There is a planet. It is colonised, by humans, and then biology does what biology does best: it begins to screw with the lives of people who mess with it. I love these types of narratives. Perhaps it’s being a biologist myself, but stories that get into alternate ecologies, and explore how members of an entirely different habitat, an entirely different planet no less, react to them are something I find fascinating.
And in The Wan, Bo Balder takes this idea and gives it two thoughtful twists. The first is that, after several generations of colonisation, this colony is dying. Human fertility plummets, and the implication is that it’s because the interaction between coloniser and colonised is fundamentally toxic. Humans can survive for a while, but their digestive system is simply not adapted to the vegetation that evolved on this new world. The plants and animals they originally brought with them from Earth are no longer sufficient, and the fundamental mismatch between organisms is slowly killing the planetary interlopers.
This is a great idea. It is supplemented by an ever better one, an idea that really piques that sci-fi staple, the sense of wonder. My sense of wonder is certainly engaged, because there is, unbeknown to the colonists, an indigenous intelligent life form, and it is fungal. Humans can be infected by the bite of a whitefish, and become fungal themselves—they become a Wan, impervious to pain, incredibly long-lived, and able to easily recover from injury. Lose a foot to a paradile, a creature that floats in the water like a croc? It’ll grow back, if you just ingest enough mass to reform it. If you can kill the paradile and get your foot back, you can eat your own foot, even, along with the paradile-flesh. But you eat something else as well...
Intelligence, in The Wan, is something to be—literally—consumed. It’s exchangeable, and this is a fascinating thing. Eating a paradile will give you knowledge of that creature’s muddy life. Ing notes this when she considers eating a fish that lives in underground caves: “Eat it? No, it would add mass, which she didn’t need, without carrying any useful information. She licked it just in case, but although it was old, it tasted boring. Whitefish didn’t lead interesting lives” (p. 15).
Eating part of another Wan will gain you part of their knowledge. The ritualised exchange and consumption of flesh holds the Wan community together. It is a fleshy communion, essentially—but consumption can be violent as well as voluntary, and there is the capacity to forcibly take knowledge from another by eating their body parts without their consent.
It really is a fascinating idea. I would have liked to see a much stronger focus on that, and less on the character interactions (especially the off-putting love triangle between the scientist Ing, the slave Frog, and the stadtholder Firdaus) because for me, unfortunately, the characters don’t live up to the premise or the excellent world-building. Part of it is the regrettable tendency to adjust a character’s abilities to suit the needs of the immediate plot (most often with Ing, illustrated below), and part of it is that central relationship between the three main characters.
For a book so concerned with the transmission of intelligence, it is less concerned with the retention of it. This is particularly the case with Ing, who was (some centuries prior to the beginning of this story) the first human turned into Wan, and shunned—like the rest of the transformed humans—because of it. Realising early on that wholesale transformation of the failing colony into Wan might be the only way to save them, Ing spends generations learning about the Wan, about what causes them and what they turn into. Admittedly, she is handicapped by her surroundings. The colonists left Earth in search of a more pastoral life, in a journey whose consequences are far more dystopian than expected. Use of science and technology has declined substantially, and it is not the only form of knowledge in decline. In the few centuries since colonisation, nearly all the colonists’ history has been lost—even the great migration from Earth, the surviving spaceships, are essentially forgotten. Oral histories seem to be failing or otherwise inadequate. Basic survival skills continue, in the form of children’s songs, for instance, but the context of the knowledge has been lost:
“Yellow for staple, orange for sweet, red for sharp and green for fiber. Blue for poison, purple for wisdom.” Not that he’d ever seen a purple or blue plant or animal; according to the Physician’s Guild, the Ancestors would bestow them when they felt the people deserved them. (p. 91)
The typical reproduction and cataloguing of information, for example, is also lost to Ing: “Oh, for the days of her youth, back on Earth, with every fact known to mankind easily within reach on the Web” (p. 31).
But Ing has some advantages to help her explore the ecology of the new planet. In fact she is uniquely placed to do so, by profession as well as transformation. Ing is a mycologist of some standing, a mycologist trained on Earth where spores are a normal part of fungal reproduction, a mycologist who has spent hundreds of years on an alien planet studying the life cycles of this weird alien fungi... but not once does she think, “Hey, this missing part of the life cycle? I wonder if it’s spores?!” This is monumentally stupid of her; a situational stupidity that is reinforced when Firdaus (a politician with no scientific training) comes up with the answer instead.
Firdaus, in fairness, hasn’t figured out the spore thing on his own: the giant fungus underpinning his city told him. But because he comes out with this new information in front of a crowd, as part of a speech, he comes across to that crowd as especially intelligent—while on the sidelines, Ing has been dumbed down so far that possibility of fungal spores has clearly been unthinkable. If this isn’t propping up one character at the expense of another I don’t know what is.
It’s like a physicist travelling to a distant planet and wondering why, if he lets go of a rock, it falls to the ground. (“Gee, physicist, do you think it could be gravity?” “Damn you, stadtholder! I never considered that possibility! If we were back on Earth they’d give you the Nobel Prize that should have been mine for that astounding deduction, you total bastard.” I kid you not. That’s Ing’s reaction in a nutshell.)
This strange gap in professional intelligence comes up again, when Ing wonders if the rapidly decreasing human fertility is a result of the native plant life—a toxin build-up, perhaps, in an organism not native to that world. Well no shit, Sherlock! I actually said aloud at this point in the text. This is a plausible explanation. It may not be the right explanation, but it’s a plausible one. What is completely implausible is how long it takes Ing to get there. A trained biologist, recall, who has been investigating the planet’s ecology for some generations... even if the decline in fertility is a relatively recent thing, confined to the past few decades, why was this not a potential explanation she thought of in the first half hour of consideration? Even if some of Ing’s knowledge was lost in her initial transformation, or otherwise taken from her, she thinks of herself as a scientist, and enough of her training remains that the ability to fill in gaps, to hypothesise from established knowledge, should not be a stretch. Yet, when required by the plot to be so, it is.
This is deeply, deeply frustrating, and is indicative of a trend within the text that pigeonholes characters, I think, into frequently single functions. This is illustrated, again, in the relationship between Frog and Ing, which I found particularly challenging—as much for each character’s relative lack as for their merger, and the result of it. I was, I must say, rather unpleasantly reminded of Piers Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon, which is not a favourite of mine. Chameleon, the title character of that novel, periodically fluctuates in both appearance and intelligence. When Chameleon is absolutely, stunningly beautiful, she is thick as a brick and only good for providing sexual pleasure—otherwise she’s a tiresome bore to be around. Swing the pendulum the other way and Chameleon is the ugliest woman alive, with such a piercing intelligence that the combination of the two puts off every potential sexual partner she has. Only in a middle state, stuck between the two extremes, does she become more conventionally acceptable. Reactions to Anthony’s Xanth series are mixed, but Chameleon’s portrayal has been often panned as misogynistic and pretty dreadful, really. I did not enjoy it—and in The Wan, the same idea comes up again.
I did not enjoy it here either. Don’t get me wrong: Balder’s exploration of it is light years ahead of Anthony’s, and maybe it was the inescapable comparison with Chameleon that soured me on it, but there it is. Frog, sexually desirable, noted by Ing for her ability to attract Firdaus by being a capable flirt, is really very ignorant. Firdaus is willing enough to fuck her but considers her lacking in the mental capacity needed to make a decent, long-term partner. Ing, seething with jealousy, lures Frog off alone, rips off her arm and part of her breast, and chows down. Basically, Ing’s looking to consume Frog’s sexual attractiveness, her social nous, and when she’s got the chunk she’s after, she leaves the rest of Frog to be eaten by the queen of the fungi. And this is when Frog, with the mutilation of her perfect tits, starts to show some sign that she’s not the entirely passive creature she’s made out to be. She rips herself away from the queen mound and heads off on a journey that will eventually see her eating Ing in turn.
Ing, on the other hand, is potentially the most intelligent character in the book (except for when the plot requires her not to be). She’s also socially incompetent and constantly manages to put people off. This doesn’t stop Firdaus, of course—with Frog gone he needs someone to fuck and Ing is literally the only other option at this point, so fuck her he does. She’s learning (via the consumption of Frog) how to flirt her way out of the cold scientist persona, even if she still doesn’t deal with emotions well. But Ing herself is also not considered an acceptable long-term companion for Firdaus.
It’s only when Frog eats Ing that the two personalities merge and oh look! Firdaus has his perfect partner; everything’s working out so well for him. Two stunted women meet him and immediately fall into violent sexual jealousy of each other, but they’re both so singularly one-note defective that they only become acceptable when the parts that defined them as individuals have literally been eaten and/or destroyed by the other.
At this point (hell, all along!) I’ve been wondering why anyone wants Firdaus anyway. He’s one bare step up from Frog intellectually (it takes such a long time for anything to sink in with him, he’s always making realisations of something Ing told him chapters back—did he ever really listen to her in the first place?) but apparently charisma overcomes all.
Look, the truth is there is some bias on my part here: I don’t enjoy love triangles at the best of times. But this is a love triangle where I dislike all three of the participants, so you can imagine how that sinks my interest, and how much I want to leave these three to get back to the truly fantastic world-building and weird biology and all that fungal info-eating. Honestly, The Wan is worth reading for that alone. Just focus on the world and skim over the people.