The Search for Fierra

Cover of The Search for Fierra by Stephen Lawhead. Art by Richard Chetland.
Art by Richard Chetland. Click through to read a preview on Amazon!

Title: The Search for Fierra

Author: Stephen Lawhead

Nutshell: From the time of 1980s science fiction, where worldbuilding was a new and fascinating thing (thereby leading to long sections of prose devoted to cataloguing it wholesale) and all sci-fi sounded vaguely like Star Trek, comes The Search for Fierra, a typical space dystopia from a time when space dystopia was atypical.

Meet Orion Treet, a man who thinks of himself only by his last name, despite never using anyone else’s last name ever. He’s just been shanghied onto an interplanetary voyage intended to reestablish contact with a colony that lost contact. He is not, of course, wondering what a small-time historian is doing on a colonial mission. He’s too busy being distracted by:

Yarden Talazac, the ultimate male portrayal of the incomprehensible female mind. She is an empath, which mostly means she can read Treet’s mind and maybe fly spaceships through wormholes? This empathic bond means she has very strong opinions about Treet’s actions. Which makes her the love interest because she challenges him, I guess.

Also meet Pizzle, the most unfortunately named nerd in the Galaxy. They (and Crocker) will bravely attempt to contact the lost colony (It’s been lost for about a month, fyi) and discover how it has flourished. Alas, due to something called “wormhole physics”, the team finds themselves 3000 years in the future, where the very, very well established colony has divided into today’s slight-less-unsubtle-than-usual dystopia with symbolic underpinnings.

Watch them plod through the drudgery of life in Dome, the caste-segregated, communistic, nanny-state with literal mind control, until they finally meet up and escape to Fierra, a perfect paradise. Peruse pages in which they ask none of the questions the reader is asking, like, “Why do the Dome dwellers wear breathers with stored air when the air on this planet is perfectly breathable?” “Why don’t even the rulers of Dome go into their Archives containing the knowledge of centuries?” and “Why is Pizzle even in this book?” Also peruse pages in which they ask the questions the reader is asking and then immediately provide glib answers, leaving the question open for the reader but that’s probably all the explanation they’ll give you.

Yes, experience this forerunner to the dystopia genre, if only so that you can say that you have. Mystery-Science-Theatre-3000 your way through it if you’d like. Auto-Schaudenfruede is still a form of enjoyment.

Readalikes: Most of the dustier dystopias. Try The Giver, Farehnheit 451, or 1984. But this also has similarity to Star Trek and other divergent-colony novels such as the Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffery. Aspects of it remind me of Ted Dekker’s Red Black White Green cycle, but it’s hard to be sure.

Ramblings:

I’ll be honest: this is as close to a negative review as I’m ever going to give here. I wouldn’t have put it up except that I’ve got some lingering affection toward it and I want to muse over the way that writing women has changed over the past thirty years.

This was my first dystopia. I was maybe ten when I read it. Yes, there are two scenes that are not appropriate for ten-year-olds. I was pretty naive; I think I missed that content entirely. I was hooked on the dystopian city descriptions, the rebirth symbology, and the contrast between the two civilizations. I didn’t know at the time how much the prose felt like an encyclopedia. (Annnd I liked to read the encyclopedia sometimes too…)

The first time through, I was fascinated, because everything about this genre was new to me. This time, after tens of time travel, space travel, and dystopian books, it was less marvelous. I was drawn on, not by the predictable story (unpredictable characters, though) but by my constant question to myself: “What did I see in this? What do I remember?”

That’s a pretty discouraging sentiment. I did already tell you to read it for the MST3K experience. But there were things I remembered being highly significant to my ten-year-old mind that I was on a mission to find, so I could delve into the symbolism. I did find them, and I was discouraged that the text did not go into what those things meant but instead focused on questions I wasn’t asking.

This happened two ways. The first was an awkward “show-and-then-tell-what-you-showed” mechanic that felt either repetitive or condescending. This was especially prevalent in the chapters where the characters were learning about the city. Let me sum up a bit. The heroes are separated on their arrival to the dyspotian city of Dome. Two of them have their memories blocked and are released into the public under careful watch. One is comatose. One is given a priviledged house arrest in the Supreme Leader’s building and a guide. I would read a couple chapters where the caste system was explained through the eyes of the characters experiencing it, and then chapters where the priviledged character, who is in a position to learn things of much greater significance, basically summed up what the other characters had already shown me.

The second was just focus in the wrong direction. I wanted to know, for example, why the city had enclosed itself in a huge Dome and the people used helmets and air tanks if they left the city. This quirk spawned several scenes in which the team, one by one, removed their helmets, breathed the air of the planet, promptly screamed in pain, and eventually adjusted.

What did this mean? Nobody wondered why the air stopped being painful to the lungs, nor why the city had been covered in the first place. Was it symbolic of something? Open-mindedness? Were there mind-controlling gases in the city’s mix? Was it just a way to show that there was more oxygen in the air? And if so, were the Supreme Leaders restricting oxygen in Dome in order to depress brain function or something? Why aren’t there any scientists on this expedition to ask these questions? Treet did take time to explain in detail how a dystopian society could come to power, however, and I have trouble believing that people wonder that. Maybe they did in the eighties. The economy had a rosier glow then.

But the thing I found the most indefinably strange was the way in which the female characters were viewed by the male protagonist. Calin, he mostly disregarded. Her femininity was secondary to her usefulness. (This was ungentlemanly, but not really strange to me.) But Yarden, the empath, he viewed in a way that was foreign to me. He put great stock in her beauty, but I would not say he was objectifying her. Perhaps he was appreciating her to a possessive extreme, but it didn’t seem that way to me either. He seemed to find her opinion of him important, but her opinion on anything else was not necessarily as important. I found it one of the most interesting aspects of the book.

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