A small story in a frighteningly complex world
Throughout the history of genre: most space-setting science fiction has agreed on one thing: space is scary. Lots can go wrong when you put fragile life into in an unimaginably big place full of forces and phenomena that could obliterate us in an instant (or, if we're unlucky, longer). Fewer stories lean into what I think should be a similarly fundamental "truth": alien worlds are even scarier. Oh, sure, maybe the lifeless rock balls are only a little bit more frightening than the void, but if you start putting mercurial oceans or endless ion storms or spooky-deep space crevasses into the picture, things get "no thanks" pretty fast. And when we start speculating about other planets with life? With their own complex ecosystems and moving parts and hungry bundles of biological process looking for the next convertible energy source? Well, that's the sort of place where nightmares can be born. Like, for example, the armoured snakes and giant flying predators of Erde, the "newly discovered" planet of Chloe Smith's novella Virgin Land.
Of course, scary locations aren't scary without some humans to be ill-advisedly in them, and Erde's settlement is the result of a corporate planetary settlement system that we only get a glimpse of through the novella. Human expansion is big business in Smith's world, but we are told that ordinary people usually only get to live in cramped cities on barely viable planets, while corporations keep the best worlds uninhabited for spurious reasons. That we are told this from the perspective of an anachronistic patriarchal community of "settlers" desperate to claim large parts of fertile new planets in order to play at being oldy-timey homesteaders, doesn't make it less believable, but it immediately becomes clear that the settler movement isn't a great place to be either, particularly if you're a woman.
Virgin Land is told from the perspective of Shayla Gainrad, a newlywed who has moved to an otherwise-uninhabited hemisphere of Erde with her garbage husband Gerald. Shayla is now trying to reconcile the achievement of "her" dream as a settler with the realities of being a subjugated, isolated woman trying to achieve a wildly outdated and unrealistic dream home in the middle of a voracious alien planet. The book starts with her seeing a shikra - the aforementioned flying predator, which was supposedly eradicated by the company which prepared the planet for settlement - flying overhead, and the wildlife encounters only get closer from there. Shayla's only recourse to fight infestation is to constantly check the perimeter for entry points, which she does obsessively and with resentment at her husband's lack of similar care. Garbage husband Gerald, meanwhile, is busy enacting his plan for subsistence farming, which definitely has the steps "??????" and "profit" written in it somewhere. His belief in self-sufficiency does not stretch to literally doing all the work to set up his farm himself, however, and he hires a crew of spacers to help him with some of the heavy lifting. These strangers quickly turn out to know far more about the system which the Gainrads are trying to fit themselves into, and the challenges ahead of them, than Gerald believes there is to know - but this is where he gets (temporarily) taken out of the picture by some supposedly exterminated wildlife, and things get real.
Gerald's absence firmly frames this as Shayla's story - not that it wasn't all along, but Smith makes the right choice to get the human embodiment of ignorant, arrogant colonisation out of the picture at the point where we have seen all there is to see of him. Instead, the "conflict" between Shayla and the spacers (particularly the attractive Captain Alis Tinsdale) on one hand, and the natural world that the settlers have begun meddling with on the other, takes centre stage. As the various aspects of Gerald's terrible farming plan begin to unravel, Shayla doubles down on her attempts to create a safe space for the group, but she also pushes herself well beyond her community's expectations to learn about the principles of farming and ecosystem management, which in turn prove the impossibility of the settler colonialist dream she has been raised to want. Shayla is very far from perfect, and when given her agency she uses it to do some damaging things. But her growing empowerment is enjoyable to watch, as is her relationship with Alis.
The actual explanation of ecosystem collapse that we see in Virgin Land isn't complex in terms of what is represented on the page. The plant which the Gainrads have introduced to Erde is kudzu, which is a very neat shorthand for "oh god no that's so invasive why would you", and the extremely fragile genetically modified livestock calves hardly inspire confidence either. On the other hand, we mostly see how the Gainrads' interference with the landscape causes imbalances in predator-prey relationships through encounters with creepy armoured snakes and the shikra, with other prey animals given interchangeable names and existing on a nebulous scale of cuteness. It works, though: the limited ecosystem relationships we see on page give the sense of a much bigger, unknowable system at work, one which Shayla and Gerald have no chance of winning against, while making the direct threats to Shayla and the others feel tangible. Nothing in Virgin Land is given an overtly unpleasant description, but the whole environment feels terrifying, even more so for its sense of isolation from the rest of humanity.
Perhaps inevitably, given that it's about a complex problem that human interference can only make worse, Virgin Land's conclusion doesn't end with answers to its big picture questions. The ecosystem that Shayla and Gerald have lived in is changed forever, and the interplanetary system that let them settle on Erde in the first place is unchanged and barely influenceable. There is a bit of Gerald-related denouement that I honestly didn't need - it makes him look even worse, but he was already garbage and I don't think he needed hypocrisy on top of his other shortcomings to make him look bad. Shayla has an uncertain future, but at least she winds up with the agency to make her own choices about what is worth pursuing in life. It's a small but satisfying victory in an uncaring world, and that's the best you can get in a story like this. Great stuff.
Reference: Smith, Chloe, Virgin Land, [Luna Press, 2023]
Posted by: Adri Joy, Nerds of a Feather Senior Co-Editor, @adrijjy on Twitter