[The Children Star]

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A world so alien that only children can be lifeshaped to live there . . . .

The planet of Prokaryon is harsh and alien, uninhabitable for normal humans -- accessible only to those willing to be genetically altered, a long and painful process. This marks it as the perfect site for a colony of orphans. Founded by Brother Rod and his fellow Spirit Brethren, the colony offers them a chance to forge a new home in relative peace.

But all is not as it seems on Prokaryon. Sudden, fortuitous rainstorms quench forest fires and then rapidly dissipate. The entire planet's ecosystem is highly structured -- too structured to have been formed by the randomness of nature. But decades of research have turned up no real evidence of any "hidden masters" of Prokaryon.

So when Proteus Unlimited, a greedy interstellar corporation, plans to terraform Prokaryon, first mining it and then making it habitable by normal humans, thereby netting huge profits, the search for native intelligent life becomes a frantic race against time. Lost in this shuffle of bureaucracy and greed is this simple colony of orphans, whose settlement will be wiped out if the entire surface of the planet is boiled off.

Will the hidden masters surface in time to save their planet?

The Children Star is Joan Slonczewski's fifth novel, set in the same universe as A Door Into Ocean, Daughter of Elysium, and "Microbe." In fact, it takes place on the same world as her short story "Microbe." It was serialized in Analog magazine, and published by Tor in hardcover in 1998 and paperback in 1999. It was reprinted by PhoenixPick in trade paperback in 2009.

Here's what Joan Slonczewski has to say about this novel:

In The Children Star, the planet Prokaryon is getting colonized by people lifeshaped to survive its biochemistry. But adults take years to get lifeshaped, and it's very costly. Young children are easier to lifeshape, because their immune systems are less developed. So most of the "colonists" are children--or sentient machines, "nanosentients." The story is about a colony of children rescued from the plague-ridden planet L'li. They have to survive the hazards of Prokaryon, while impatient Elysians threaten to terraform it. Meanwhile, everyone suspects that some kind of alien intelligence is in control of the Prokaryan ecosystem--but nobody knows what creature it is.


"This novel's fireworks in the final third admirably justify its long, slow fuse."
--The New York Times

"This novel offers a dazzling array of alien life and a cast of memorable characters.... [An] imaginative and compelling tale of transformation and renewal belongs in most SF collections. Highly recommended."
--Library Journal

"Beautifully constructed and absorbingly related."
--Kirkus Reviews

"Slonczewski, a noted biologist, has written a novel that features enough absorbing material on genetics and planetary ecology to satisfy any aficionado of hard SF. At the same time, she tackles a wide range of moral issues, from overpopulation to ecological responsibility and the ethics of machine intelligence. Remarkably, Slonczewski accomplishes all of this in a story that is not only exciting but also filled with memorable characters, human, alien, and sentient machine."
--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"The author, a biology professor with a strong feminist bent, has written a puzzle story that begins slowly but moves toward a climax filled with intellectual and emotional fireworks."
--The New York Times

"Thoughtful and thought-provoking science fiction novels that mix cutting-edge biological issues with attempts at nonviolent conflict resolution.... She is a fully mature writer, and this is the finest science fiction novel I have read this year."
--Minneapolis Star Tribune

"It is hard SF, but surprisingly easy to get into. The diversity of life-forms is amazing; wonderfully done. And the characters have been colored in nicely. The Children Star is entertaining; a very good read."

"Slonczewski's writing has always been an invigorating fusion of hard science and a social justice sensibility. In this novel, Slonczewski makes a virtuoso display of her biological speculation... But, more excitingly, she puts this rather straightforward hard science fiction in the context of ethics, putting the consequences of science in the same framework as the consequences of the personal and political events."
--James Schellenberg, on the Challenging Destiny web site (the entire review is here)

"Readers who enjoy puzzling out the biology and ecosystems of an author's created world will enjoy The Children Star.... The sensory descriptions are especially impressive; readers can see, smell, hear, touch and taste Prokaryon.... Once humans have the ability to impart intelligence to their constructs, will it be ethical to deny human-made 'smart machines' the right to self-determination? And will human and artificial intelligences recognize other sentient beings if they encounter them? As is intelligence itself, Slonczewski's answers to these questions are multifaceted and fascinating."
--Nalo Hopkinson, on the Science Fiction Weekly web site

"Slonczewski does a good job of introducing enough biological detail to keep the reader guessing along with the characters, but not so much that the plot becomes bogged down in exposition. The ending realistically leaves the colonists with some of their problems solved, and others looming ahead of them that are a result of the discoveries they make."
--Greg L. Johnson, on the SF Site web site (the entire review is here)

"Even a predisposition towards environmentalism cannot explain the amazement and sense of wonder readers will experience while reading Slonczewski's description of this world's plant and animal life. Prokaryon is a macrocosm only a microbiologist could envision.... The lessons learned from science on the microbial level can be used to underscore the importance of growing up and playing nice on the human level."
--Sandra Lindow, in Tales of the Unanticipated magazine (the entire review is here)

"The tidy little mystery is gradually unraveled, leading to a surprising but logical conclusion. Though not a fast-paced adventure, THE CHILDREN STAR was still a satisfying yarn."
--EJ McClure, on the SFRevu web site (the entire review is here)

Study Guide

Here's a study guide to The Children Star by Sandy Lindow.

Here's a list of questions for writing and discussion about The Children Star by Craig Jacobsen and Michael Levy.

Last modified: May 11, 2010

Return to The Science Fiction of Joan Slonczewski.