Perhaps the key to this book is in the title; it doesn't appear to be in the story.
"Catalyst" is a fair description for Kaslin, a teenage boy who stumbles into a cave and wakes the hibernating sentient spider species within. Like a chemical catalyst, he is largely unchanged by the events unfolding around him. At the beginning of the book he is bullied brutally. By the end he is controlled both by the powerful in his human life and by the nature of the knowledge given and withheld by the alien spiders. Kaslin is a nice enough lad, but he is never in control of events, never even quite understanding what happens to him or the effects of what he does. This character fits with what we learn of his background—before coming to Chuudoku, his family has been moved from planet to planet, from holding pen to restricted environment, due to his father's inability to resist the lure of easy money—but this doesn't make him a very positive avatar for the reader.
Kaslin has little self awareness; he never seems to ask any of the interesting questions, living in a merely sensual world.He discovers the cave because he is being chased by the school bully, Histly, who is bigger and stronger than him, has poisons in her fingertips and can turn her feet into climbing spikes. She also turns out to be the daughter of two of the most powerful people on the planet and both she and her parents immediately recognise the value of what Kaslin has discovered, whilst he is busy worrying that the aliens have eaten his hair. Kaslin's mother, a medic, wants to study the effects the aliens have had on him, whilst he just wants to run away—despite his professed desire to be in the Explorer Corps when he grows up. He accepts Histly as his lover—a clear indication that he is wedded to his victimhood, whether the author intends it or not.
As the viewpoint character throughout the book, Kaslin's lack of understanding of what is happening around him restricts the reader's ability to grasp the larger story, though Nina Kiriki Hoffman does manage to slip some clues past Kaslin to the reader. The background which he naturally takes for granted as his own millieu is fascinating. Chuudoku has oceans so high in salt and minerals that osmosis would dehydrate a human swimmer to death, whilst there are vines which shoot their seeds into living flesh and cause addiction in their hosts. The planet is being exploited for new drugs and weapons, within the context of a greater humanity which clearly spreads wide—this planet has been settled for 200 years. There are xenosociologists and First Contact rules, one can save up for a career module as a step towards a better life, or perhaps become a pirate of the interplanetary shipping lanes. Surely there are more interesting stories to tell in this setting, or more involving kids for them to happen to. Even stuck with a weak central character, a better book is possible. Paul McAuley had passive protagonists in books such as Red Dust, but he at least took them on a tour which displayed the world to the reader. If there is no growth in the viewpoint character, the eyeball kicks at least keep us interested in the book. The aliens in Catalyst could have provided this, but they are not so much enigmatic as undefined, despite dropping in lines such as "the last time we saw your kind … [w]e made a few changes and left markers in you" (p. 150).
In the long tradition of 'juveniles' in SF, most examples have tended to be driven by the 'omnicompetent man', and Hoffman, active in the Young Adult field, may well be reacting to that stereotype, providing a truer picture of how much impact a boy in the "mid-teen edsection" (p. 1) might actually have. Fair enough, but the protagonists of such books usually learn something about themselves or gain some understanding of their world even when they cannot change it. Hoffman does not seem to expect any more from her readers than she does from her protagonists. The book is written in a juvenile voice which reinforces Kaslin's lack of affect, and encourages a feeling of impotence in the reader. This tone feels, at first, like a device to distance the reader from the events of the story, but it rapidly becomes wearing, and decays to a feeling of being talked down to:
He needed a place to duck. The forest was the only cover. He headed for the snake trees and their wreathes of vines. Maybe the flowers closed at night. (p. 44)
Note that this example is a full paragraph. It doesn't have to be this way. Ken MacLeod's recent book for non-readers, The Highway Men, has a more restricted vocabulary, less sex and probably averages shorter sentences, but it is still a book in which the author is levelling with the reader. Perhaps the comparison is unfair and Hoffman is trying something more difficult—attempting to put the adult reader inside the mind of a pretty ordinary fifteen year old. If so, it isn't a place that I want to be trapped, and I suspect that few other readers will either.
Duncan Lawie lives in London and has a keen interest in the Polar Regions. Before the dot-com bubble burst, he was SF reviewer for Slashdot. His work also appears in The Zone.