An Alien’s Quest
A novel from The Archives of Varok
By Cary Neeper
(Penscript Publishing House, November 2016, 263 pages, $14.95)
An Alien’s Quest is by far the most cerebral and metaphysical of all of Cary Neeper’s Archives of Varok novels. That isn’t to say that the others have shied away from deep subject matter; they haven’t. It’s just that this one takes the level of philosophical engagement to new heights in its tale of a young woman who leaves her home planet to find the answers to the cosmos. The book does at times feel a bit bogged down with introspection and philosophical reflection, but it never fails to be provocative and insightful. Moreover, it doesn’t neglect the adventure and intrigue that make its predecessors such exciting reads.
The Archives of Varok novels use the tools of science fiction storytelling to critique our present society’s blindness to ecological limits. The books are set during the middle to late years of the 21st century, by which time the current global sustainability crisis has worsened to the point of triggering massive die-offs of the human population. In the first book, we’re introduced to a group of sentient extraterrestrial species with whom humans have been unknowingly sharing the solar system. Having gone through their own experiences with civilizational overshoot and decline, the aliens have been deeply troubled by the situation on Earth, and have long been anxious to intervene. After much deliberation, they finally decide in 2050 that the time is right to make contact.
This book is the fourth and final installment in the series, and its main character, Shawne, is the daughter of the first human to have been contacted by the aliens. Shawne was born on Earth but moved to the Jovian moon of Varok as a young girl with her microbiologist mother Tandra Grey. Tandra initially left Earth to become the aliens’ expert on inter-humanoid immunization. Two decades hence, she and her daughter have fully integrated into varokian society, even becoming part of a mixed-species family. Though it’s been a mighty struggle at times, Shawne and Tandra haven’t given up their effort to guide humanity toward a viable future.
However, at the opening of the present story, we find Shawne in a state of disillusionment. Her activism on Earth has shown discouraging results. Two years ago, she helped establish a school devoted to the study and practice of steady-state economics, but to her dismay, the school has strayed from its founding ideals. Because Shawne was raised on Varok, the psychology of Earth humans is foreign to her, and thus her attempts to combat their bad habits have been ineffective. She is also reeling from the revelation that her estranged significant other, whom we met in a previous book, sought to profit personally from Earth’s water crisis by going into the water export business. Now Shawne is back on Varok, where she battles daily with depression.
In this time of personal crisis, Shawne feels compelled to search for meaning in the universe. She reads books on philosophy and comparative religion, and solicits the counsel of her wise elders, both human and alien. As Shawne discusses the fruits of her study and contemplation with others, she simultaneously exposes many dearly held human beliefs to critical view. Among the things that her ruminations call into question are humans’ supposed status as conquerors of nature, the notion that absolute truth can ever be achieved and the widespread habit of attributing one’s blessings and misfortunes to the favor or disfavor of a higher power. She also makes trenchant points about the proper place of science in human affairs, the role religion should play in democratic decision-making and the folly of looking outside oneself for spiritual knowledge.
Each of the people to whom Shawne turns for guidance has a unique take on the questions she poses. One of her three father figures belongs to a race of Zen-like amphibious creatures called ellls, who live in undersea schools on a water planet named Ellason. Ellls exist for the moment and don’t grieve death or other forms of loss the way that humans do. The only thing that causes them pain is uncertainty over the well-being of a loved one. When a friend or family member goes missing, they’re distraught because it disrupts the harmony of the school. But when someone dies, they feel no sorrow because at least the fate of that individual is known. As Shawne’s elllonian father, Conn, puts it, “We ellls don’t cling to what can’t be.”
The other important figures in Shawne’s life all have their own perspectives on the purpose of existence, and in their debates with Shawne, they cover some fascinating ground. Charlie, one of Shawne’s few human elders, points to biology in his answers. Asked about the meaning of life, he says we live to eat. As for why we experience pain, he says it’s “a fair warning that something needs fixing.” Another of Shawne’s family members opines that complexity has a built-in meaning that can cause small actions to be amplified into “terribly meaningful” phenomena over millennia. Yet another person questions Shawne’s search for truth. “Truth is like infinity, Shawne,” this individual observes. “You can get closer and closer, but you never quite get there.”
The plot of An Alien’s Quest centers on a research expedition to Ellason. Discord has been mounting between two factions of ellls, one of them known as the schooling ellls and the other the loners. The latter prefer isolation to social interaction but still visit their schools now and then, disrupting their equilibrium in the process. Shawne and her team want to get up close to study the finer dimensions of this conflict. But no sooner do they arrive on Ellason than multiple members of their party go missing under suspicious circumstances. It turns out that there’s an elllonian organized crime gang trafficking in elll tads, and these gangsters will stop at nothing to keep their misdeeds secret. It’s at this point that the somber meditation of the book’s opening act gives way to action and suspense.
What I like most about this novel is the magnificence of its settings. Ellason, despite being one of the most distant planets from the Sun, is a steamy paradise of lush underwater forests and spectacular natural light shows. The planet’s warmth comes from its hot core, the decay of radioactive elements beneath its surface and the gravitational pull of its 30 moons. The light displays are caused by an atmospheric phenomenon similar to the auroras on Earth, together with the glow of bioluminescent sea creatures.
Varok, though not as far from the Sun as Ellason, is similarly dimly lit by human standards, but no less beautiful for this fact. It’s a world whose flora is a mosaic of purples, yellows, browns and even metallic colors—rather than the greens that characterize Earth’s plants—and whose light consists of the faint red glow of Jupiter. Varok’s native humanoids are just as stunning in appearance as its plant species. Shawne’s other alien dad, besides Conn, is a varok who is described by one character as resembling “a human who has been through a fire. His skin is smooth, cool as bronze in the infrared, and hairless—beautiful.”
Another thing I admire about this and the other Varok novels is the realism of their universe. None of the action takes place outside our solar system, and the reason for this is that Neeper is rightly doubtful about the feasibility of interstellar travel. In An Alien’s Quest, there’s an amusing conversational exchange that speaks to this skepticism. The team is readying for its trip to Ellason when one of the human characters, upon learning that they’ll be traveling via a nuclear thermal rocket, asks why varoks haven’t advanced beyond such primitive technology to some type of cosmic wormhole transport or matter-antimatter engine. In response, Conn quips, “You try it.” Later on in the story, another character reflects on how “it takes too much energy to travel to other stars, and the time it takes makes it meaningless.” Thus, concludes this character, the community of sentient beings that exists in our solar system is “effectively isolated.”
Because this novel is primarily a character study and takes place away from Earth, it doesn’t deal as directly as it could with humanity’s crisis. To the extent that it mentions Earth’s inhabitants at all, it paints them as pitiable victims of their own selfish impulses and sex hormones—who, despite having shown some promise of turning a proverbial new leaf, now appear to be reverting to their old short-sighted ways. Yet the book nonetheless makes some important statements about ecological responsibility through the words and actions of its nonhuman characters. For example, we get to see ecologically integrated architecture at work in the form of a varokian home built on a natural spring. On Varok, just as on Earth, geothermal energy holds great promise as a clean, reliable, locally available source of heat and power, and home builders are keenly attuned to its possibilities.
The beginning of An Alien’s Quest is admittedly a bit overburdened by all the philosophy, and subsequent sections don’t fully explore the insights it presents. Granted, it’s all important, thought-provoking stuff, and I think Neeper’s aim is not so much to supply answers as to impress upon us which questions deserve asking. Still, I think the philosophical discussion could have been pared down and more evenly distributed throughout the narrative. The result would have been a more tonally consistent tale than we have at present.
When it comes to questions about the fate of humankind and the inner landscapes of the main characters, I like that this novel leaves a great deal unresolved. The ending would have seemed contrived if it had tried to neatly tie up all the issues raised throughout the series. It’s a measure of Neeper’s skill that although we’re left wondering whether humans will decide to voluntarily shift to sustainable modes of living, and whether Shawne will make peace with her self-perceived failure to make a difference on Earth, we still feel as if we’ve been given closure at the story’s end.