Desert Isle Keeper
I first heard of R.L. Smith when I read The Last Hour of Gann, one of the finest science fiction romance books I have ever read. It was difficult to read Cottonwood without similar expectations, but that would be doing the book an injustice.
Twenty years ago, an alien spaceship came to Earth, only to be stranded here. The aliens hoped to seek food, shelter and alliance, but instead they were labeled as dangerous, violent and unintelligent, and packed off to concentration-like camps. There, they were forced to live in abject squalor, without dignity, without basic amenities, and were often the subject of perverse genetic and biological experiments. The organization which runs these camps had forbidden entry to outsiders, so that the truth about the state of the aliens held there did not leak out. Smith does refer to a few such information leakages to the outside world, which in the beginning seems to imply that the humans did not protest against the alien abuse at the camps.
Sarah Fowler, our heroine, signs up as a social worker at the immigration camp at Cottonwood. She is one of those do-good, optimistic types, and is soon mockingly nicknamed “Pollyanna”. At first, I thought Sarah would turn out to be an annoying Mary Sue (she was definitely no warrior-like Amber from Gann) but her determination and her compassionate nature soon won me over. The aliens at the camp at first distrust her good intentions to help them, but she perseveres and wins their friendship – or at the very least, their grudging respect – painful by painful inch. She also meets Sanford (or Nk’o’sa’knko, if you can pronounce it), and his son T’aki there, and a lovely camaraderie develops between the three of them. Soon, Sarah’s friendship with Sanford blossoms into something more.
I feel it is necessary to add a disclaimer here. This is an interspecies romance which may not work for everyone. The aliens who have come down to Earth are “bug”-like arthropods, with antennae, exoskeletons and all. But they are a brave, intelligent race, with a language and culture of their own, and possess technology far superior to anything Earthlings have ever seen. The relationship between Sarah and Sanford does not happen overnight, but is a natural evolution of their continuous interaction. Their minds and hearts meet so well, that Sanford says, “I am you and you are me”. In that sense, the romance between these two is a true romance, and is a happy-ending one, so let other implications not deter you from reading the book.
Sanford is also no ordinary figure. He is a soldier and a superb engineer among his people, and has been working secretly to help his kinsmen escape back to their planet. When Sarah gets to know about this, she obviously wants to help and plans to leave Earth with him and T’aki. But as is the way with science fiction, plans never really work out as they are supposed to. Sanford and a bunch of his people do manage to escape; Sarah gets left behind.
You can imagine, perhaps, what happens to Sarah afterwards. If you’ve read Smith’s writing, you know she does not shrink from portraying the depths to which human behavior can sink. Again, if you have read Gann, then you are familiar with the level of human brutality and atrocity to which Smith often exposes her lead characters. That does not change in Cottonwood either, although the brutality inflicted in this book is relatively lesser in degree, if that is of any relief.Towards the end of the book, Smith does add snippets about other humans like Sarah who are appalled at the cruelty suffered by the Yang’ti at the camps and who want to help. But these illustrations come too late, and by that time, much of the damage has already been done.
There is one point in the book when the aliens come close to destroying human beings in vengeance for what was done to their own kind. That is the time when the aliens — and not the humans — reconsider what mercy may be shown to humankind in return for the help that they did receive, especially from Sarah. As the Governor of Yang’Tak puts it,
“…. I begin to realize that even though great evil moved through your world, still there were persons of good and courageous heart who tried to stop it. I should hate to see our own race judged by the darkest deeds of the worst men at the most evil hours of our history …”
The words “human” and “inhuman” are important here. To Damek van Meyer, the mastermind behind the camps and a strangely compelling villain, most humans have been “inhuman” anyway for a long time. He doesn’t believe (though he certainly wants to believe) Sarah when she says, “Sooner or later, people will always do the right thing!” And therein lies the most vital message of the book, about the hope that humans will retain and cherish their humanity even in the face of tremendous odds — that is the humanity that Cottonwood hopes for.
Just like J.K. Rowling’s future books will forever be compared to her Harry Potter novels, Cottonwood too will be compared to Smith’s masterpiece, The Last Hour of Gann — particularly because both books are so similar in plot, scope and message. Cottonwood is a highly emotional read, and I could have given the book an A+. But since Gann has set the bar so high for this author, my grade for Cottonwood’s is an A–.