Review: Serpent’s Reach, by C.J. Cherryh

In our galaxy, in a future far far away humans have happened upon a strange race, a hive mind. Only one Family is accepted, out of the trading families plying the heavens with their barges, but once accepted the human Alliance puts the whole area under quarantine. Thus isolated humanity develops in a carefully balanced symbiosis with their hosts. When we enter the story 700 years later the social and economic inter-species contracts are just about to crack…

Signature Cherryh, if I may say so, and even if it is an old one (first published in 1980) it is suitably disturbing in its challenge of what, really, is humanness, and what do happen when you isolate a group – deprive it of outside contact, of outside impulses; put humanity in a Petri dish, set aside for X time, and see what happens… and as usual with Cherryh the result she imagines is highly probable. Which makes it even the more uncomfortable.

Seen from a 2012 perspective Serpent’s Reach bear likeness enough to Forty Thousand in Gehenna (first published in 1983) to be  a preliminary sketch, a study in preparation for a more elaborate – and much scarier – tale but despite that it stands well in its own right.

I would not recommend Serpent’s Reach as an entry point to the Alliance-Union books – my personal favourites remain the Company Wars books, and Cyteen. All those tell enough to make some of the implicit background add an extra layer to the other books set in that Universe.

Still, a good read and definitely on I’d recommend.

Embassytown, by China Miéville

Even as the basic premise of Miéville’s Embassytown is unbelievable I am glad that I decided to read the book, because one of the things that can make science fiction a rewarding genre to read is how exploration of a totally off concept can result in something fascinating.

In Embassytown Miéville takes the common sciencefictional idea of a humanity evolved so far out in space and time that the planet Earth is but an idea, so far way to be lost, spatially. He then takes a shard of this humanity and places it on a distant border, holed up in a precious balancing act with a species that doesn’t communicate in any way that makes sense to this humanity.

Can a species evolve and become advanced while at the same time lack the ability to talk about and imagine future? Isn’t the idea of “future” predicated on an ability to understand there’s a “past”? Can a species that can’t imagine or talk about what doesn’t exist even develop in any meaningful way? Isn’t that one of the things that has made humanity kings of this planet (excepting weather and other natural forces, but please don’t get picky here, OK)?

And what happens when such a people encounter a species who do talk about and imagine the unbelievable?

Highly imaginative, evoking thought, Embassytown is a book I would recommend to anyone who enjoy intellectual acrobatics, challenging set ideas. Even if it took about a month to et to the point where this review could actually get written ;-)

Review: Voyager in Night, by C.J. Cherryh

Though a slim volume – by modern standards – Cherryh‘s Voyager in Night took some time to get through. The reason is this is no light and easy read. Despite it’s outer trappings – a group of young people trying to establish themselves stumbles on a first contact situation with a very alien alien – and a truly cheesy cover this is a book about how we face the other and about individual identity and about what makes us Human.

Siblings Rafe and Jillan, with Jillan’s husband Paul, have invested all their savings (mainly Paul’s inheritance, as the Rafe and Jillan is more or less destitute) in a run-down insystemer ship. They’ve just started off their new lives, in a new part of space, when an alien megaship comes crashing in. Their small ship gets swept up by the alien, entangling them in an esoteric and strange struggle for power.

The multiple character story can be very confusing, as it’s hard to keep track of who’s who – normally I don’t have that kind of problem but in this case very little distinguishes the individuals, if indeed they are individuals. But if you persist in your reading you will, in the case of Voyager in Night, reap a considerable reward. So, despite the cons I’d definitely recommend this book. At least if you’re an SF reader.

Unalien aliens

Picking on aliens not alien enough is a common pastime among people with a bone to chew when it comes to science fiction. Certainly not the last, but the most recent (that I know of) is Neil deGrasse Tyson, who just like all the others think aliens have to lack faces, an even set of limbs, etc, to be alien enough to qualify as aliens.

My problem with this is most of the film or book alien aren’t there as true aliens. Anyone thinking that doesn’t understand the basic premise of science fiction. At all.

True, some aliens are there to be 1000% ALIEN. Alien (the film) itself is a point in case. The Crystalline Entity, of Star Trek fame, is another. But they are fairly few, and in most cases they are symbols of Evil, or at the very least the truly undecipherable. But the wast majority are humanoid, seductively similar to us. And the ‘seductively’ part is the important one. Because it is in the way the ALMOST like us actually differ, and how we handle this, that forms the backbone of many a science fiction story. And in this it isn’t a story about foreign planets and peoples, but about us – humanity – and how we handle change, and how we interact /or not/ with people different from ourselves. Science fiction in this sense is a looking glass or a mirror, reflecting our own behaviours and customs, forming an arena for inspection and criticism, for questioning certain behaviours and world-views.

In these stories the aliens has to be reasonably humanoid or the point of it all is lost, or at least buried deep enough for it not to get through to the majority of the readers/viewers.

In this light it is totally reasonable for the atevi (Foreigner/Cherryh) to be humanoid in general appearance, just like the mri (Faded Sun/Cherryh), or the ferengi or the klingon or the andorians (Star Trek) or the Na’vi (Avatar). Just to name a few.

Picking on unalien aliens is thus so far besides the point a gas giant can pass through the resulting void. If doing it makes you happy – please continue, but don’t expect to be taken seriously by anyone.