M. Shayne Bell's
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Review of M. Shayne Bell's Nicoji


Nicoji (Baen, 1991) is about Sam and Jake, two young men from Idaho who lose their agricultural jobs in Idaho and sign on to work off-planet harvesting "nicoji," a shrimp-like delicacy. In a not-too-distant future in which corporations wield immense, mostly unchecked power and employees are becoming more like indentured servants, the American Nicoji company that employs Sam and Jake is little better than a slavery-era Southern cotton plantation. The company cheats its employees, charges fees and extracts fines at every turn, and offers little hope for even earning enough money to pay for the return passage home, much less enough money to pay for college, which is all Sam and Jake really wanted to do.

When Sam and Jake hear about a new, competing company setting up operations across the bayou from their own, they consider leaving American Nicoji to seek work at the new place. When American Nicoji reacts to the presence of the new company by implanting homing transponders into the arms of all employees, and by having Sam and Jake beaten after they try to resist receiving the implants, Sam and Jake finally decide to leave.

The bulk of the book details the days of Sam and Jake's journey by raft across the never-before-explored bayou between the American Nicoji company town and the new company's establishment many kilometers away. They are accompanied by about a dozen "help," the monkey-like indigenous species which the human workers have trained to do simple tasks associated with nicoji harvesting. Many help have learned rudimentary English, and there is an ongoing debate about whether they are sentient or simply immitative.

When Sam is poisoned early in their journey, Jake must shoulder the responsibility of getting them both across the bayou, as well as keeping Sam alive until they can hopefully find a real doctor at the new company town. Along the way Jake learns a great deal about the planet, the help, and himself.

Who Should Read Nicoji ?

M. Shayne Bell is a talented, accomplished writer. Although Nicoji was his first novel, he has published dozens of short stories, including widely-read stories in three "Star Wars" anthologies. Algis Budrys called Nicoji "a well thought out, enjoyable science fiction novel" and said that Bell is "clearly... a born storyteller." Orson Scott Card loved it. Nicoji may not be particularly well known, and its science fiction concepts may not have been earth-shatteringly different, but it is a distinctive, unusually well-written novel by a very polished author.

Nicoji is definitely not space opera. Anyone who enjoys both thematically "literary" science fiction (such as by Delaney, Wolfe), yet also prefers an extremely clear writing style (like that of Asimov, Card, etc), will certainly want to read Nicoji.

Fans of "pastoral science fiction," such as many works by Clifford Simak (including Way Station and City), Zenna Henderson's "People" stories, or Panshin's Rite of Passage will probably like Nicoji, although the world Bell depicts is at times so frightening this novel may be best sub-classified as "dark pastoral." Nicoji is not overtly religious, but it exhibits an ethical/moral worldview. Given the background of the author and main character, fans of well-written Christian/Latter-day Saint science fiction may be particularly interested in Nicoji. Buddhism and Brazilian Macumba are utilized within the plot. Also, readers interested in such topics as corporate despotism, non-human sentience, exotic ecosystems, and otherworldly agriculture will want to check it out. Idahoans may wish to take note: Nicoji is rare in that its two main characters are from Idaho, and their regional background plays a strong part in their memories and personalities as depicted in the novel. The author is from Idaho as well.

Nicoji has no vulgar language, profanity, illicit drug use, racism or explicit sex. There are some depictions of violence, but these are almost entirely from conflicts with nature: descriptions of how various animals can be dangerous to people. The most graphic scenes are essentially descriptions of mild field surgery (tooth pulling without anaesthetic, removing a transponder implant from wrist). Short in length and essentially free of offensive material, Nicoji is appropriate for teen/young adult readers as well as its target adult audience. The main character, Jake, is a principled but very realistic character. Young readers who like science fiction or adventure fiction will find the novel enjoyable and understandable.


This tale of two simple folk on a journey by raft evokes Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but that basic plot element is not the only similarity between the two novels. Nicoji also asks what it means to be human by exploring the differences between races. In this case Sam and Jake are from essentially identical background, so the differences explored are between humans and the indigenous help which everybody assumes are sub-human, despite increasing evidence to the contrary.

Nicoji is very different from Huckleberry Finn, however. Both are enjoyable, absorbing, thought-provoking novels, but Nicoji is nearly always very serious in tone. It isn't satire, and it is often horrific rather than humorous. There are two hilarious scenes, however. One funny scene involves Jake's struggle with a Coke machine. The other happens when Sam is hallucinating because of the poison from a swamp animal, and he decides to follow Buddha by throwing their energy guns in the swamp, saying they shouldn't kill any living things, including the trees which they need to use the guns to cut through.

When compared to many of science fiction's planet-hopping, eon-spanning epics, Nicoji may seem like a "small" novel. It is, in fact, relatively short -- a 240-page paperback. But it's not "small"; it's "high-resolution." Bell focuses his ever-observant narrative microscope onto a tiny parcel of fiction just a few days long and dozens of kilometers across. The result is a detailed but page-turning look at all the layers of reality so often skirted around by "grander" but less thoughtful s.f. yarns. Every aspect of life in a completely alien, unfamiliar environment is examined: what Sam and Jake will eat, how they'll treat their wounds, how they'll protect themselves from the weather and insects, etc.

Nicoji is a very unusual book about very common people. In fact, one of the things that makes this book so unusual is the uncompromised commonality of its protagonist. Unlike some science fiction novels about the common man, Jake doesn't become a just vehicle for the author's fantasies or philosophies. He doesn't gain fantastic abilities, hidden wisdom, or political power. He grows and learns some things, but in a very human way.

"Protagonist" is the best way to refer to the book's main character Jake. He's not really not a "hero" in a classical sense, and he's certainly not an all-too-trendy anti-hero. Nor are any of the other characters. Even the "bad guys," if there are any, are simply corporate types doing their jobs. If they are reprehensible, they are no more or less so than people you've encountered when dealing with HMOs or litigation-minded lawyers. There are no caricatures, no aliens or humans who are evil for the sake of being evil.

The people who populate the pages of Nicoji are so realistic and human, in fact, that one suspects they were all based on people Bell really knows. This isn't so unusual. What's unusual is Bell's ability to capture with such clarity and economy the essence of real people, and make them so fascinating, even in their familiarity.

All of this might sound like the recipe for rather boring science fiction, but it's not. Nicoji is very interesting and very literary fiction, by an author well-versed in mainstream fiction and literary criticism. Nicoji combines a contemporary author's realistic characters and themes with a compelling, completely unique alien environment. The newly inhabited planet that Jake and Sam travel through by raft is the primary "antagonist." The planet is so richly described and so densely populated with bizarre but believable wildlife that it becomes almost a character itself, second only to Jake in the level to which it is explored and developed.

Jake's struggle to survive in the planet's living, unforgiving ecosystem form the primary source of conflict in the novel. Yet the protection of that selfsame environment and its native species becomes a need, even a sort of salvation, for Jake. A distinctly Western American environmental ethic is evidenced -- but subtly, surprisingly, without manipulation. This humanistic deep ecology, combined with the novel's deeply embedded Christian undercurrent make the understated outlook of Nicoji a sort of hybrid philosophy -- C.S. Lewis crossed with Terry Tempest Williams.

Surface similarities to Huckleberry Finn were mentioned earlier, but "The Wizard of Oz" (based on Baum's children's novel) is actually evoked more than Twain. Dorothy, Toto and ruby slippers are literally the specific subjects of Sam and Jake's poison-induced hallucinations. This is a tip-of-the-hat by Bell to the way in which Nicoji touches on the two complimentary yet contradictory themes of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road to the Glorious Wizard" and "There's No Place Like Home." Sam and Jake's journey is also likened to that taken by their Swiss pioneer ancestors on their way to find Zion in the American West. In the end, Sam, Jake, and the indigenous help have all "found Zion," but in ways completely different than they had hoped.

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Web page created 30 May 2000. Last modified 8 August 2000.