Book Review - The Last Diaspora Book 1: Letters to Earth
"This moment clarified something for me and probably many colonists: All of life was a certain hunger. Instinct, I realised, was a real and powerful force within me, and within all of us."
Sometimes, I forget that science fiction can be a way of looking toward the future with excitement and longing, and not the dour expression of all that is worst about our modern world. I have been so used to exploring dystopian worlds and terrifying hellscapes that I was surprised by the unbridled optimism bubbling throughout Mandy Gardner's first entry in The Last Diaspora series.
Letters to Earth follows Zed, an Army graduate tasked with leading a mission to a new star system. A race of alien Strangers have been communicating with the Earth, leaving instructions on how to build a ship and get to their new world. The mission to become Zed's "Green Badge" mission; the culmination of a career well served that is likely to end with a large estate on a tropical island somewhere.
As so often happens, something goes wrong in transit to the new planet. Zed finds himself in a situation where his Green Badge and ability to conform to Army ideals are placed in jeopardy. What follows is a story of self discovery for Zed, the building of a new colony of survivors, and a confrontation of belief systems as he continues to try to find the Strangers who had invited them to the planet in the first place. The planet has more surprises than just the Strangers, and the colony comes to grips with the greater implications of their journey over the course of the book. As the colonists become more in touch with their purposes, their attitudes and beliefs change, but Zed seems reluctant to follow in their path. His inability to adapt to his environment sets the majority of the book's story in action, and his outward journey is as important as his inner one in driving toward the eventual resolution.
Some moments fell flat for me. There are a few tragedies that occur over the course of the story, and it felt as though the emotional ramifications of these things were never dealt with in what I felt would be an appropriate manner. One of them in particular was a discovery that I feel would have rendered even the most resolute adventurer a blubbering mess, but the otherwise empathetic cast seems to shrug and accept it with very little wringing of hands. There is also a tale of unrequited love, and while I understand its importance to the story, it read a little too "angsty teenager" for my taste. It certainly felt jarring in an overall harmonious work.
Where this book really shines though, is in its immersion into the world. The purple planet of Dharti is not just a backdrop or a setting, it is the thing that breathes life into the book. The way Gardner has thrilled in the concept of discovery is something that I grew to appreciate more and more with each page. Watching as Zed and his compatriots build themselves a community that worked in concert with the natural forces of the planet spoke and overcame their misconceptions of what the alien world represented spoke to me at once of religious coexistence, environmentalism, and of mutually beneficial reciprocal relationships. Each paragraph glows as it delves into the way the colonists work with the environment for the benefit of themselves and each other, and Dharti feels as whole and real a character as any of the humans that live on its surface.
This book had me smiling and buoyant throughout, and its not unexpected but well earned ending left a feeling of well-being with me. I was sad to leave Dharti, but I was glad to have been allowed to visit in the first place.
Available from Endless Ink Books in Digital and Paperback. If you're after something to buoy your spirits with an imaginative, beautiful world where hope reigns more than terror, you could do much worse than Letters to Earth.