Sean Williams
& Shane Dix,
Orphans of Earth
(Ace, 2003)

Sean Williams and Shane Dix's Orphans of Earth seems like a fairly old idea. Shelves could be filled with books of aliens threatening the survival of humanity. But how many of those books manage to make aliens that are truly inhuman? And of those few, how many have the guts to even suggest that humanity will almost certainly lose?

In fact, it seems as though humanity may have already lost. No one in the story would pass for human by modern standards. The sole survivors of the human inquiry into deep space are a few ships' crews of engrams, androids implanted with the personalities and skills of a few long-dead human originals and sent to explore space long years ago.

Caryl Hatzis is considered the only real remaining human by the surviving engrams, but as a telepathic, possibly immortal, survivor of a hive mind, her behavior is almost alien. That she seems to be building a new hive mind with her surviving engrams makes her even stranger. The engram survivors she is trying to unify seem closer to human, but both their mental inflexibility and their duplication make them equally strange.

The oddity of watching a character die only to meet their duplicate from another colony some pages later brings the reader into line with engrams' own perception of themselves as replaceable, the feeling that nothing is too final as long as there's five more of "you" out there somewhere. Only Peter Alander, an engram whose duplicates have all gone mad or died, is unique, and his isolation from the more numerous engrams makes him the most human of the characters.

The human characters may sometimes feel alien, but the aliens never come anywhere near being human. It's rare to find extraterrestrials who don't feel like humans with some culture quirks, but the gift-leaving Spinners and the world-destroying Starfish are satisfyingly incomprehensible in their motives. Even the Yuhl, who are met in some detail, seem to share no human motives but survival.

From the start, the aliens seem to control human destiny. The Spinners leave gifts of near magical technology, without even a word of hello; the Starfish destroy any engram colonies, who use them unaware. The use of the gifts has destroyed the central human civilization, leaving only one human original, Caryl Hatzis, to organize some sort of survival plan with the engram explorers -- those not already dead or malfunctioning. While the engrams work on surviving and comprehending the alien gifts that might give them survival, Caryl organizes her own engram duplicates in a ploy to save the orphans, those scattered engrams and especially her own duplicates.

Putting the survival of the human race in jeopardy often weakens a story, serving as a cheap source of tension. The human heroes are heroes simply because they're winning their survival - and they will of course win because they are heroes. Orphans of Earth never makes human survival feel inevitable, or even of vast importance in the scheme of the universe. There is no organized resistance to the aliens because there can be no comprehension of them. Humans are quite clearly not the center of the universe, and the staggering unimportance of the survival of any race in the depth of space is shown alongside the desperate efforts of the colonists to evade, defeat or befriend their alien attackers. It binds the readers to the characters in a sympathy of near panic that doesn't relax even at the appearance of victory.

Orphans of Earth ends with questions unanswered and nothing certain except the advent of the next book in the series. But even this unsettled ending feels earned, an accurate account of hard reality instead of a cheap cliffhanger. Though it will leave you desperate to find out what happens next, Orphans of Earth stands on its own as an honest, deceptively simple novel that grows in scope on every reexamination.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 24 May 2003

Buy it from