Mankind may be a hostile creature, but the universe is even moreso. That may seem a bleak message to impart in a novel. But Kay Kenyon manages to wring an uplifting, humanist outlook from it in the end. Shortlisted for the Campbell, The Braided World is one of Kenyon's strongest stories. It's a work of anthropological SF in which a team of explorers from Earth — there really is only one legitimate scientist among them — struggle to find their place amongst a human race created, more or less, as a backup by a species of long-extinct alien caretakers. Because its approach is humanist more than hard-SFnal (though there is a lot of interesting biology underlying the plot), it works more on a visceral level as we follow the interpersonal relations of the characters while their situation quickly descends from harmony to horror. Calm and unhurried in its opening scenes, the novel draws you in organically.
The population of Earth has been devastated by the arrival of the Dark Cloud, a predatory mass of dark matter wandering the cosmos that, in Kay's words, is "deeply information-poor... The Cloud read the information stored in electronic systems, and biological information in DNA. And in the process of reading it, transferred it into itself." The exact nature of this process is something Kenyon leaves hazy; you're left to imagine people effervescing out of existence like human Alka-Seltzer. But it does add an interesting and chilling spin on the notion of alien invasion: the concept of an entity that has no malice towards us, it simply turns up and takes what it wants, then leaves. In the aftermath, the surviving remnants of humanity lack the genetic diversity to repopulate the planet adequately.
Then a message comes from deep space, luring us to a distant world where we are told we may reclaim what we have lost. Does this mean humanity's stolen genetic heritage is somehow stored there, or is it merely a cold-blooded lure on the part of the malicious aliens who, many people suppose, sent the Cloud to us in the first place? A skeptical and demoralized humanity isn't willing to take the chance. So a mission is privately funded by, of all people, a retired operatic diva who has a bit of buried guilt in her past motivating her actions. The Restoration arrives at the Earthlike world of Neshar, only to discover an almost-human species called the Dassa with a complex society straddling the line between primitivism (authoritarian rule and slaveholding) and technology (basic electricity, radio communication, guns). Launched as Earth's great hope, the Restoration itself has reached its destination in a crippled state: its crew is being waylaid by a rapidly mutating virus that ironically stowed away in the ship's medicinal stores. So it's up to an untried young new captain, Anton Prados, to lead a small away team in the hopes that they all haven't come to Neshar on some wild double-helix chase.
A lot of Kenyon's novels seem to deal with themes involving human beings (or whatever species) at war with their environment, with the environment usually winning. Rift was all about a terraforming experiment gone horribly awry, while Kenyon's followup to this novel, the ambitious Entire and the Rose tetralogy, introduced a complete synthetic universe whose very existence threatens our own. In The Braided World, Kenyon's characters must learn to come to terms with their circumstances on a world which may or may not hold the secret to saving them.
Expecting, perhaps, a thoroughly routine mission, Anton and his fellow explorers — who include his benefactor, the diva Bailey Shaw herself — find themselves embroiled in the politics of Dassa society. The curious reproductive habits of the Dassa, which involve interaction with the environment itself and not traditional sexual activity, seem to have ineffable implications for our heroes' quest. Most Dassa women have oddly undeveloped, vestigial wombs, while women with a functioning reproductive system are ostracized and enslaved as hoda, their tongues cut out and their lives a degrading ordeal of oppressive labor. But the Dassa's king, Vidori, who has shaky leadership of the river-based community alongside two powerful rivals, hints he may be amenable to emancipating the hoda if it gives him an edge in a war that seems sure to erupt.
With an imaginative and convincingly realized alien culture serving as the stage for the novel's action (among Kenyon's many inspired touches is the secret language of song the hoda develop to communicate amongst themselves), The Braided World ends up a novel working impressively on multiple levels. While we are intellectually captivated by the secret the astronauts seek — a repository of human genetic information stored by the extinct aliens, the Quadi, which may or may not be as much a pipe dream as Eldorado — we find ourselves invested on a deeper, personal level in the strife befalling the characters, both human and Dassa, as the Dassa struggle to hold on to their cultural identity in the wake of the human explorers' arrival.
A tale of brilliant inventiveness and often gut-wrenching humanity, The Braided World cements Kay Kenyon's reputation as one of the leading SF writers you probably aren't reading right now. It's never too late to evolve.