It's the year 2712, and Earth has become practically unrecognizable as the hospitable, beautiful planet it once was. The planet is greatly overpopulated -- so much so that its inhabitants are forced to wear non-descript robes and veils each time they venture out in public. This cuts down on the violence that comes from so many people living in close quarters. The landscape itself has been destroyed; all that remains of old forests, lost rivers and beautiful prairies are "vista-reps" -– computerized representations akin to paintings but complete with sounds and smells. Even human interaction is limited. No one may come into contact with anyone else unless there's a contract that specifies their identity, their intentions, and what the outcome is to be. This kind of contract applies to every kind of interaction -– from working relationships to more intimate affiliations.
Jewel Delis is an "arkist," one who works to secure safe habitat for the few animals remaining on Earth. At a time when resources are scarce, a new organization is formed: IGI-HFO - In God's Image, Humans First and Only. The members of this group are calling for all animals to be destroyed, as they are taking up precious space and resources from those who really deserve them: humans.
When Jewel comes across an opportunity to follow her linguist brother, Paul, to the planet Moss, she eagerly agrees, seeing this as a wonderful way to rescue some of the dogs that are certain to be destroyed if they remain on Earth. And these aren't just your typical dogs. They've been enhanced with alien technology to make them smarter and help them lead longer lives. To a limited degree, they even have the ability to speak. But the planet Moss has its own mysteries that must be solved before humans and dogs can turn it into their new home. The mysterious flame-like inhabitants of the planet seem to be reaching out to the newcomers, but can Paul decipher their language? Is there more to Moss than an abundance of plant life?
Sheri S. Tepper has written a richly engrossing futuristic novel. In The Companions, she explores issues relevant to humanity today such as overpopulation, communication with other cultures, and animal rights, to name only a few. One of the most interesting themes raised in this novel is the idea of human superiority. Are we better than plants, animals and perhaps other alien cultures? Many people believe so, and a religious approach is often quoted to defend this viewpoint: man was created in God's image. Tepper explores the possibility of pushing this idea too far, and she portrays a futuristic human society that seems bent on destroying life if it doesn't conform to humanity's expectations.
Writing mostly from the first-person perspective, Tepper allows the novel's heroine, Jewel, to offer an insider's deeply personal viewpoint into her society. Contrasted with humanity are many other alien races, all richly depicted through Tepper's skill at characterization and world-building. Each alien race is described in detail, given a unique culture, language, and motivations.
The Companions is at its heart a novel about humanity. It's deeply engrossing, and at times very emotional: a must-read for science fiction fans with an interest in exploring alien races, cultural differences and the future of humanity as a whole.