The trouble with writing about a book some considerable time after reading it is that the details and fresh impressions have inevitably started to fade, and so this essay is more about what has stayed with me about Mirabile by Janet Kagan, rather than what struck me while reading it, or what my impressions were immediately after finishing.
Mirabile is one of the first books I finished in 2016, but I am only just now, five months later, sitting down to write about it. (Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is also waiting to be written about, but that will probably also entail writing about the musical, which has moved me and stayed with me as few other artistic works have, so I will likely have a lot to say but have not yet ordered my thoughts. Ancillary Mercy and Radiant State are great books that I read last year, which have so far defied my efforts to set down what I think makes them so great. I may re-read and try again, or I may just cry “Uncle.”)
Janet Kagan only published three books in her lifetime: Uhura’s Song, a Star Trek novel that is something of a landmark in that field; Hellspark, a novel of first contact within an interstellar civilization; and Mirabile, a collection of related stories set during the early years of colonizing the eponymous planet.
The colonists arrived via generation ship, but something went wrong shortly after arrival, and large swathes of knowledge and technology have been lost to the colonists. That’s a necessary part of the setup. Star-spannng tech would easily solve most of the problems that arise in Mirabile, but there has to be some way to get the characters onto an alien planet in the first place. Kagan has kept the background about the ship and the accident vague, which works just fine because the stories that she wants to tell lie elsewhere. Here are things that have stuck with me about Mirabile:
I remember the puns. With titles such as “The Loch Moose Monster” and “The Flowering Inferno” it’s clear that both author and characters will be going in for wordplay. They are never strained, but they’re definitely part of the narrative approach.
I remember the inventiveness of the wildlife. The colonists have brought flora and fauna with them from earth, but they obviously could not bring the whole biome. So what they did was to lodge DNA for some species inside others. I don’t think it works, scientifically, but it certainly works for the narratives that Kagan builds. Some species are crossed; others change dramatically from one generation to the next. Most of the stories center on some sort of biological mystery. Either the colonists are trying to work out something that has gone wrong with life forms that they brought with them, or they are trying to avert some kind of mishap in interactions with the local flora and fauna.
I remember that violence was not the solution to any of the conflicts in the stories. There is certainly tension, and violence is present or latent as it is in many settler societies, but the solutions to the problems in the stories is not to beat up or kill an opponent. A friend with whom I shared these thoughts adds that people who behave badly in one context—for example, some settlers are ready to convict a person of setting fires without much in the way of evidence—act more positively in a different one—fighting the same fires collectively later on in the story. People on Mirabile, as elsewhere, are complex, and Kagan shows them that way.
I remember a strong sense of families in the various small settlements depicted in most of the stories. They were not nuclear families, but more dispersed, and adapted to the needs of a new planet, but they were significant to the characters in a way that felt very true to lived experience.
And of course I remember liking the book.