Deborah J. Ross opens Collaborators by flipping the script in a first contact scenario and not stopping there. In her story of a strange new world, the Terrans are the outsiders reaching in and the people of Chacarre and the Erlind are the normal, the everyday folk.
It’s through this flipped lens that the story first opens, a rare look at our version of humanity through the eyes of a different… humanity. Because, as details of this alien world get revealed, it becomes apparent that while some of the structures of Chacarran civilization are strikingly familiar, particularly in politics and protest, there are just as many cultural and biological differences, from gender constructs that transcend the binary on through to clan structures and societal languages hidden in the tremble of fur.
Ross brings us along to follow several life stories as they play out across the backdrop of the politics and perils of diplomacy and, as is almost inevitable when new cultures meet, mistakes are made. Brief windows into the lives and relationships of the Terrans first reveal an earnest attempt to stay neutral and avoid upsetting the balance between two nations in conflict, then a desire to do everything in their power to repair their ship so they can go home. As they overstay their welcome, the Terrans leverage first their influence and then their might. The logic is the same line we have all heard before both in real-life and fiction, to establish a new and stable rule of law so they can get the help they need and leave. The Chacarran and the Erlind start the story on the edge of conflict with each other, but as all the tragedies unfold, the truth of the Terran manipulation comes to light.
With the Terrans and the Chacarran now entangled in a conflict that none wants to continue, but neither can find a way out of, the storylines of our main characters all come together, each contributing their own piece to the final outcome and ultimately finding a way forward that everyone can live with.
This novel is a refresh of a work Ross originally published under the name of Deborah Wheeler, and as such, I feel it may have been a bit ahead of its time. The depth of the world and the complex relations feel much more at home among today’s science-fiction trends than in previous decades and as such I am delighted I managed to catch this novel in it;s latest release. Deborah Ross is an expert worldbuilder and the care and attention she pays to developing the specifics of Chacarran culture and the diverse viewpoints of her world helps to put a fresh frame a complex story of first contact, political machinations and a revolution that everybody, even the invaders, wants to see succeed.