Juna is left for dead on an alien world, presumed lost along with the rest of her survey team, but help comes from an unexpected source. The planet’s hithertofore-reclusive intelligent beings save her in a frightening and astonishing way: though they scarcely even use tools, the Tendu are masters of biology, able to heal illness, regrow limbs, and even alter Juna’s own body to survive in an environment that should kill her. Juna must live amongst them until humans return, but the two races are so dissimilar that she fears what that day will bring.
Thomson’s narrative choices often surprised me in how they avoided shock and escalations of conflict. Many plot points are clearly telegraphed in advance, and whenever the story could seriously take a turn for the worse, Thomson tends to choose a less dark and calamitous direction. She instead emphasises the better natures of both humans and the Tendu, and her calm tone prevents even painful moments from biting too deeply. The result is a story with not a lot of edge or tension, though it could potentially have had both.
None of that is really meant as a criticism. Though I never felt especially worried for the characters, I was instantly pulled into their lives. Thomson creates a complex alien race who resemble frogs and speak through patterns and colours on their skin, and yet are constantly relatable. She does this with seeming ease, resulting in a novel with a warm and personable feel.
Thomson divides the story largely between the points of view of Juna and Anito, a Tendu who is coming into adulthood. The first contact is shown from Anito’s point of view, and reading this from a human perspective makes the future challenges and potentials spring into the imagination. Anito finds her life going in a direction vastly different to that which she expected, and this puts an interesting slant on Tendu culture and keeps her engaging. Juna also causes her, and other Tendu, to look differently at their own morality and customs, which helps to keep these aliens’ lives from seeming simplistically idyllic.
A question looms over The Color of Distance: how will the Tendu react when they realise how deeply humans have neglected the aliens’ highest principle, the maintenance of harmony in their ecosystems? However, this isn’t truly answered here. I presume it will come to the fore in the sequel, Through Alien Eyes, but some of its reviews concern me. I would like to see more of this future human race as glimpsed in The Color of Distance, but some people see the sequel as a near betrayal of this novel, so I’ll leave it for another day.