Ossus Library Index
Science Fiction Index


A novel by Greg Bear
(1996, Orbit Books)

The Way, book 1

A rebellious youth takes an assignment to report on an illegal society on an alien planet, where he joins an expedition to tour the different landscapes, before observing the costs of a rebellious rivalry.


+ -- First reading (ebook)
August 7th to 29th, 2022


Overly descriptive, to the point of replacing the story with neverending exposition. The character, who had a bit of depth when he was on the hollowed-out asteroid, had absolutely none on the world of Lamarckia, even at the end, when he decided to do something. The entire story is about the botanical description of an alien world, and while it’s very likely a realistic situation, given how different life could be to ours, it was very dryly written. Unfortunately, not knowing much about botany and cell structures, the ones on this world didn’t strike me as remarkable, nor did the explorers’ interest pique mine. My favorite part was probably entering the storm, as it gave (finally) some excitement to this incredibly dull story, little as it was. I’m now wondering if I should have read the original story first, instead of this prequel, which I had so much trouble finishing.

Spoiler review:

When it comes to alien lands, this author has done a good job of creating something alien. Unfortunately, that seems to be the entire purpose of the book –to show off the alien flora and its intelligence in minute detail. The lands of Elizabethland, Tasman, Hsia and Martha’s Island, not to mention the eternal storm cell, show a varied geography of ecos, silva and their mostly mobile scions. It’s probably a true depiction of how colonization of an alien world would take place –hardship because everything is so alien and mostly incompatible with human physiology. Unfortunately, the description takes over the entire book, until it becomes more like a scientific journal from a botanist’s point of view.

The writing style is also mostly from a detached point of view, offering little emotion to most observations, and barely any more when things are happening. He describes his joy at the thrill of the storm, the discovery of the scions, but they are unemotional descriptions. The story is more of a showcase of strange things and creatures, without a real purpose. It’s barely even an adventure story.

Arriving on Lamarckia, Olmy finds himself in a village where all the adults have been massacred, and the children taken. He feels anger, but does nothing about it –observation first. He hitches a ride down the river with the local politicians/militia, and learns of the rivalry between Lenk, the founder, and Brion, who wanted to do more with the colony than just barely live. Olmy arrived decades after he expected to, giving the colony a chance to degrade and evolve in its own fashion. Hiding his true identity as an observer from Thistledown, the advanced asteroid with the ability to transport people to other worlds, he pretends he’s been wandering the ecos for a couple of years. People are suspicious, and others like Randal and the captain believe he’s indeed from the asteroid, where they came from originally, but nobody confronts him for quite some time.

Because of his powers of observation, and due to their suspicions that he is more than he seems, he is invited on a scientific expedition to circumnavigate Lamarckia, which he accepts. Here we are introduced to dozens of characters, all at once, and I had to let my eyes roll over the names, because there were too many, and most of them were irrelevant, having almost no dialog and barely any action. I think the author did it to give life to the ship, but it was distracting, and I had no memory of who was who for that part of the book. The worst part is that it didn’t matter!

Their first stop is Martha’s Island, which had its interesting points. They meet the lone survivor of an older expedition, and she shows them that the Island ecos is dying, withdrawing, and shows them the holes where the queen(s) used to be. She offers them all the pictures and observation journals she and her husband made, and she refuses to come back with them, preferring to die alone on the island that she grew to love. Here they find a replica of a human form, proof that the ecos queen was intelligent, and was trying to make a scion to either replicate humans or to communicate with them.

Leaving Martha’s island, trying to avoid pirate ships, the research vessel is driven into the storm, which is its own ecos. This was by far the most exciting and interesting part of the book, and I was relieved to see it. Unfortunately, after the initial battering of the ship, and almost losing some crew, they go back to scientific observation mode, cataloging the scions. The most interesting part of this was trying to figure out what the scions did. Without bacteria to break down dead matter, it’s the scions that collect it all, and recycle it into the ecos. Some were observing the human ship, while others ignored it completely. Again, probably very true to form, but also made very boring by the author.

In a shocking development, the ship is destroyed, along with its captain, as they hit a mulching wall that fuels the storm. Olmy and a couple of main characters, like Randall, who discovered Olmy, Shirla, the love interest, Salap, the chief researcher, and a jealous colleague survived, and they are picked up by the steam ships they were trying to avoid before they entered the storm. It turns out that these ships were part of a delegation from Lenk to Brion, which they see more as a surrender to the more authoritarian regime across the ocean.

There is a mild love story between Olmy and Shirla, who is another sailor, but doesn’t get promoted like Olmy does. She’s on several missions, and Olmy comes to appreciate her, and though there is a no-sex rule on the ship, they almost make love on Martha’s Island. After their rescue, they do find a corner on Lenk’s steamship and make love there. The romance feels kind of shoe-horned into the botany story, but it did breathe some freshness into it, even though Olmy keeps rejecting her advances, interested though he is.

Arriving at the Hsia ecos, they are imprisoned and then brought to Brion, who takes them to the location of the Hsia queen. After the decades that Lenk and Randall have lived on Lamarckia, and the research that the others have done, they are all amazed at how Brion has managed to tame the ecos. It decontaminates them, feeds them, holds them captive, and probably has other uses, including maintaining a garden of fake grass. It turns out that when Brion’s wife died, he put her inside the silva so that the ecos could absorb her. He’s hoping that the ecos can resurrect the love of his life, but when the body appears, it’s lifeless in the human sense. Brion surrenders, while Salap decides to stay to observe and learn from the queen. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, Hsia has learned to create cellular scions, and is now seeding the ecos, to spread across the world, with the new discovery. All the food, created by Hsia herself, has spoiled, and the creations are turning to limp forms.

In the vacuum created by Brion’s withdrawal, his general Beys takes command, trying to destroy Lenk’s ships so he can take over Lamarckia. Olmy finally takes charge of the situation in Hsia, since there’s nobody else, and he creates a defensive perimeter. This is easy for him, because in the wake of the collapse of the food stores, nobody really wants to fight. This part of the book was chaos, too, and it seemed like it was only there to provide a climax for an anti-climactic book. Olmy makes his way on to Beys’ ship, and while the general threatens to kill Olmy, he gets the truth that Thistledown is not coming to rescue them, and surrenders. Again, very anti-climactic.

In a sort of post-story scene, we learn that Hsia took over all of Lamarckia, and that Olmy outlived not only Shirla, but another wife as well, as they moved south to try and outrun Hsia. Olmy is rescued, but the residents of Lamarckia are not. Olmy is able to report all he has seen to Thistledown, and is restored to his previous life, but with another lifetime of memories.

Life on the station itself fits into a different kind of story. The book opens as Olmy is considering joining some sort of rebellion, but he’s also fought against an alien enemy bent on destroying humans. The Way is a scientific oddity in space that allows people to be transported to other times and places, one of which was where they discovered the aggressive aliens and started a war. The two cultures kind of represent a liberal and semi-religious bent to people living there, and while they live mostly peacefully, there is some tension. Olmy is hiding the AI spirit of the creator of the Way, but nothing is done about that, so I have to assume it will appear in a future novel. Olmy’s friend knows people in high places, and knows that he could be in trouble if he continues to court rebellion, so sends him to Lamarckia to observe Lenk and his followers, who went to the planet illegally and in secrecy. Olmy has all of his special implants removed, because Lenk’s followers would know he wasn’t one of them if he showed up enhanced –because they didn’t believe in technology, we’re told. However, they manage to build cities and ships and all sorts of other things that make them more than a seventeenth-century people. When he gets back, Olmy gets his implants back, but I’m not sure what will happen to him once he’s returned.

I can appreciate the alienness of this world, but the overly-descriptive narrative and lack of character development with what felt like a forced conflict made the book difficult to read. The most important part, I think was the way that Brion introduced the concept of clorophyll, which will eventually transform all of Lamarckia. He did this to try and save his people and his wife, and it backfired on him. Even Beys doesn’t get more than a talking to when he had ordered the massacre in the cities in Lenk’s territory, and the kidnapping of all the children. I can only hope the main story, the writing of which predates this one, is better.


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