The Alien Effect
A novel from The Archives of Varok
By Cary Neeper
270 pp. Penscript Publishing House – Nov. 2014. $14.95.
There’s a lot in Cary Neeper’s Archives of Varok novels. They are by turns wondrous, wise, witty, tense and gripping—all in service of a heartfelt environmental polemic. The story they tell is a fresh variation on the age-old science fiction theme of alien first contact. In the first book, A Place Beyond Man (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975), two other sentient beings who have long shared our solar system, and have been anxiously watching us destroy our world, decide it’s time to introduce themselves and help us right our course. However, humans’ shortsighted nature dooms this initial effort to failure. The aliens persist, though, and over the series’ two subsequent books, The Webs of Varok (Penscript Publishing House, 2012) and The Alien Effect (Penscript, 2014), they continue closely monitoring human activity and strategizing on how best to intervene again.
The latest book in the series shows us the state of this intervention in the year 2068, or 17 years after the events of the second novel. A staggering amount has changed during that time, especially in the life of microbiologist Tandra Grey, who was the first human to be contacted by the aliens. Having despaired of ever making a positive difference in humankind’s plight, Tandra has cut ties with her home planet and settled down on one of the alien worlds. Her daughter Shawne, who was four years old when we last saw her, is grown up now and brimming with idealism. Like her mother, Shawne is a trained biologist devoted to the principles of steady state economics. In The Alien Effect, she continues the mission begun by her mother by establishing a school on Earth devoted to steady state teachings.
For those new to the series, a bit of background is in order. The world that has been home to Tandra, Shawne and their two alien companions for nearly two decades now is a hidden moon of Jupiter known as Varok. The main sentient species there is a remarkably human-like race of beings called varoks. Possessed of abilities that present-day humans would describe as extrasensory perception, varoks shrink from physical touch and instead find closeness in melding with one another’s minds. The ellls are another major demographic group on Varok. They’re amphibious, froglike creatures from a water world in the solar system’s outer reaches known as Ellason, and their disposition is as free-spirited and hedonistic as the varoks’ is puritanical. Two other intelligent species on Varok are the sage oracle-like great-fish, who communicate by drawing symbols into sand on the sea bottoms, and the armored, birdlike ahlork, who resemble giant flying beetles.
The two aliens who have become family to Tandra and Shawne are an elll named Conn and a varok named Orram. Together these four constitute a legal family unit with the surname elConn-Grey-Oran. Conn and Orram fill the roles of father figure to Shawne, and after a fashion, mate to Tandra. There’s also a step-family member named Orticon, who is Orram’s adult son. These characters and their back stories aren’t as fully developed here as in the previous two books, and for this reason The Alien Effect isn’t the best jumping-in point for the series. Neeper provides just enough setup to get the new plot underway and involve us in it.
After some brief scenes on Varok, Shawne assembles a team of researchers and support staff for her expedition to Earth. Their first stop is a lunar observation base that ellls and varoks have long been using to monitor events on Earth. Two team members disembark here and busy themselves with setting up a command center. The others split off into two smaller groups whose goals are, respectively, to get the school going in San Diego, California, and study the Great Barrier Reef off Australia to better understand the problems faced by Earth’s oceans.
Shawne’s passion for biology and steady state economics isn’t her sole qualification for the role of expedition leader. It’s also thought that her lack of complicity in Earth’s crises will give her additional credibility. “I can be a voice for all people on Earth, no matter their beliefs,” she explains to another character early on, ‘because I am alien to Earth. I am outside the issues that divide people. They will listen to me.” What she doesn’t understand at the time is that her outside perspective also comes with fatal blind spots. Her conversations with would-be students, faculty and supporters are filled with ideas that seem like common sense to her but are anathema to most everyone in Earth’s industrial nations. As the days wear on, tempers flare among those gathered to discuss the school’s curriculum, and Shawne’s following steadily dwindles.
Some suggestions that draw particular ire are controlling population, redistributing wealth, phasing out imported water use, curtailing geographic mobility and adopting democratically chosen standards of living. Ideas like these, however sensible, go against deeply ingrained biological and social forces that Shawne is only beginning to comprehend. Having been raised by beings that abhor physical contact, she’s especially hard put to understand how biological drives fuel overpopulation. “You’re saying humans are driven only by sex hormones?” she asks her stepbrother Orticon. “That’s the theme of every story written on this planet,” he replies.
So far this review has touched on two reasons why, in Neeper’s view, humans can’t seem to live in sync with the rest of the biosphere: our highly sexual nature and our discounting of future risk in favor of short-term benefits. Among the other reasons detailed in The Alien Effect are our preference for prejudice over hard facts, our violent nature and a deep-seated aversion known as “biophobia.” This last is, in the words of author John Michael Greer, “a pathological fear and hatred of the realities of biological life, coupled with an obsessive fascination with the sterile, the mechanical and the lifeless."* Biophobia explains why, to the aliens’ surprise, humans are unwilling to consider solutions like tapping their own bodily wastes for resources.
Despite the controversy surrounding her school’s curriculum, Shawne’s message does catch on with some humans, and she’s able to come away with a sense of accomplishment. It’s just that she realizes success won’t be handed to her on a platter—she may be looking forward to a lifetime of muddling through endless cycles of victory and defeat. While we’re left to hope that her efforts will have more impact than her mother’s, there appears to be little basis for this hope. Indeed, running through all of the Archives of Varok novels is an intractable sense of defeatism about humans’ ability to change. This is quite true to life, but it begs the question of what exactly does change from one book to the next, if not human nature.
Besides its polemical value, this novel also supplies plenty of drama, discovery and adventure, as the characters face various sticky situations and interpersonal conflicts. While all this unfolds, we find ourselves feeling oddly moved by the personalities and relationships of these interplanetary visitors. In one plot line, Shawne falls in love with a decent and mostly like-minded guy who is nonetheless going against what she believes in by starting a water import business. This first brush with infatuation greatly complicates her decision as to whether to stay on Earth or return to Varok. Another story thread has Conn and an ahlork named Nidok escaping captivity at the hands of a nasty commercial fisherman who wants to present them in a traveling stage show.
The Alien Effect reminded me at times of the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in that both involve communicating with Earth’s intelligent whale species. The movie depicts a trip back in time to retrieve two specimens of the extinct humpback whale, so that they can answer an alien probe whose rays are killing Earth in their search for the whales. However, Neeper isn’t content with some vacuous “save the whales” message; she plays it risky, taking on the deeply entrenched cultural habits that harm whales and other sea life. She also describes some joint initiatives between whales and the aliens, who are able to communicate with each other quite clearly. For example, she shows the ellls in talks with local orcas about starting a cooperative sea-farming venture, as well as a number of gray whales serving as consultants on the school curriculum.
Neeper’s fiction is geared especially toward younger readers, and in fact she’s been honored with numerous young adult literature awards. It’s heartening to see kids learn about sustainability through adventures written by an author who won’t settle for easy answers or safe topics.
* John Michael Greer, "In the dark with both hands," The Archdruid Report Feb. 27, 2008, http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2008/02/in-dark-with-both-hands.html (accessed Nov. 5, 2014). In the above article Greer references the following two books by 20th-century polymath C.S. Lewis, which explore biophobia at length: The Abolition of Man or Reflections on Education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools (London: Oxford University Press, 1943) and That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups (London: The Bodley Head, 1945).