Thursday, April 07, 2016

Becoming Alien

At ICFA, I picked up an old issue of ANALOG from the freebie table. It included a review of BECOMING ALIEN (1988), by Rebecca Ore. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, it was easy to find secondhand copies of this paperback. It's an unusual, thought-provoking first contact story.

As the novel begins, the narrator, Tom, lives with his drug-manufacturing older brother, Warren, in rural Virginia. When a spaceship crashes nearby, Tom rescues the sole survivor, with his brother's grudging consent. The alien, whom Tom calls "Alpha," is essentially a quasi-humanoid, marsupial bat who lives mostly on blood and milk. (There's no vampire activity in the book, though.) Although unable to learn each other's languages, the two of them become friends of a sort and develop a crude form of communication. Unfortunately, Warren remains suspicious of Alpha and fearful that the alien's people will show up. He eventually shoots and more-or-less accidentally kills Alpha. When Tom is eighteen, the aliens do land in search of their lost comrades. By then, Warren has been imprisoned for drug-dealing and, because he raves about aliens, declared criminally insane. Learning that the dead ET wanted Tom to take his place as a cadet at their Federation's Academy, to be trained as a translator and diplomat, the visitors offer Tom that position. The alternative is to have his memory wiped, since civilized beings (unlike the people of Earth) don't kill sapients. Having nothing left for him at home, he agrees to go. At this point, about one-sixth of the way through the book, the real adventure begins.

In addition to the species evolved from bats, Tom finds himself surrounded mainly by birdlike and bearlike people. He also meets a few races outwardly similar to Earth humans. To all of them, he's a "primitive" and probably a xenophobe, judging from the way aliens are depicted in Earth media. As the title of the novel implies, in this environment HE is the alien. He discovers that to be considered civilized, he has to learn Karst, the lingua franca of the Federation. If he refuses or proves incapable, he'll be confined to a reservation with other primitives. So of course he accepts the surgical implants that enable him to learn the language. The process is fast but not automatic or instantaneous; he still has to study, a detail that feels more realistic than the universal translator or instant language mastery often seen in film and fiction. He finds it very disturbing when, early in the procedure, his ability to speak English has to be suppressed for a while. Although we're given almost no Karst vocabulary, the text conveys the impression of an alien language by showing alternate or parenthetical translations for many of the words in sentences that represent Karst dialogue.

Tom gets a new name, Red Clay, and has to learn new customs and body language. Among the bat people, for instance, nodding signifies anger. Beyond cultural variations like those he might find on Earth, different species perceive the universe through different senses, such as the bat people's perception of ultrasound and polarized light. Also, the bat folk bond by singing into each other's throats. Tom's thrill at traveling among the stars and meeting exotic creatures is soon overshadowed by the disorientation of total strangeness. His adjustment difficulties go deeper than getting used to odd furniture, clothing, and food. (How a species can get nourishment from plants or animals that evolved on a different planet is finessed without explanation, as in most SF.) Early in his adjustment, he feels physically sick at the sight of a particular ET. He reflects at one point, "How do dogs stand it, that never see another dog all their lives? I felt like a smart puppy dragged into a world of super-intelligent bats and bears." His mentors worry that he might "xenofreak," a possibility that feels very real. Tom manages to resist falling into that irrational behavior, but a human-appearing female he meets does succumb, failing her orientation. She views all the aliens as "monsters," including Tom despite his outward similarity to her. Later, a biologically fully human female is repelled by his body hair and beard growth. And the aliens aren't totally free of xenophobia among themselves. Avian sapients refer to mammals as "hairy lactating monsters." Moreover, the delicate issue of different species smelling "wrong" to each other is directly confronted. I've never come across another work of fiction that focuses so intensely and believably on the problems a human immigrant would have with fitting into a society of even the most intelligent and benign aliens. Yet he does form close friendships with his bird roommate and a few of the bat people.

The last lines of the book declare, "So we're all Mind together? I don't know if it is true, but I can believe it right now." This novel vividly portrays how hard it would be to maintain the ideal of IDIC while struggling with deep-rooted instincts. There's no romance in this story (except for a hint near the end) but plenty of Intimate Adventure.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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