This debut novel by British author Williams has gotten high marks in certain circles, but I found it boring, pretentious, and terminally PC in roughly equal measure. It is set in a distant future in which the human race has deserted a no-longer inhabitable Earth and relocated on a planet called Irie St Syre, which has been thoroughly terraformed to the extent that even climate is completely controlled. To top it all off, society is now run — pretty much perfectly, we are led to assume — by a matriarchal "Gaian" religion. I don't think you could possibly come up with a more politically correct premise for an SF novel than to set it in a future governed by spiritual lesbian vegans!
The world of Monde d'Isle is inhabited by the scattered remnants of a colony that landed ages past from Irie St Syre. The people have been genetically altered in such a way as to be in psychic harmony with their environment, as Williams explains repeatedly, but never satisfactorily. (Williams, I think, intends for this to be thought of as similar to the "dreamtime" of Australian aborigines.) Every 12 years they migrate, and occasionally (especially when hunting) they slip into the "bloodmind," during which they are little more than pack animals. However, some members of the race fail to achieve this connection to nature and its rhythms. There is a rite of passage during childhood in which a child is left to wander the wilderness by itself; when it comes home, if it does, and has not developed its natural harmony correctly, it is "landblind." And in this cruel culture, these burdensome "ghost" children are occasionally killed in the way ancient civilizations used to expose sickly infants.
Mevennen is landblind. The land around her constantly bombards her with a sensory overload that is quite painful to endure. Her brother, Eleres, however, is attached to her and refuses to let her be killed. So he takes her on a trip away from their home on the coast, in the vague hope of reaching Outreven, the legendary first colony, where perhaps Mevennen can be helped, if not healed.
Into the mix comes a spaceship from Irie St Syre, whose crew, led by the idealistic Gaian novice Bel Zhur and the sympathetic captain, are intent upon re-establishing this long lost colony and bringing it around to the sort of utopia it ought to have been. Bel encounters Mevennen and the two begin a cautious bond, while the rest of the crew worries about the shape that the culture has taken on Monde d'Isle, and tries to figure out the purpose of strange ancient machinery they have discovered underneath a ruin.
There's nothing wrong with Williams' premise in its own right; the seeds of an absorbing, clashing-cultures storyline in the leGuin vein are certainly evident. It's just that reading Williams' storytelling is like watching grass grow. There's virtually no forward momentum at all to this story. It all just plods, and plods, and plods. And plods. Moreover, I wasn't able to develop any kind of emotional attachment to any of Williams' characters, even poor, afflicted Mevennen, whose illness should have been heart-wrenching. But it isn't. It's like reading a newspaper article about someone stricken with disease; you're sorry they're sick, but since you don't know them there's no deep anguish that you share. A novel should not read like a newspaper article; you need to feel like you know the characters in order to hurt with them. Williams fails in this.
In place of a gripping plot, Williams' story is a slow-moving exercise in philosophical exposition about the fine line between what is human and what is not, all spiced up with intermittent scenes of gay sex — which demonstrates that, as nice as it is to be inclusive, gratuitous gay sex scenes are as tiresome as gratuitous straight sex scenes. Williams' methodical approach does, I suppose, give you a good grasp of the details of her alien cultures (though I still never got a good idea of how the Monde cultures were governed). I comprehended what was going on. I just didn't care. It would take another book before Williams' latent talents would come to fruition.