A month ago, I reviewed The Last Legionary Quartet. This had been my only Douglas Hill series to date and, upon rereading it for the first time since childhood, I was pretty pleasantly surprised. When Darren Goldsmith mentioned a second series by Mr. Hill in the comments, I decided to take the plunge. Plus, given his description - "young offenders exiled to a planet with psychic trees" - how could it possibly go wrong?
It doesn't. Exiles of ColSec (1984) is indeed a young adult book about juvenile delinquents on a planet of psychic trees and it is kind of awesome.
In a future dominated by a big nasty authoritarian government, the last real rebels are the disaffected youfs on the fringes of society. When they're caught by the CeeDee's (Civil Defenders), the children are sent to an Antarctic prison colony to labor away their sentences. At least, so they say. The real truth of the matter is that the kids are packaged up and shipped off to far-flung planets. They're a combination of Robinson Crusoe and mine canaries, used to test whether or not the new worlds are worth colonising properly. The prisoners are stranded on the planet for six months, then ColSec (Colonization Section) follows up with proper explorers.
(There are so many flaws in this logic that it boggles the mind. What's the advantage of deliberately not preparing the kids? As they know the planet isn't a poisonous hellball in advantage, what more are they going to learn by dumping kids there? What if the kids ruin the planet by antagonising the natives or setting fire to the air or something? Why is there a labor camp in Antarctica anyway? Isn't that expensive?!)
Regardless, the mission goes wrong even before it has begun. Cord MaKiy, teen protagonist and Scottish hillbilly, is woken up from his space-sleep-pod and given the impossible choice of "strand the vessel in space" or "crash it on the planet". As he blinks awake, he decides (laudably) that crashing the ship is definitely the best option. They are doomed either way, and this way it flips a big V-sign to the jackasses at ColSec that sent them on this mission anyway.
The crash kills half the snoozing delinquents and burns up many of the supplies. The remainder are an odd crew. Samella is from a Minnesota commune, was sold into indentured servitude as a young girl and then sabotaged by her new workmates. Jeko and Rontal are gang members from the Detroit/Chicago sprawl and Heleth is a London "Vampire", a sort of extreme goth. (Were this book written in 2011, Heleth would be the obvious protagonist. She'd spend most of her time swooning until Cord gave her a prophecy and/or first kiss. Fortunately, this was written in 1984, so she's interesting instead.)
There's a bit of fussing about, but the teens quickly realise that they need to work together to survive. Their new home of Klydor is a strange place. Enormous tentacled sand-worm things burrow underneath the ground, gorilla creatures roam in flocks and, of course, the trees are psychic. (Sadly, their communications are limited to "SCARY SANDWORM" and "NEW FRIEND!").
The real problem comes from the sixth human survivor, a charming piece of work called "The Lamprey". He's a former Civil Defender/Special Forces type and is slightly older than the rest of the team. Of all the kids, he's also the only one clinging to hope of return - The Lamprey thinks his place on the colony ship was an accident. While Cord, Samella and the others are trying to think of Klydor as their new home (their new home with psychic trees), The Lamprey just wants to screw around for a few months until the follow-up ship comes. He's got girls to ogle, rations to gnaw and a laser-rifle to kill alien gorillas with. Like a safari, but with chattier vegetation.
The choice of nicknames is far from subtle. Not only is The Lamprey a drain on their physical resources, he's an emotional parasite as well. Jeko, Rontal and Heleth are socialised to obey the loudest voice and strongest leader. With Ol' Suckerfish around, they revert to being gang minions. Cord and Samella have dreams of equality and partnership, but whenever the others take baby steps forward, The Lamprey quickly drags them back. He's also a constant reminder of the old. The Lamprey talks incessantly about Earth, uses the space-age weaponry, eats meal packs and counts the days until his return. He even demands that the group to live in the husk of the crashed ship rather than build a new shelter.
Still, like The Last Legionary Quartet, this isn't a subtle book - at least, on the surface. Cord is slightly superhuman, whatever the last of the Highlanders has been eating has turned him into a mass of manly muscle. Although The Lamprey is more dangerous, Cord is prone to feats of prodigious strength that leave the others in awe. Ostensibly, it is only a matter of time before his mighty thews and heroic heart combine to make him the group's leader. Yet, in this book, at least, it doesn't happen. If anything Cord takes the rare position of genuinely fostering equality, rather than just championing it. Mr. Hill even adds in little details about where Cord stands in a room, or lets himself be outvoted. He's neither self-loathing or insecure, he's committed, and to a rare cause.
On top of that, the science fictional elements, however weird, never steal the spotlight. The aliens are there (you can't ignore psychic trees), but they provide atmosphere, not plot. There's an air of menace that puts the necessary pressure on the group's social interactions, but the aliens balance on that fine line between distraction and irrelevance. (Plus psychic trees.)
It is almost impossible not to compare Exiles of ColSec with more recent young adult science fiction novels. As ludicrous as the set-up is, Mr. Hill puts it to good use by focusing exclusively on the interactions of the six protagonists. The plot isn't about a scheme to overthrow the government and restore decency to a dystopian future, it is about bonding and survival.* These goals might seem pedestrian, but they make for a character-focused story. Cord is a slightly macho archetype, but is made interesting by his inverted need to not be the leader. Many modern YA protagonists are either arrogant or self-loathing, Cord is neither. He's secure in his desire to make others more secure, which makes him an exceedingly pleasant sort of hero. Further reinforcing the books' core message, Mr. Hill leaves the reader with the impression that Exiles of ColSec could be told from any of the characters' points of view. It isn't about heroes and specialness, it is about working together.
*Sadly, it seems that the next two volumes in the trilogy stumble right into this trap. Cord n' co. are no longer survivors, they're messianic rebel leaders in the battle against ColSec and the world gov'mint. Sigh.
Also, how awful are the various covers for this book? Three attempts and they're all eye-gougingly horrible.
By Jared (@pornokitsch) who wishes the houseplants were psychic so he wouldn't forget to water them