This is in essence a first-contact story; although contact with the Phytomorphs was actually made some 30 years prior to when this story starts, this is the first time that humans and Phytomorphs have attempted to live together. It is also, the further you read, increasingly a horror story.
There was a lot I liked about this story, particularly the clever, educated, older, female protagonist. When we are introduced to Dr. Audra Grissom in the opening paragraphs, I was quite pleased to see what I don’t often see in stories — someone like me!
But there were also a number of things which I didn’t like so much. The way Dr. Grissom was set up to us made me optimistic for both her and the society in which she operated, which is why I felt even more caught out than I might have been when I read this:
She had started graying in her 30s, but had given up trying to dye it back to its original brown once she hit her 40s. She had no husband or children to keep up appearances for anyway.
That second sentence — what a strange justification to add! It just goes to show that no matter how hard we try to write stories centering women and leaving behind the problematic social structures of reality, it’s hard to escape persistent and invasive ideas about how and why women should act the way they do. (Why should it make any difference to her hair color if Dr. Grissom is married or not? I’m married, with a kid, started greying in my 20s, and the only color I dye my hair is purple. I have no need to “keep up appearances” for anyone other than myself.) The upshot of this one single sentence is that I come away from the story pitying Dr. Grissom, knowing that the freedom and authority it seems that she has is only seeming, and not, yet, real.
I also felt vaguely uncomfortable about a lot of the colonial overtones that were present in this story. When Dr. Grissom meets the Phytomorph that she has corresponded with the most, we find out that she doesn’t know their name, but has given them a nickname of her choosing; the Phytomorph, on the other hand, addresses her by name. Why? Why did she give her name to them, at some point in their communication, but never ask theirs? Similarly, when she is confronted with the possibility that this co-habitation is harming the Phytomorphs, her first response is to protect the science, rather than put the objects of her study first.