Ellen Larson,
The Measure of the Universe
(Saga SF, 2002)

Ellen Larson's The Measure of the Universe has some of the worst publicity I've ever seen. Pompous, overdone and riddled with alliterative phrases that make it sound like bad junior fiction, the press releases almost had me convinced not to read it.

Under the horrid promotions is a short, sweet story of human interaction with a humanoid alien. The aliens are the unbelievably benign Negami, who wish to study Earth for the sake of pure knowledge. Thanks to a misunderstanding, the Negami's most critical study has been approved by the suspicious leadership of Earth.

Most of the story happens in the world of a blind woman, Dr. Aisha Thanau, Earth's foremost linguistics expert. Thanau is one of the last blind people on earth, losing her sight just before medicine had advanced enough to save it. Given Thanau's successful career and wonderful adaptive gear, I was disappointed that her motivations in this story boiled down into bitterness over her loss of vision. Until that point, Thanau had seemed a richer character, and her blindness served mainly as an excuse for her alien guest Titek to describe the scenery without turning the book into a tourist guide.

Titek, the only Negami met in the course of the story, seems too good to be true. If he were a human character, he'd be annoyingly flawless. As an alien, his naivete and constant enthusiasm feel natural and unforced.

The Measure of the Universe flows easily around the interaction between Titek and Thanau. They approach the study of language like explorers in a foreign land, and the differences in their cultures allow even simple questions to avoid the feel of exposition. Their love affair happens naturally and with no agonizing inner debate, and the few tense moments between them are resolved as sympathetically as possible. The only problem with this smooth friendship is that it flattens out any sense of external threat. The spying Earth officials, the danger of the Negami's technology falling into the wrong hands and the cultural disaster threatened by the zealots among Titek's people all seem secondary to Aisha and Titek's happy exploration of language and each other.

The Measure of the Universe is a bit too small in scope to carry the mythic weight Larson wants it to have. The author's afterword tries to link Thanau and Titek to the dark myth of Prometheus, and there just isn't enough desperation in their story. But there is warmth, hope and an optimistic future for two races.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 26 April 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.