Monday, May 27, 2013

First Contact and Nightfall

S.G. Redling, Damocles

When the crew of the human exploratory vessel Damocles settles over the planet Didet, they think they have a years-long observe-and-report mission ahead. But mechanical failure forces an emergency landing for which neither the humans nor the Dideto are prepared. Suddenly, a beach drenched in eternal sunlight plays host to negotiations that will change two species forever.

Redling’s second novel, and first out-and-out science fiction, blatantly combines elements of Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood with Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall” to create a cerebral journey sci-fi devotees will find comfortably familiar, yet engrossingly new. Redling keeps focus on the scientific aspects of first contact—language and cultural barriers, incompatible technology, finding food—without ever losing pace or bogging down in jargon and effluvia.

Linguist Meg Dupris feels like an alien on a ship full of engineers and scientists. Where her five colleagues deal with empirical precision and absolutes, her discipline relies on guesswork, delicate balances, and false cognates. But on the surface, her affinity for the fuzziness of language and culture makes her indispensable. Sadly, it just doesn’t make her any more liked.

Loul Pell has been seconded to peon work since his thesis on how to handle First Contact got him laughed out of respected public service. But when the tall, lithe humans land on his planet, he accidentally finds himself between them and the trigger-happy generals who stand completely unprepared for interspecies dialog. Only Loul and Meg have the kind of thinking required for something as imprecise as First Contact.

Where many writers skip past such mundane details as language and technology, Redling revels in such specialized detail. These species have no C-3P0, no TARDIS translation circuit. They have to painstakingly overcome the simple barrier that their languages, learned gestures, and other forms of communication, have no correlation. Making contact requires diligence and trust.

Redling spares no detail, relaying brass tacks with the kind of humane care few authors have captured well since Asimov. But where Asimov believed technology and dispassion could close the gaps in human fallibility, Redling trusts “hard” science to readers’ wisdom. (Self-regenerating crystal propulsion? Pshaw.) Instead, she focuses on traits which make us, and the aliens we encounter, most innately human: the ability to build bonds and communicate.

As Meg and Loul make incremental linguistic gains, slowly developing rapport and a working pidgin, Redling’s shifting perspective allows readers to see First Contact from both perspectives. The Dideto evolved under different conditions, leading to profound genetic distinctions. (Apologies to Butler, but there will be no species melding tonight.) The two races explore the similarities, and differences, between them, some lovingly, others with profound distrust.

Yet the races share remarkable resemblances. Loul communicates through text messages, loves comic books, and is known to his friends and colleagues as a “nerd.” Just as in human society, the powers that be mock and belittle nerds for their excessively specialized interests. Until, that is, they need a nerd’s expertise to bridge gaps that generals and presidents find abstruse.

As First Contact lingers, though, complications arise. The humans cannot yet return to their damaged ship, and Meg doesn’t want to leave Loul yet; but The Purpling approaches, that one night per decade when Didet’s seven suns all set and the sky goes dark. The Purpling is a Dideto religious celebration, but it’s also the time when their world is at its most vulnerable. Someone must make a decision, but they lack the vocabulary to explain.

Perhaps nowhere else in this long, careful book does Redling so blatantly channel another author. But she doesn’t just imitate one of science fiction’s most beloved moments; she also seems to refute it, arguing that Asimov, that pedant, missed the point. She proposes her own interpretation of that moment, one which will follow readers as surely as Asimov’s slant does.

This perhaps proves what Redling does so well, that other writers strive after but fall short: she takes the components that readers love, and makes them her own. A plot breakdown would make this novel feel bloodless, derivative, and flat. But Redling injects it with such verve and purpose that it develops its own momentum, separate from the classics it mirrors.

I grew up on science fiction, but have found so little recently that recaptures the smart, cerebral wonder of my youth. I’m pleased to report, I’ve finally found it. No ray-guns, no chest-bursters, no nuclear whatsits impinging the mitochondrial do-funny for Redling. Just a high-browed psychological peek into the cogs that make us most profoundly, vivaciously human.

No comments:

Post a Comment