Book Review: An Alien Light
by Emma Baillie
Emma Baillie won our Book Review Contest, and here is her entry. I would also like to add that Emma asked that the $500 prize be put to our ongoing fundraiser for RAINN, for which I’m very grateful. Runner-up reviews will be published soon and linked to on the main newsletter. Congratulations to the winners and thank you to everyone who participated.
This review contains spoilers.
This is the city of R’frow. You wish to enter. The gates are in the eastern wall. Go to the eastern wall to be tested for entry.
For years I’ve had Nancy Kress pegged in my mind as "yes she’s a fave, but nobody else has ever heard of her." So it was a surprise to look her up and discover she has a couple of dozen novels, some winning Hugos and Nebulas. They never seem to make it to any book shop near me. If I were to guess, from my sample size of two, it’s because she writes science fiction (niche) about difficult, prickly women (different, incompatible niche) which use the science as a disposable springboard for the main point, human relationships.
An Alien Light is a book about loyalty – who you owe it too, and why, and what difference does it make? The setting is an unnamed world some hundreds of years into the future, on which live two nations descended from a single crashed spaceship. The Jelite are Spartan-inspired, caste-bound, honour-driven, hierarchical. Delysians are mercantile, creative, democratic. Neither city recalls their origins – the world is harsh (we’re not ten pages in before the first time the plant life tries to eat a person) and they have devolved to pre-modern technology.
Into this world come the Ged, setting up a new city and inviting any who wish to come for rich gifts. If this sounds like the sort of invitation the Fae might make before stealing your very soul and enslaving you for a thousand years, that’s about what many of the citizens of Delysia and Jela think too. But the thought is hard to hold on to for the reader, since we see the world first through Ged eyes, as they come to learn about humanity.
It’s a staple of space fiction that humanity is in some way unique among races. Here, the difference lies in human intelligence coupled with violence. For the Ged, genetically uniform, loyal and cooperative, this is the “Central Paradox” – how can a species so violent as to regularly turn against itself reach high technology and make it to the stars without having blown itself up? They need to understand us because away from this isolated corner of the galaxy the Ged are at war with humanity, and losing. With great sympathy for their predicament the book slides almost unnoticed over the implication – they have sought out humans ignorant enough to be manipulated, so they can discover our weaknesses and make themselves safe by destroying us. They are not actually to be trusted.
You chose to enter R’frow. You chose what R'frow can give you instead of choosing gems. You have come to learn, to gain riches, to gain weapons. We will teach you. We will give you riches and weapons. R'frow is our city, the city of the Ged. While you are in our city you will do as we say
Ged for group solidarity – humanity for individualism and violence. The pattern is repeated in the representatives of the two cities who make their way to R’frow. The capitalistic Delysians are much closer to modern social mores than the rigid Jelite, but on the other hand they all have a saying - Jela for loyalty, Delysia for treachery. As with all slogans the simplicity of this analysis disintegrates as we see real people coping with real situations, but this is the starting point, this is how they see themselves.
We see the year in R'frow through the eyes of four human characters. Ayrys, a Delysian artisan exiled for heresy. Three Jelite – Jehane, sister-warrior, Dahar, brother-warrior and healer, and Susu, a whore. The primary story is worked through between the female characters – the men function mostly as their necessary infrastructure. If this is a literary flaw it’s the opposite of the most common one, and I'm happy to forgive it. The only man in the book to be allowed character development is Dahar, Ayrys' fellow scientist and eventual lover, and even he tends to go through a parallel journey to Ayrys herself, half a step behind.
Shut your eyes and put your hand out in any bookstore or library and you’re likely to come away with a protagonist working out their character development through their marriage, relationship or love life. What I value about An Alien Light is that it doesn't do this. Ayrys and Jehane are the bedrock of the story and though they do both have their own intimate relationships which are important to them, that's not what the book is about. Its focus is their two clashing worldviews which seem at first to be utterly incompatible.
' "We stand on the same blade" ' the girl snarled, hatred in every word of the formal oath ' "bound in – " Stand up, Delysian whore! "We stand on the same blade, bound in the honour of life itself. What is freely given must be freely returned. None but children may accept as a right the strength of others without return, lest it weaken their own strength and they become cripples in life. None may choose to offer their own strength in bargain, lest they put life at the service of clay. What is freely given must be freely returned." Now name your return, you shit-licking kreedog.'
Jehane – young, self-disciplined and loyal - is the ideal warrior. A bond is formed between herself and Ayrys when Ayrys saves her life on the journey to R'frow, a bond she detests. Ayrys is everything Jehane despises – physically weak, intellectually complex, frequently self-destructive and outcast from her own people. Their short journey together is the first appearance of the test which comes back to Jehane again and again: can your loyalty to your people truly override all individual relationships all the time? Isn't it right to have personal bonds too?
Ayrys is a person who knows all about individual loyalty. Every time she forms a personal bond, she keeps it. Right from the start she's invested in Jehane's welfare, though she knows perfectly well that Jehane despises her as a "Delysian whore." Throughout the book her relationships show a similar pattern – she continually reaches out to people in need, outcasts, the isolated. This makes her sound like a bit of a plaster saint but she has problems too – she's constantly in her own head, she can't march to the same music as her community and, as those around her frequently dislike and distrust her, she has come to dislike herself
Jehane is constantly faced with choices between individual loyalty over her group – when she forgives her lover Talot for her deviations from Jelite loyalty, when she foolishly advises Talot to break her own loyalty to a former lover, when the despised Ayrys is endangered by Jehane's own people. Ayrys, on the other hand, is never touched by the reverse choice. As the Ged approach a faint, tentative understanding of how human group loyalty works, and attempt to form a new group loyalty on the basis of knowledge and science, Ayrys is the one who is barely tempted, though her own passion for knowledge is at least the equal of anyone else in the book. She is at the centre of the shifting loyalties inside the city, which are easy and intuitive to understand, until we reach the passages where the Ged are centred, and we are invited to look at them with outside logic. Why would a person help another in defiance of their own people, whom they depend on for survival? What do they gain? If this seems natural and noble to us, is this just because we are genetically and constitutionally illogical?
The human relationships in this book are rich and subtle, and make sense in a way that is almost perverse when the regular "alien eyes" views force us to confront the fact that we probably couldn't explain this sense logically to someone who didn't already have it. The science, on the other hand, is terrible. Nobody should read this book for the science. A central feature of the Ged ordering of human lives in R'frow is the regular “Teaching of Knowledge” sessions, which go through a mixture of high school standard science experiments and the display of futuristic indistinguishable-from-magic unobtanium-based technologies. This is fine as far as it goes – the denouement in which Ayrys and Dahar use their newfound scientific understanding to figure out the cure to the mysterious plague which ravages the city in its final weeks is really not. This part made me want to pick up the book and shake it with a loud “Science does not progress by random guessing!,” and everyone's confidence that the two have found the right answer even before they actually try it is bizarre. Ayrys' random correct guess that the Ged lighting system doubles as CCTV falls into the same kind of category, particularly as there's no special reason for a highly advanced technology not to simply have tiny near-invisible cameras in its toolkit.
There are also a small but key set of pragmatically unbelievable scenes, mostly involving Susu, who can be made to take random plot-relevant actions on the basis that she's not entirely sane. A within-her-head reason can always be constructed to get Susu to move necessary objects from place to place that won't be moved any other way. Susu is a great character, and I love the peeks inside her tormented head, but she is used very instrumentally.
The book ends with Ayrys’ commitment to individual loyalty apparently vindicated – it allows her to draw together a disparate set of allies who put forth extraordinary effort to escape the city in its final violent upheavals, though they have nothing in common except for the bonds that she created. On the other hand, Ayrys is individualistic, odd, introverted, curious – what does this remind me of? A science-fiction reader. Although she's no Mary-Sue, the whole book is written for an implied collection of Ayrys’s – of course we're likely to conclude that her path was the right one. Looked at dispassionately she ends up still an exile from her own city, having lost the illusory promise of life among the Ged, and with only one faint clue as to where she might go to find a people to take her in. Dahar's situation is even worse, since he began the book as a member in good standing of his own people. Susu at least gets the consolation prize of not already being dead of a terrible disease. Looked at dispassionately, it's really Jehane who is vindicated. Her simple unyielding loyalty to her upbringing has managed to bring her through all tests, and though the boundaries of her loyalty have stretched and been made flexible to the point where she can conceive of something other than Jela first last and only, she still knows who she is. She's not smart, but she doesn't have to be. She is still a loyal and valued member of her own people and it would be hard to justify any way in which her decisions were wrong or inadequate.
Author Jo Walton once said that the pleasure of rereading books is that you get to spend time again with the characters you loved the first time around. I reread An Alien Light to spend time with Jehane, although in real life she'd kick my butt eleven ways before breakfast. But if I wanted to know about me, I have a life of my own that I can use for that – fiction lets us into the worlds of people who are not-us, and that's what it's all about, isn’t it?