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The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree2 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsAmong the novels of Karen Lee Killough (not to be confused with the programmer Lee Killough, known for his work on the videogame Doom), this one is a pretty minor piece. Despite its brevity at just over 200 pages, The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree is occasionally as long-winded as its title. Though it opens with some promising atmosphere, action, and the novelty of an all-alien cast, Killough doesn’t successfully maintain good dramatic tension. What we’re left with is an overlong Analog novella addressing the theme of the evils of colonialism in rote fashion.

Our herione, Chemel, is a Monitor leading a multi-species team of researchers back to the planet Nira, which has not been explored in 500 years. The planet is the home of the winged Shree, a developing species on the long evolutionary path to sentience. The research team is, of course, simply supposed to observe unseen. Chemel is obliged to uphold a strict policy of nonintervention, and she’s just the sort of by-the-book bureaucrat who will do it.

Almost immediately upon arriving on Nira and setting up shop in the old and carefully concealed base left by the last team, disaster strikes. A pair of criminal thugs (not from Nira) turn up, kill one member of the team and come damn close to killing them all but for Chemel’s quick thinking. A botched escape attempt causes Chemel to be separated from the rest of her team. She doesn’t even know if they’re still alive. But what’s all too clear is that, whoever these criminals are, they’ve been influencing the Shree. Chemel is captured by a Shree clan, where she learns that the baddies have been freely plundering Nira’s natural resources (the world was once the site of an extensive mining operation until the Shree were first discovered) while illegally helping the Shree advance with tools and the like. Since these villains are clearly a pretty nasty bunch, it doesn’t occur to Killough that they would probably be more inclined simply to take potshots at the Shree than waste any time bartering or communicating with them at all.

Tiny little logical zits like this pop up to blemish an otherwise smooth story. Very early in the book, when one of the team’s cleverly disguised flying probes is snatched out of the sky by a Shree who immediately sets about dismantling it with alarming skill, Chemel demands the next probe have a self-destruct device installed. Um, you know, if the goal is not to interfere with the Shree, I don’t see how blowing one of them up serves that terribly well.

But the main problem with this story is that, following the initial action, Killough allows it to settle into a fairly dull and mundane groove. And, when dealing with super-exotic aliens, she doesn’t have the skills of, say, C. J. Cherryh, perhaps the genre’s master at making such beings both convincingly alien and yet easy to relate to as characters. Chemel didn’t seem especially alien to me, and so it was a constant distraction while reading to have to remind myself there wasn’t a human being in the entire story to be found. Killough didn’t convey the alienness of her cast convincingly enough to make it really matter. She easily could have replaced these characters with the crew of the Enterprise. You’d get pretty much the same tale out of it.

Slight reads like The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree have become all but extinct in 21st century SF publishing. Readers are more enamored of lengthier series novels they can immerse themselves in, and traditional mainstream publishers (especially Del Rey, who released this) now only seem to want surefire New York Times bestsellers. I don’t really like that trend, and I do believe SFF publishing should always make room for the kinds of midlist books that offer casual comfort reading for a lazy afternoon. But even those books should strive for excellence on their own scale. If Killough had fleshed this story out, provided us with more background, given us a stronger stake in these characters and helped us better understand their alien cultures and personae, it might have made a real difference.