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Survival, Julie E. Czerneda, DAW, 2004, 401 pp.
Note: This is book 1 of a new series called Species Imperative.
Julie Czerneda continues her winning streak with this light-hearted adventure romp-style work of science fiction. Fans of her earlier books will be quite satisfied with this book, as it continues in the same vein as her Web Shifters and Trade Pact Universe series. On the negative side, Survival is the first book of a series and the story feels a bit stretched and thin. Even though this leaves more room for character development and the book ends with a perfectly fine cliffhanger, I felt a bit impatient with the slow pace of the story. I'll discuss this further in the section on Survival's characters.
Survival is a book about a woman named Mac (Mackenzie Connor) who studies salmon on the west coast a few hundred years in the future. At this point in history, wilderness areas are strictly controlled enclaves, and Mac has to get permission to do most of her studies. This change in how humanity treats nature is conveyed effectively in a series of scenes during which Mac butts heads with the bureaucracy in charge of the Wilderness Trusts - her cause is perfectly legitimate, especially in comparison to the way forests are treated by logging companies in our time, but she still has to plead for access and justify every straying step in the previous year. This change is never discussed and it's a neat strain of optimism that underlies the book (even though it is a somewhat radical point of view that humans themselves are not part of nature at all). In any case, as the book begins, Mac is totally focused on her research. Czerneda goes to great lengths to show what it might be like to do these kinds of studies in the future; for example, Mac and her colleague Emily are scanning all the DNA of salmon as they head upstream, intending to compare this to records from previous years and other locations. We also get a great deal of material about life in the Norcoast research station, a set of six pods floating in the water just off the coast (of what is clearly British Columbia, likely near the Queen Charlotte Islands). Scientists and students are presented in all their quirks and quandaries.
Into this busy yet essentially uncomplicated life comes an alien named Brymn. He is a Dhryn, a type of alien rarely seen on Earth. Mac gets called off her research by a top-secret memo from the Ministry of Extra-Sol Human Affairs, telling her that it is crucial to the survival of humanity that she cooperate with Brymn. It seems that whatever scoured all life from the planets now known collectively as the Chasm has been attacking other planets near the area, in a vector that points to the outskirts of human-settled space. The Ministry official who comes along with Brymn is a man named Trojanowski, and by Mac's contrary nature, she is soon locked in a mostly adversarial relationship with Trojanowski. She also finds herself somewhat attracted to him (and before the book is half over, she knows that his first name is Nik). Mac tries to understand Brymn and his alien ways of thinking; she is also trying to keep the secrets of the Ministry from the other scientist all the while asking for their help. When a deadly and invisible alien species known only as the Nulls or the Ro attacks Mac and Brymn and kidnaps Emily, the stakes are considerably raised. After more perilous events, Brymn decides that the only safe place for Mac is the home planet of his species. Getting there is not easy and, among other difficulties of arriving in a strange place, Mac has no little trouble conveying her nutritional requirements to her new hosts. What will she find on the home planet of the Dhryn? Will she get any clues as to what happened in the Chasm? And what will be the fate of her friend Emily?
Oddly, this split between a first half of a story set on Earth and a second half set on an alien planet has shown up in more than one book recently. Most immediately was the book I reviewed before this one, Louise Marley's excellent The Child Goddess. It's also a structure favoured by Catherine Asaro, showing up most obviously in Catch the Lightning and, more generally, in The Quantum Rose (which started not on Earth but rather on the female character's home planet, then moved elsewhere in the galaxy). It's a structure that lends itself to establishing character and the broad outlines of the plot, then ratcheting up the tension and the strangeness by transporting everyone to an alien place. After a certain point, it will probably lose its effectiveness due to overuse.
In the case of Survival, that first half set on Earth feels a bit too long. The memo that Mac gets is presented as a big deal but then she constantly procrastinates in pursuing the clues that might help with her new quest. She also doesn't take advantage of chances to talk to Brymn about what he thinks, and, especially, why she was chosen for this crucial inquiry. The second half has its slow moments as well; after some stage business getting Mac to the Dhryn home planet, she is essentially in waiting mode again once there. It's a venerable plot device to throw characters into a complex situation against their will, but Mac is often too passive for this kind of device to gather enough momentum to keep the story as interesting as it could be.
Survival is Czerneda's first hardcover, which is always worth mentioning. Luis Royo, who has done the cover art for most of Czerneda's paperbacks, really shines in this effort for the much larger dust jacket. Mac and Brymn stand looking out over the Norcoast research pods; while neither main character is exactly how I pictured them in my head, it's a lovely landscape. And bookstore browsers have a clear idea of what the book would be like, which is quite helpful.
Last modified: July 14, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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