Barbara Paul, Under the Canopy

What the heck kind of book was this?

As near as I can tell, outside of a brief Amazon bleat, there aren't any reviews on the whole Internet of Barbara Paul's Under the Canopy, which is weird for a classic SF novel (if 1980 counts as classic?). There are some very good reasons, though, that Under the Canopy has been nearly forgotten: not that the Amazon "I couldn't finish it" whine is an adequate response, but I sympathized a bit with G. Bird.

Barbara Paul talks a bit on her site (not updated in 12 years) about the basic plot of the novel, which was basically transplanting Somerset Maugham's story "The Outsiders" away from an Asian plantation and onto another planet, and swapping out Maugham's representative Englishmen (one upper-class, one working-class) for women, with similar allegiances. The upper-class woman, Margo Kemperer, has been the only person on Gaea for many years, and she lives an isolated life, dressing formally for dinner and hiring servants. Upsetting her life, Margo receives as an aide a working-class woman, Stephanie Leeds, once in the military forces for the Interplanetary Union (IU), who wants to live as the locals do once she's posted on Gaea. Crises ensue, of all kinds.

It's a bizarrely conservative novel. Margo is a wannabe upper-crust Victorian who refuses to integrate with the native Gaeans on their terms, except for rituals where they appoint her a kind of judge. She carries on handwritten correspondence with heavy-hitters throughout the IU who barely remember her (eschewing for form's sake the more common electronic communication), so she's an easy person to find ridiculous, not unlike an intergalactic Polonius. Stephanie wants to live like the Gaeans, and she wants to see the Gaeans holding power over their own lives. She doesn't want servants, and she'd like to see the Gaeans evolve individually and collectively in whatever form they'd like to follow.

And yet the Gaeans love Margo, because she understands their natural formality, and they loathe Stephanie because she can't let them be themselves. As it turns out, Stephanie wants to turn Gaea into a liberal bastion, but by book's end she's spectacularly humiliated and savagely destroyed: burned by acid, stripped naked, used as bait, corrupted by syphilis, abandoned by the man-whore with whom she ultimately ruins her reputation, and finally stabbed by her own servant.

Conservativism 1, Liberalism 0.

I picked up this volume from Russell Books, incidentally, because the cover pitched the planet itself -- really the jungle that covers the entire planet -- as a character, as an agentive force. It really isn't, but it's clear that Paul thinks that's how she has represented it. The characters all need to be really careful, and the jungle is full of evolutionary impossibilities that can kill: birds spraying acid, multiple humanoid species, an infinite variety of ants, etc. But that doesn't make the jungle a character.

Oh, and form: Stephanie gets lost in the jungle for more than three weeks, most of which she spends naked and hungry, and how do we learn the details? Through a detailed present-tense daily journal. Whatever.


Anonymous said…
Sounds legit...

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