Remnant Population

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Remnant Population
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
AuthorElizabeth Moon
CountryUnited States
GenreScience fiction novel
PublisherBaen Books
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages339 pp
813/.54 20
LC ClassPS3563.O557 R46 1996

Remnant Population is a 1996 science fiction novel by American writer Elizabeth Moon. The story revolves around an old woman who decides to remain behind on a colony world after the company who sent her there pulls out. It was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1997.


The story is set on a colony identified as "Sims Bancorp Colony." No further information regarding name is given about the planet on which the colony resides. At the time of the narrative the town/village that the narrative centres on is the only human habitation on the planet.


The colony was established by the Sims Bancorp Company approximately forty years prior to the narrative.

The purpose of the original colony is mentioned obliquely in the narrative as the harvest of tropical timber.

Reasons for colony failure[edit]

The colony was poorly sited both on the flood plain of a local river and in close proximity to a coastline frequently visited by tropical storms that made the flooding from the local river worse. Any suggestion to move the colony were regarded as close to heresy, assuming anyone was even brave enough to suggest it in the first place.

The colonists were poorly trained/educated, while at the same time taught to distrust innovation change and inventiveness. It is possible they came from a culture where this distrust was already ingrained. The end result was a death rate that exceeded, or closely matched, the birth rate. The colony did not flourish or grow, and remained largely static.

When anyone tried to give instruction/help in solving a problem, they had to be very careful to avoid being accused of possessing "specialist knowledge," or suggesting that "they could do it without help."

Some years before the narrative Sims Bancorp brought in a new, young, female medic (with the presumed intention of trying to reverse the negative/static population growth). This medic suggested raising the age at which girls were expected/permitted to get married. The reason for this suggestion is not given but can be easily inferred... This suggested change to "custom" met with such resistance that the medic was found dead from a knife wound shortly before her 5-year tour of duty ended.

During one of the frequent floods the colony was subjected to the boats used to cross the river were washed away and/or destroyed. No one had been trained in boat building and the "fabricator" was unable to produce boats. The idea of building new boats to replace those lost ones was foreign to the colonists. So from that point on the colonists just gave up on trying to cross the river. Why they needed to cross the river is not stated, it is just given as a further example as to the colonists lack of innovation.

In the end the "authorities" revoked the franchise that had been awarded to Sims Bancorp, presumably because the colony failed to grow and expand.

The above examples are disclosed to the reader in the form of "reminiscing" by the protagonist during the course of the book


The narrative concentrates on Ofelia Falfurrias. Ofelia's age is not given. It is stated that she and her husband spend "some time" undergoing training/education before being accepted as colonists after they get married. They might have married at 18 and spend 2 years in training, or got married at 20 and spent 5 years in training. Exact numbers are not given, however she references herself as nearly eighty years old during a self-appraisal in the mirror. All one needs to know is that she is "Grandmother" age by the time the narrative starts.

Plot summary[edit]

The narrative starts when Sims Bancorp has lost the franchise to run a colony on the unnamed planet after 40 years, and the colonists are informed of this..

The colonists are informed that Sims Bancorp has lost the franchise, and that they are to be forcibly relocated to another colony. The colonists are given no say as to the time table for the evacuation, nor their destination, and are told to pack, and get ready to leave, and that is it.

Ofelia realises that at her age she is effectively non-productive, and is also told this by one of the "company reps." The cost of her relocation will be charged to her family, with whom she does not get on that well. She also knows that her chance of surviving the extended (30 years +) journey in "cold sleep" are poor, at best. She also has spent the best years (and most of her years) on the planet, burying her husband, and a number of children. Basically she does not wish to leave, and knows that if she does she will never arrive at the destination. When the time comes for her to be evacuated she runs off and hides. Due to her age, and the deadline the evacuation ship and crew have to meet, the crew of the evacuation ship fake the record and show her as evacuated, knowing that they can record her as "deceased in transit." Due to her age this will be believed, and not investigated. (Again, this is not explicitly stated, but later on no one knows how she got there, as everyone was evacuated according to "official records," yet we know she was left behind.)

Ofelia now finds herself in a position she has never been in before. She can do as she wishes, when she wishes, without censure. She re-activates the bio-power plant that serves the village. With electricity, and the small kitchen gardens next to her cottage and others, she knows she will be able to meet her needs for many years to come. She is also helped as the departing colonists left behind large quantities of preserved food which she collects up and stores in the central administration building. She takes care of maintenance of the colony, as best she can, happy with the idea she will live out the rest of her life undisturbed, with all her needs met.

Some time (perhaps years?? Again not stated) later her peace is disturbed. While in the communications centre of the colony perusing the colony logs she picks up a radio transmission. She quickly realises this transmission is from a ship or ships in orbit preparing to land new colonists who will set up a new colony. Knowing her peace will soon be interrupted she listens in to the transmissions as the ships prepare, and then launch, landing craft.

Initially the landing of the new colony goes according to plan, automated machinery/robots clear the ground and create a landing grid (runway) for the rest of the craft carrying the colonists. The following day the new colonists start to arrive and build the new colony. Then things take an unexpected turn. The arriving colonists are attacked by a local life-form. One landing craft on the ground is hit by an explosive device, and the landing grid on which it is sitting is damaged. The colony ship in orbit is unable to assist. The landing grid is damaged, so rescue attempts can not be made after night fall, and in any event the colony ship has no military personnel or weapons to fight back with.

By the following morning all the colonists have been killed. The orbiting ship is unwilling to send more landing craft in the face of resistance from potentially intelligent natives, even if they could. Further landing attempts cannot be made as the only craft left to them require a landing grid, and the machinery/robots needed to build one have already made planet fall and been destroyed. They have no choice but to return to base, and inform the relevant authorities and let these authorities sort out the situation. Ofelia knows that FTL (Faster-than-light) ships will soon arrive to investigate, as the authorities can afford such technology. For colonising planets the companies prefer a cheaper, if slower, sub-light transit. As she is as much in the dark about what happened as the colony ships she returns home, and continues in her peaceful life, knowing that she can do nothing.

At the aborted landing site the aboriginal inhabitants of the planet discuss the events, the arrival of the ships, and the fight to repel the invaders.

It is remembered by some of the natives that about 40 years ago similar signs in the sky were seen (contrails of shuttle) but as the area the signs originated from were many days (Weeks?) travel to the south, about 1,000 kilometres, in an area not inhabited by the natives, and nothing came of it to affect "the people" it was soon put out of mind. Now, however, the events of 40 years ago are relevant. A number of the indigenous population decide to go and investigate the area the last landing took place. This group travel to the site of the original colony, and investigate the village found, and start to observe Ofelia.

By this time Ofelia has made for herself a cloak that, quite by chance, draws on the folk lore and instincts of the natives. They see her as what she is, a Grandmother. Or in their own terms a "Nest Guardian". I.E. one who is too old to breed, and so devotes her time to caring for the young of others, both guarding them and seeing to their education . In the society of the natives Nest Guardians are sacred, and so Ofelia is safe from attack, and if anything is revered by the natives. They learn from her, as she learns from them, and it soon becomes apparent to her that they are fully sapient, and very, very, intelligent, from a very young age. One of the natives gives birth, and Ofelia takes up the position expected of her as "Nest Guardian" to the 3 newborns.

Then the FTL ships arrive (an unspecified length of time later) carrying Specialists in Xeno contact. They scan the planet surface, and see what the previous assay of the planet missed- Cities along several coastlines & large groups of nomadic hunters on the plains. They then land and start to study the natives. The specialists are highly sceptical of Ofelia's claims as to the natives intelligence and self-awareness, and dismissive of her in general as they see her as a poorly educated senile old lady.

They admit without realising it that their training is all theory, as no non-human intelligent life has ever been discovered.

Some time later the natives disclose to Ofelia the reason for their attack on the new colony. The landing ships picked a breeding site to land on (in Human terms, they landed on a combination of maternity ward and crèche), many nests were destroyed, Nest Guardians and young were killed. All the tribes of 'the people' (the natives name for themselves) in that area united against the attack on their nests, as nests and Nest Guardians are sacred. They viewed the attackers (the colony landing ships) as nothing more than mindless animals to be exterminated without quarter. After all, any intelligent creature would have seen and recognised the markers that designated the area as a breeding site, safe from attack.

The natives are not interested in dealing with the specialists. Ofelia is their Nest Guardian, and only Nest Guardians can negotiate and make treaties with the Nest Guardians of other tribes. The newcomers, the specialists, are of a differing tribe, and as a result the people cannot deal with them. Ofelia, being a Nest Guardian for both the people and the Humans, is able to negotiate on behalf of both sides. The specialists have a hard time believing this, let alone coming to terms with it and working with it. As a result, an altercation between the natives and a member of the investigating team takes place. One member of the team attacks one of the young natives, and attempts to strangle it, and is killed by the hunters in the group, an act that is seen by the rest of the group, both human and native, as "justified lethal force". As the deceased member of the human team was the one who most strongly resisted granting the natives rights, the remaining team members recognise the intelligence of the natives of the planet, and decide that conflict is best avoided. They note that the pace at which the natives are progressing technologically far exceeds that of the human society. One team member even notes that while it may take thousands of years to arrive at working space flight from scratch, it might be considerably quicker if you know it's possible from the start, and estimates the natives will have space travel in under 100 years, given the fact they have now electricity (from the power plant), and have working, if damaged, space ships to copy. It is realised that the only way to avoid conflict with the natives is either to make friends with them or to exterminate them totally.

A program is set up to recruit nest Guardians from within the OAP human population on all human planets, so that the natives and humans grow together as partners.

The narrative closes with the death of Ofelia, who "did not die alone, as she expected, but did die with a smile on her face." .