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Monday, August 5, 2013

Reading List: Xenophobia

Cawdron, Peter. Xenophobia. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4905-6823-2.
This is the author's second novel of humanity's first contact with an alien species, but it is not a sequel to his earlier Anomaly (December 2011); the story is completely unrelated, and the nature of the aliens and the way in which the story plays out could not be more different, not only from the earlier novel, but from the vast majority of first contact fiction. To borrow terminology from John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, most tales of first contact are “the happening world”, cutting back and forth between national capitals, military headquarters, scientific institutions, and so on, while this story is all about “tracking with closeups”. Far from the seats of power, most of the story takes place in civil-war-torn Malawi. It works superbly.

Elizabeth Bower is a British doctor working with Médecins Sans Frontières at a hospital in a rural part of the country. Without warning, a U.S. military contingent, operating under the U.N. flag, arrives with orders to evacuate all personnel. Bower refuses to abandon those in her care, and persuades a detachment of Army Rangers to accompany her and the patients to a Red Cross station in Kasungu. During the journey, Bower and the Rangers learn that Western forces are being evacuated world-wide following the announcement that an alien spacecraft is bound for Earth, and military assets are being regrouped in their home countries to defend them.

Bower and the Rangers then undertake the overland trek to the capital of Lilongwe, where they hope to catch an evacuation flight for U.S. Marines still in the city. During the journey, things get seriously weird: the alien mothership, as large as a small country, is seen passing overhead; a multitude of probes rain down and land all around, seemingly on most of the globe; and giant jellyfish-like “floaters” enter the atmosphere and begin to cruise with unfathomable objectives.

Upon arrival at the capital, their problems are not with aliens but with two-legged Terries—rebel forces. They are ambushed, captured, and delivered into the hands of a delusional, megalomaniacal, and sadistic “commander”. Bower and a Ranger who styles himself as “Elvis” are forced into an impossible situation in which their only hope is to make common cause with an alien.

This is a tautly plotted story in which the characters are genuinely fleshed-out and engaging. It does a superb job of sketching the mystery of a first contact situation: where humans and aliens lack the means to communicate all but the most basic concepts and have every reason to distrust each other's motives. As is the case with many independently-published novels, there are a number of copy-editing errors: I noted a total of 26. There also some factual goofs: the Moon's gravity is about 1/6 of that of the Earth, not 1/3; the verbal description of the computation of the Fibonacci sequence is incorrect; the chemical formula for water is given incorrectly; and Lagrange points are described as gravitational hilltops, while the dynamics are better described by thinking of them as valleys. None of these detracts in any way from enjoying the story.

In the latter part of the book, the scale expands at a vertiginous pace from a close-up personal story to sense of wonder on the interstellar scale. There is a scene, reminiscent of one of the most harrowing episodes in the Heinlein juveniles, which I still find chilling when I recall it today (you'll know which one I'm speaking of when you get there), in which the human future is weighed in the balance.

This is a thoroughly satisfying novel which looks at first contact in an entirely different way than any other treatment I've encountered. It will also introduce you to a new meaning of the “tree of life”.

Posted at August 5, 2013 22:39