Sarah Zettel,
The Quiet Invasion
(Warner Books, 2000)

If you know someone who doesn't read science fiction but to whom you would like to recommend a single book as an introduction to the genre, then Sarah Zettel's The Quiet Invasion is probably not that book. This is not to say that it is bad or not representative of the genre; quite the contrary, in fact.

Central to the story is the first contact between humans and aliens. Such a scenario, common in SF, is often handled in a manner such that a mystery surrounds the aliens, its solving providing the story's narrative drive (Robert J. Sawyer's Illegal Alien being a good example). This recipe for a fast-paced read is, however, not one that Zettel has chosen to follow.

Instead, in some wonderfully expositive prose, the aliens and their society are shown to us in detail, so that we come to appreciate and gain a sense of their "alienness," to know in what respects and to what extent they differ from humans, and what it is in their mental outlook and social organisation that accounts for these differences. Thus, there is really no mystery to the tragic misunderstandings which occur between human and alien -- we see it coming and just hope that reason and rationality will win out in the end.

To the seasoned SF reader, particularly one who likes hard scientific extrapolation and speculation, The Quiet Invasion delivers the goods. While the roller-coaster narrative is by necessity absent, the story does not lack interest and tension. For instance, there is a murderer present in both the human and alien camps, as if nature gives out folly and destructiveness in equal measure throughout the universe. Also, although the alien society is described in detail, this never becomes tiresome; where required the author is not afraid to deal expeditiously with those aspects that have the potential to slow or disrupt the narrative flow. A nice example is when the two species must first communicate -- a technological solution is quickly and credibly provided, allowing the story to progress apace.

Central to the story also is another SF stalwart, that of the planet Venus, but again in this novel it is a place as far removed from the cosy Venus of SF mythology (exemplified perhaps by Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pirates of Venus), as one can imagine. Here, Venus is an inhospitable planet where humans must live in a city suspended in the cloud layer, only venturing to the surface in cumbersome vehicles shielded against extremes of temperature and pressure.

We meet the inhabitants of Venera Base, as the human colony is called, before any aliens are even thought of. What concerns the Venerans is scientific research and politics. The politics of Venera Base are messy and complicated, rather true to life, and revolve around the issue of funding, or lack of it, from Earth and, more importantly, the issue of independence and freedom from Earth's political control. The relationship between Venera and the Colonial Affairs Committee of the United Nations (now, after much bloodshed, an organisation with real teeth) is strained, and the leader of the Venusian colony, Dr. Helen Failia, walks a fine line in order to protect her life's work, which is what Venera has become. This tension over the degree of self-determination afforded by Earth to her colonies (Venera is but one in the solar system) becomes inextricably linked with the discovery of a new form of life.

In the novel the Veneran society disappoints, especially after the inventiveness lavished on the aliens. The colony comprises 10,000 people who are organised in a conventional hierarchical way, with most information (even that dealing with threats to the base's very existence) confined to an elite handful, giving the society a rigid, old-fashioned feel. But this is a small point, and it is surely a testament to the novel's strength that, in the end, the single character, of all those present either human or alien, with which the reader is in greatest sympathy is an alien.

The Quiet Invasion is, I think, SF that even the choosiest of connoisseurs will find worthy of their close attention.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]

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