The Bird Shaman

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 29, 2008

More than a quarter-century ago, aliens arrived at Earth and sought to save humanity from itself by imposing a "baby ban," blocking most humans' ability to reproduce.

Now, with only a few fertile couples left in the world and children a scarcity, the bulk of the world's human populace are beginning to despair that they will ever be allowed to produce offspring of their own. But the aliens are implacable, and their requirements for lifting the ban are non-negotiable: either human beings learn to live in harmony with their planet's eco-systems, or they will be eradicated through time and attrition, with the end result being the restoration of the Earth's natural biological balance.

The point of contact between aliens and humans are the Gaians, specially trained to "live into" and in harmony with, parcels of land. The Gaians are a cross between farmers and scientists: they live decidedly simple, low-tech lives, but they also pursue scientific disciplines, sometimes using alien technology so advanced that they are able to use time transceivers to observe, and even communicate with, people from the distant past.

Pam Pruitt is one of these Gaians, and by studying how hunter-gatherer cultures transitioned long ago into agricultural societies, she hopes to define the "crux," the transitory moment when human beings were able to both secure their supply of food and yet still live in balance with the rest of the ecosystem.

But the world at large resists a return to a simpler way of life, and the global tensions that are now coming to a crisis point mirror Pam's own internal struggles as she seeks to strike a balance between her abusive family history and the demands of her own heart, attracted above all others to her best friend and former lover, a gay man named Liam.

Even as Humanity faces the news that the aliens, losing patience, have decided to give the people of earth one final year to amend their ways and earn back their right to reproduce freely, Pam becomes the guardian to one of the planet's few children, a Mormon girl who has survived abuse at the hands of her own grandfather. Learning to care for the personal even in the face of global peril, pam begins to tap into a surprising ability to discern hidden truths through lucid dreaming, and discovers that her lifelong process of learning to live as one with the natural world has unlocked a talent long lost to the human race: an ability to transcend the physical plane and seek healing in a higher realm, a place once visited regularly by the shamans of tribal societies.

Will Pam be able to focus her mind and bring her own conflicting desires and impulses into alignment in order to discover a compelling truth that might save the human race? Or have the aliens already made up their minds and set a secret plan into motion that will rescue the earth's remaining natural habitats, but reduce the human population to a tiny fraction of its teeming billions?

This book is the long-awaited third installment in a trilogy that also includes the novels The Ragged World and Time, Like An Ever-Rolling Stream. It's not necessary to be familiar with the previous books to enjoy The Bird Shaman; author Judith Moffett works all the background relevant to the story at hand into the course of the narrative, creating a seamless and complete novel that stands alone quite nicely.

Part of the reason this book succeeds so well as its own work comes from how well Moffett allows the tenets of her story to guide the character and the parameters of the world she builds, a place characterized by horse-drawn carriages as well as by exotic technological advances. In the process, Moffett explores the equally alien worlds of the extraterrestrials who rule earth with a heavy guiding hand, and the vanished tribes of indigenous Americans whose rock art provide the only clue to the visions that may have given cultures long vanished a glimpse at humanity's dubious future.

At the book's core are hard, perhaps insoluble, puzzles that involve the very nature of sustainable living and the hard-wired human responses and desires that make harmonious co-existence with nature so hard for us to achieve.

Moffett is true to her female protagonist, as well, viewing the other characters almost exlusively from Pam's point of view. Liam is selfish and demanding, but that's not what breaks Pam's heart; rather, it's the knowledge that the one person Liam truly loves--Jeff, long dead--can never be dislodged from Liam's heart, not by Liam's current partner Eddie, and surely never by Pam herself.

Though this is not primarily a GLBT-focused book, Moffett intelligently and sensitively explores a theme that many GLBT readers will identify with--that of family, both in the biological "family of origin" sense and the adoptive "found family" model that allows GLBT individuals (like so many heterosexuals who assemble "blended families") to create familial networks of connection and support for themselves. Like many of us, Pam wrestles with two very distinct needs: self-reliance and loneliness, a wish to be left with her solitude and a wish to escape it in the arms of an intimately beloved other.

The book features long passages about classical poetry and scholarly digressions regarding ancient rock art; these sections of the novel slow down the narrative momentum, but they add another layer of meaning at the same time. In retrospect, the book as a whole is a multi-faceted work that draws together threads from a variety of scientific and artistic realms; this is the sort of story you don't just read--you have to soak in it and soak it up, following Moffett far afield and back again to get the full range and depth of her message.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.