What would happen if humanity discovered a new habitable world, and the three major world powers each decided to establish bases on this world?
What if this new world was already inhabited by not just one, but three sapient species who live in relative harmony with the world?
Throw in a precarious political situation where each power is capable of wiping the other two out in a nuclear war, and is only restrained from doing so by the prospect of mutually assured destruction, and you have Jem, a novel by Frederick Pohl.
Jem was published in 1979, and thus could probably be considered as classic science fiction. The era certainly shows through. This was right smack dab in the middle of the cold war. We had movies like The Day After (1983), and the British TV series Threads (1984) all depicting the aftermath of nuclear war. Nuclear Fear was cited as one of the causes of youth depression.
This sense of human folly comes through strongly in Jem, and there is a distinct feel of dark humour in the book. However, Jem is somewhat divided in this regard. The elements that should be ironic, often come through as tragic, and I’m not sure that the humour works in this story.
For the most part Jem comes across as a believable world and the three species are nicely defined, and fit well into the evolutionary niches in which they live.
The problem of Jem is in the habit of humans to take their problems with them. At first glance Jem appears to be the perfect situation for the inhabitants of a world at conflict to escape at least some of that. Unfortunately for both the human settlers and the native inhabitants of Jem, the bigger problems of Earth find their way to the new world.
There are a few concepts in the book that didn’t really gel with me.
Jem isn’t entirely hospitable to humans. We can’t eat the local produce or drink the water without experience toxic allergic and sometime fatal reactions. Despite this the settlers live in tents and come into physical contact with the local environment. That seemed very risky behaviour. I would have expected some form of quarantine from the environment.
Some of the humans didn’t behave at all rationally. Not that people do, but there were cases of one team member attempting to make contact with one of the sapient species, while another member of the same team was bent on taking specimens any way he could, including shooting, gassing, or blowing them up. This made some of the characters feel quite flat, and consequently I found that I could care less about many of the characters.
On the other hand, the behaviour of the human settlers in killing the local intelligences for research while at the same time using them to spy on and attack their human neighbours, or the wholesale slaughter of neighboring villages to remove any threat, was quite believable given the unfortunate history of humanity in how it treats the natives of the lands of colonisation.
In some ways Jem mirrors the story of the Garden of Eden, with mankind playing the part of the snake.
Where Jem really shines is in the way Pohl represents the way the human world works, especially in the arenas of politics and bureaucracy and our tendency to exploit anything and anyone to get our way, no matter the consequences.