Illustration by the great Jim Burns.

Triad, 80s oeuvre of Sheila Finch, is unbelievably beautiful. It takes place on an extraordinarily sumptuous alien planet called Chameleon, or Omareemee,  which changes color every time it’s perceived; sometimes it’s described as being awash in bright reds and vermillion, all the plants glistening wet red in the tropical rainfall; other times it’s gray and lavender, the indigenous species’ fur coats undulating softly in gray-mauve-shades, gray grass, purple sky; wet, colored mist, perfumed, dripping with fruit.

There’s a lot going on, all of which deserves due diligence. The story is multi-tiered: it’s about language, reality, sexuality, feminism, colonialism, and machine ethics. An all-female crew from a post-male Earth travels to Chameleon for merchant purposes; the crew’s xenolinguist, Gia, is charged with learning the natives’ language and brokering some kind of trade deal with them. The methods used for this are fascinating — the linguist has a chip implanted in her brain, keeping her in constant contact with the crew computer system, HANA, that mechanically parses all the phonemes and breaks them down into semantic categories, then assigns Gia a battery of psychotropic drugs in order to properly break open her reality:

“Each species of intelligent life in the galaxy learned to limit its perceptions of thr world it inhabited in order to preserve itself from insanity, then petrified those few chosen sensations into language. Once a child was brought up in a language system, it was impossible for her to hold a concept that couldn’t be framed in that language. Therefore…the drugs [were] designed to break down her normally held world view, shatter her illusion of ‘reality,’ eliminate the mechanism by which her mind censored information it considered unimportant according to its preconceived categories of priority.”

Gia literally trips her way through Chameleon, the ground swelling up to meet her feet with each step, a sensuous communion with the natives, who she blurs into, lost in a sea of morphing color, every sound shooting through her brain. She struggles endlessly to comprehend the local language, which seems to operate in a different space-time continuum. They have no past tense, no future tense, no proper nouns, only variations of “we;” she comes to learn that the Omareemeeans exist in the pre-conscious Now, and comprehend themselves only as that which their planet uses to know itself. They have no concept of death, and murder each other thoughtlessly, lovingly, sensing everything as part of a complete and ever-changing whole.

It forms a lush and impossibly alluring worldview when juxtaposed with the crew of humans, who come from an Earth where machine intelligence has been dictating evolutionary development for generations — women self-impregnate and dominate culture, while men are mostly artists, prisoners, peripheral figures. A small men’s liberation movement is currently in bloom, but it is powerless against the steel will of the female hegemony, who hardly deign to touch the opposite sex.

As for the Omareemeeans, they’re groovy. Their language hangs lazily beyond of Gia’s grasp: each word has at least three meanings, only two of which Gia can identify at once, the third lingers unknown, a “carrier wave” pregnant with meaning. The fragments are like poems:

Much of Triad is concerned with Gia’s efforts to understand Omareemeean; it’s easily the most fascinating (and well-researched) aspect of the novel, even held up against the various mutinies and space politics that serve as a backdrop. The pragmatic crew-women, eager to make a trade agreement and colonize Omareemee, insist to Gia that the natives (they call them “Ents” for “entities”) aren’t sentient because they lack self-awareness; the tension is in identifying and defining self-awareness, and trying to understand just how much language molds reality.

There’s the usual colonialist conflicts, too, fear and misunderstanding of the other; the humans are trigger-happy to define the Ents as “sub-human,” but where does that distinction stand anymore in a Universe teeming with various forms of sentient life? What becomes the gold standard of consciousness or worth? It’s all relative, of course: even humans know they’re low on the evolutionary totem pole, as their own trade activities are monitored by yet another higher intelligence, which lurks unseen in the blackness of space.

Meanwhile the Omareemeeans change colors along with their planet, oblivious.

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