In Shades of Earth, a hundred-year interstellar mission finally comes to fruition––stranding its passengers on an unwieldy new planet with no way to reach home. Credits for the above collage are here.
What happens when a centuries long mission to an exoplanet finally arrives? In Shades of Earth, the final installment of Beth Revis’ sci-fi epic, for one thing, Earth has long since beat the colonists to it––and their prospects on this brave new world don’t look good.
The trilogy’s first two installments, Across the Universe (yes, after the song) and A Million Suns, explore a society formed on a generational ship, the Godspeed, over hundreds of years in isolation: various crises with no assistance from home have bred a tightly-regulated micro-dystopia, with drugs pumped into the populace to keep it docile and incendiary truths tightly guarded from view. The Godspeed has no captain, only a succession of absolute power through generations of clones who hold the title Eldest. Tensions come to a head, though, when the original members of the mission, scientists and military personnel who agreed to pass the centuries until arrival in cryogenic slumber, start mysteriously waking, and Amy, the daughter of a colonel, falls in love with Elder, a young leader-in-waiting who has yet to learn the worst of his regime’s secrets.
As it turns out, Godspeed has been parked at its destination, a habitable exoplanet dubbed “Centauri-Earth,” for some time, and as the ship falls into disrepair, disembarking emerges as the only path to survival. But Shades of Earth shows us a Centauri-Earth riddled with dangers––aside from the sharpening tensions between the ship-born inhabitants of Godspeed and the Earthlings just awakened from sleep.
Revis’ worldbuilding is a tightly-wound coil that never stops unfurling: personal drama is aplenty, but the past and its glaring omissions lend the trilogy most of its suspense. Every plot twist emerges from the ashes of history, in both earlier books and Shades of Earth, so it’s no surprise that Centauri-Earth is hardly what it seems. Layered under the struggle for survival in this volume is a deeper, sustaining mystery: the question of circumstance, and the truth of how it came to be. With both elements, the terror of an alien world and the whiffs of vague past catastrophe and possible conspiracy, Revis creates a stomping ground for her sci-fi that antagonizes the colonists in multiple ways, yielding a survival story that really uses its surroundings, not just as a force to struggle against, but as a source of revelation. It’s illuminating to dig in Revis’ sandbox and find the treasures she’s buried there––even more so that some of them take the whole book to uncover.
Those more stubborn details build to an even more powerful conclusion: when the real culprits, conspiracies, and causes are hidden, it is all the more compelling when the monster at the reader’s feet scurries away, and a deeper growl from above prompts them to look up, and meet the real one.
In Shades of Earth, power is cleverly nestled in its designs and machinations, sending the characters immediate threats and keeping them in the dark about its true nature. The structure Revis creates for this in her plot is layered, so rife with complete shifts in paradigm that the final reveals are a rousing breath of release. Though they may read as deus ex machina to some, these sudden, all-consuming realizations have a surprising thematic utility, one that can be found in the likes of Doctor Who. (It’s reasonable to infer that the show had a a direct influence on the work––the author’s notes in her short story anthology, The Future Collection, cite it directly.)
Doctor Who has boundless faith in human beings, so much so that its greatest heartbreaks happen when people fail to act as their best selves in situations of crisis that demand it, from paranoia in the episode “Midnight” to trigger-happy dealings with another species in “The Hungry Earth” and “In Cold Blood.” (All three of these are magnificent episodes, by the way.)
There are echoes of this in Shades of Earth, with devastatingly authentic depictions of peace gone awry. The book is defined by compassion when it comes to unpacking the unproductive tensions between ship-borns and Earth-borns: compassionate not only in understanding and forgiving their motives but also in terms of emphasizing how devastating this animosity is for everyone involved, and how it pulls attention away from the real source of harm. Here, Revis writes the ultimate tragedy: human beings too beholden to their nature to recognize the institutions and authorities that actually pose a threat. It has all the trappings of free will, with the tart smack of inevitability.
Revis does this especially well with Amy’s father, the Earth-born Colonel Martin, who reacts to the hostile environment and the ship-borns foolishly yet predictably. He has a compassionate side––it shows very obviously in his interactions with his daughter––but it isn’t enough to resist paranoia, and, in the tradition of tragic flaws, gets warped under pressure. It’s heartbreaking in him because it’s heartbreaking in everyone else. Shades of Earth genuinely believes its characters are better than this. It gets its gravity from the painful fact that they very often aren’t.