Fourteen year old Pella Marsh and her two younger brothers move with their failed politician father to a new planet following the death of their mother.
The planet is populated by small groups of human settlers, and one human city, as well as by its original occupants the Arch-Builders and the household deer, the former of whom can speak English, and the latter of which are almost ghostly and hard to notice.
The humans take pills to ward off a change related to the Arch-Builders that comes on with puberty, but Pella’s father doesn’t want his children to take the medication, curious to see what will happen.
Thinking that perhaps his political experience will be useful, Pella’s father settles the family into a small outpost community where, despite seeming friendliness, suspicion is more the norm. Pella soon begins to experience some unusual symptoms, and is disturbed by the leading questions and knowing looks from one of the less than pleasant men in the community.
Misunderstandings between species are inevitable, and Lethem’s tale of human interaction with each other and with an alien culture is ultimately unsurprisingly dark.