’ll briefly mention that there were some similarities with the aliens of the film Avatar, but also emphasize the fact that this novel predates the film by more than a decade. So there.) The main tenant of the Tendu culture is to maintain harmony with the environment and with other Tendu clans. Sadly, this can sometimes means an obligation to commit suicide by the society’s elders when their negotiations aiming for harmony fail. This is but one aspect of the complex Tendu culture that helped to build a fascinating world and contribute to a narrative that was thoroughly engrossing.

Reading this novel was also eye-opening in the respect that books don’t have to be stuffed with action sequences to hold one’s attention. The action highlight here was a trench-digging race, and it worked. The wonder is not about the events that take place, but in the setting. The Color of Distance is one of those books that truly immerses the reader and brings it’s beautifully detailed and well-imagined world to life.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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