Warning: Plot spoilers below…
Names: Just for fun, I picked names that resonated with the role that characters play in the story. Tristan (“sad”) Abbot (“father”). Mara (“bitter”) Chen. Gideon (“one who strikes”) Heward. Ray (“protector”) Gregory (“watchful”). Rafael (“god has healed”) Orosco a.k.a. David (“beloved”) Rosales. Julie (~jewel) Sterlyn (~sterling ~ “genuine, valuable”) Orosco. Darnel (“hidden”) Geire (“vulture”).
Flowers: Julie’s mother is arranging daisies and lavender during a conversation about divorce. Daisies symbolize loyal love. Lavender symbolizes both devotion and mistrust.
Rings: The planet has rings that are cock-eyed rather than girdling the equator. Rafa wears a wedding ring and refuses to take it off, even though he believes divorce is imminent.
Astronomy: “Star-crossed lovers” is reflected in the actual physics described in the book. There’s a binary star system that orbits each other (two lovers). One is blue and far away from the other. Rafa’s planet is surrounded by rings (see comment about ring symbolism). It orbits an orange sun; Rafa can’t break away from his wife, who has red hair. In one scene, two meteors flash right after Rafa mentions his twin daughters. The distance between the planet and home is emblematic of the emotional distance between Rafa and his wife. At the very end of the novel, Julie is described as “backlit by the rising sun and framed by a soaring ring of gold.”
Evil hints: Geire repeatedly lubricates his hands while lying to Julie. Julie is supposed to accept an apple from the hit man who’s trying to kill her.
Marriage: People who love each other might still have misunderstandings that lead to unhappiness and mistrust. But there is hope.
Forgiveness: All human beings are flawed; we make choices that hurt those we love. When we have been hurt, we can still choose to be vulnerable and loving.
Redemption: Even deeply flawed people can make choices that are noble and unselfish.
Faith: Rafa refuses to give up on several occasions. Julie initially believes the straightforward explanation of Rafa’s “crime,” but eventually concludes that this is a faithless surrender. Later, she refuses to believe that Rafa is dead even when all hope appears to be lost. Rafa prays various times–for protection for himself, for a positive outcome for his family, for comfort.
Difficulty of Communication: Aliens (pufferbellies) hear radio broadcasts and attribute meaning to them without fully understanding their function. Humans have a hard time sharing their feelings–and their reticence causes deep difficulty and heartache for others. Julie is able to literally get inside Rafa’s body, and although she immediately recognizes how little she has understood about what life looks and feels like for her husband, she still lacks confidence in his motives. Rafa finds alien writing and struggles to figure out what it means. Rafa says he has a million thoughts and feelings, but can’t put them into words; Julie ponders that same weakness. She thinks about the wealth of meaning behind his inarticulate marriage proposal. The FBI has bugged some broadcasts. A blackmailer uses a a distorter to transform her voice. Julie is a translator and uses her professional contacts for code-breaking. Julie uses an “anonymizer” to communicate without her identity being traceable. Rafa’s implants broadcast on more than one frequency, and people (and aliens) understand him entirely through a lens influenced by which frequency they hear. The power of accurate understanding is demonstrated by Julie’s visceral reactions as Rafa’s true situation and feelings are disclosed, as scientists come to understand the pufferbelly broadcasts, as MEEGO struggles to control the data leakage in their satellites, and so forth. Some of the aliens’ ability to understand Rafa is connected with their own practice of scrambling signals in a way that resembles human cryptography.
Addiction: Many of the vikings are addicted to drugs or have life stories where drugs figure prominently. Chen and Abbott–Rafa’s only “friends” on the crew–have both had their self-respect and relationships destroyed by drugs. Chen is dying because of side effects. The company that hires the vikings mentions that “neural stimulation” can be used as a reward, but that they are legally limited in its use due to its addictive potential. Mild drugs called “tanners” are mentioned multiple times; they artificially change the color of a person’s skin and are considered mostly harmless, though there is some social stigma to using them. An off-hand comment is made about hiring someone to take drugs and record their physiological reactions, then playing them back through vicarious reality “vids” so someone can experience a high without any side effects. Whemper appears to be addicted to pornography. Heward and Compton both show evidence of being addicted to posturing and dysfunctional relationships.
Chen compares Rafa to Hamlet (“Good night, sweet prince”). Later, Rafa alludes to Hamlet’s soliloquy (“by sleep, to say we end the Heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that Flesh is heir to”).
Abbott hums “Amazing Grace.”
Rafa quotes a line from Carl Sandburg’s Death Snips Proud Men (“Death is a nurse mother…”).
Rafa quotes a line from Stephen Crane’s A God in Wrath (“Ah, what a redoubtable god”).
Rafa muses on the difference between Nietzsche’s conclusion (“God is dead”) and Job’s (“I know that my redeemer liveth”), and couches the choice between them in terms of the two roads in Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Later, in a fit of cynicism, he tells himself that none of his choices matter: “less or more traveled, all roads end over the horizon.”
Rafa references Tennyson’s Canto 56 from In Memoriam A. H. H. (“red in tooth and claw”).
Rafa thinks of his death struggle with the crabbies as him getting a “pound of flesh” before he’s through — a reference to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.
Rafa says he “still ha[s] a few fierce tears left,” an allusion to the final stanza of Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.
When Rafa crawls out of the jungle onto the seashore, he describes the sound of the surf as “the cradle, endlessly rocking,” a reference to Out of The Cradle, Endlessly Rocking, by Walt Whitman.
When thinking about what he’d like to say to Julie, Rafa quotes Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXIX: “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.”
The final exchange between Chen and Rafa echoes Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”
The domes of mankind’s new settlement on the planet are described as “brobdingnag beetles” — a reference to the outsized land in Gulliver’s Travels.
Rafa quotes Emily Dickinson to Julie: “Much madness is divinest sense.”