Saturday, February 27, 2010

Julie E. Czerneda's Species Imperative trilogy

I just read Julie E. Czerneda's Species Imperative trilogy: Survival (2004), Migration (2005), and Regeneration (2005), and I can't overstate how impressed I am. This sort of thing is exactly why I'm a science fiction fan. I really don't understand why none of these were nominated for a Hugo or Nebula Award. Maybe that's just because it is a trilogy?

I've really enjoyed Czerneda's other books, but they're space opera. Nothing wrong with that, but I guess I don't take them as seriously. This trilogy is just as entertaining - or more so - but it's also more like traditional science fiction. It involves a dire threat to the Earth, and indeed to all inhabited worlds, and the hero, like the author, is a biologist. So, while there are futuristic technologies here, the focus tends to be on biology, alien biology (and alien culture, which is based in biology).

If you know anything about biology, you'll know how wild and diverse Earth-based biology really is. Evolution has come up with some bizarre solutions here on Earth. Well, these books are full of alien species that are just as diverse, just as bizarre. They're based on the same kind of underlying biochemistry as we are, but Earth-based life shows how diverse that could really be. And diverse cultures are just as important. These aliens are people, and these books are very much character-based.

Mac, the hero, is a salmon biologist who is single-minded in her devotion to her research. She has little interest in the outside world, in particular the huge multi-species galactic culture connected together by "transects" which allow instantaneous travel between star systems. But when an alien visits her research site, and other aliens attack the facility, she is forced into trying to understand what's going on,... and why she's so important to them.
As I say, the aliens are people. They're also alien. Throughout the trilogy, Mac develops close relationships with different aliens, and we readers also come to care about them. But they're not human. Sometimes they're funny, and sometimes they're scary. And when push comes to shove, they tend to act as their biology and their culture dictate. Yet they can also risk their lives for each other and to try to keep the Interspecies Union together.
If you're not a SF fan, this may seem very weird. And it is. But it's also about friendship between people who are very, very different. It's about solving problems using teamwork and the scientific method. It's about trying to understand, rather than just trying to build the biggest weapon (after all, knowledge can be the best weapon of all). It's about desperate times, when the entire human species is at risk - and not just our own species, either. And it's about being a human being throughout such events, worrying about loved ones, and even hoping for the future. It's great stuff.

But I know it won't be to everyone's taste. For one thing, I'd say that the premise is implausible. Presumably, a biologist would know a lot more about this than I do, but it didn't seem plausible to me. But this is science fiction, so I'm used to accepting the premise of books. That's pretty much the whole point of SF, which examines novel situations by postulating something - or many things - that don't exist today. And if you accept the premise here, everything else follows logically enough. (Some things don't seem logical at first, but there are a lot of twists and turns in the plot. Things are not always as they seem at first, and many of the situations make a lot more sense later in the story.)

Also, the books are long (all three are more than 500 pages long) and detailed. They're easy to read - I really couldn't put them down, once I got past the slow beginning - but they're never in a hurry to get to the action. The story is detailed, dense (as in "packed with information"), and very much character-based. In a way, the writing reminds me of C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series. I really think that series is superb, at least the first half-dozen books or so, but I'm sure it doesn't appeal to everyone. If you don't like Foreigner, you won't like this trilogy. It's not that the plots or the themes are anything alike, but the dense, thoughtful, character-based writing style is similar, in my opinion.

They're not breezy, light-weight adventure stories, that's all I mean. Don't get me wrong, there's adventure here. And I read each of these huge books in just a couple of days apiece. I couldn't put them down. They're certainly not hard to read, certainly not a chore. But I'm sure they won't appeal to everyone. For myself, I can't remember the last time I was so... blown away by a science fiction novel. I like most of what I read (mostly because I tend to stick with authors I already know these days), but reading this trilogy makes me optimistic about modern science fiction in general. It's that good.

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