Foragers by Charles Oberndorf

424 pages, 1996, Bantam Spectra, New York. $5.99

Review score: * out of *****

The world in which Charles Oberndorf's Foragers is set is locked in interstellar war. The human race has found and colonized a handful of "human-safe" worlds and uncountable orbital habitats. Inhabitable worlds are rare and precious. Humanity has encountered another intelligent species, the Slazans. These are humanoid starfaring creatures who at one time shared a world with humanity. War broke out between the humans and the Slazans on this world, for reasons that are unclear, and the war reduced the world to bare rock. The human and Slazan military forces are fighting a war of attrition, each searching for the home worlds of the other race. The humans find an inhabitable world that is occupied by Slazans. These Slazans are hunter gatherers, rather than a space faring civilization. The Human government and military send an anthropologist to study the Slazan population. They hope that by studying a Slazan population in its primitive state, they can understand the underlying motivations of the alien culture. A faction within the military hopes that this information may allow a peace treaty to be negotiated. The anthropologist chosen for this two hundred day mission is Pauline Dikobe, who has studied hunter gatherer populations on Earth.

After Pauline Dikobe finishes the anthropological survey, the military seizes all of her notes and classifies them. Believing that what she has discovered about Slazans is critically important, she novelizes her work. Foragers is Pauline Dikobe's novel, annotated with her field notes and diary entries.

One of the most interesting aspects of the world in which Foragers is the presence of religion. Although there are unbelievers, most people associate with one of the three religions, Islam, Christianity or Judaism. The war ship that takes Pauline to the Slazan world is crewed by Muslims and both men and women go veiled. The various habitats have splintered off into various religious and social groups and one group, which Pauline studied, bought a large tract of land and reverted to what they believed would be a purer state, as hunter gatherers.

Twenty years ago, publishing was a staid "gentlemanly" business and editors actually edited books, rather than just overseeing purchasing and printing. Publishing is now a big business and all the major publishers are owned by huge multinational companies. As far as Foragers is concerned, this is too bad. A good editor might have been able to save Foragers. Charles Oberndorf is a good writer. He makes his character live and the world he creates is interesting. The book starts out well, but then it boggs down. Much of the book, which is actually Pauline Dikobe's novel, is told from the point of view of the primitive Slazans, intertwined with her field notes. What started out as a good story became as boring as watching paint dry. Or reading raw unedited anthropological field reports. An editor might have been able to explain to Mr. Oberndorf that most people do not find the anthropological material that inhabits most of the book as fascinating as he does. A good editor might have been able to get Mr. Oberndorf to cut the book down by a third and tighten it up. If this had happened it would have been a good novel, instead of a painful study in tedium.

Ian Kaplan - 4/96

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