A novel from The Archives of Varok
By Cary Neeper
Penscript Publishing House, May 2022, 246 pp., paperback: $14.95.
Cary Neeper’s Archives of Varok series is an environmentally themed science fiction saga set in an alternate solar system in which humans are but one of several sentient species struggling to live within their ecological means. Geared toward a young adult readership, but entirely enjoyable for adult readers as well, the novels are part cautionary tale, part adventure, part philosophical meditation and part immersive otherworldly enchantment. The newest installment, a prequel titled The Unheard Song, is just as clever and satisfying as its predecessors in the way it deploys and blends together these various eclectic narrative elements.
The series began in 1975 with A Place Beyond Man. Set in 2050, this first book depicts humanity’s initial contact with two extraterrestrial species: the froglike, highly social ellls, who come from a water world far beyond Pluto called Ellason; and the stoic, mind-reading humanoids known as varoks, who are from a hidden moon of Jupiter named Varok. Having gone through their own woes with environmental overshoot and collapse, the ellls and the varoks have long been worriedly watching humanity spiral ever further out of balance with Earth’s ecology, but have thus far deemed us unready for an intervention. This assessment is amply borne out by the events of the first four books, in which only a precious few humans prove capable of changing their ecocidal ways in line with the wise examples set by the aliens.
The new book is set seven millennia before the aliens’ first contact with humans. It tells the story of how the ellls and the varoks first developed a shared language and worked together to prevent the former from overshooting their planet’s carrying capacity. The action is set entirely on Ellason. The viewpoint alternates between varokian officials engaged in a tragically ill-conceived mission to persuade the ellls to start reining in their population, and the beleaguered victims of this misguided mission. As tensions flare and misunderstandings mount between the two species, one gifted elll and one remarkable varok make history together with an unprecedented breakthrough in interspecies communication. Despite being told wholly from the aliens’ perspectives and not containing a single human character, this is a moving, quite human tale.
The elll, an adolescent female named Ilean, has never been able to fit in with her peers. Where they crave social stimulation and can’t stand to be apart from their schools, she feels drained by her school’s constant social demands and prefers exploring alone on land. She also has a disability that prevents her from being able to sense the full range of ultrasonic echoes that other ellls use to navigate and communicate underwater; to her they’re just annoying buzzing sounds. Thus she continually finds herself separated from her school and unable to find her way back. Yet she’s gifted with other senses and extraordinary intelligence, and she yearns for adventure and a chance to prove herself. Here is an underdog many young readers will find relatable.
The varok who befriends her is a young scientist named Korad, who is part of the varokian mission on Ellason. He’s brilliant, idealistic and determined to figure out how to establish communication with the ellls. He correctly judges them to be far more intelligent and technologically sophisticated than most varoks give them credit for being, and he senses, again rightly, that in order to get through to them, he must come to understand them on their terms, not those of his own species.
Unfortunately, that is exactly the opposite of how the mission director has decided to approach the ellls. His plan is to educate them by way of undersea broadcasts spoken in a crude imitation of their sonic code. Korad and others believe this to be an unacceptable intrusion. As with marine noise pollution on Earth, this barrage of unnatural sound is sure to wreak havoc with nearly every aspect of elllonian life by drowning out the natural sounds on which virtually all the ellls’ life activities depend. Far from internalizing the messages, the ellls are liable to be annoyed by them. Indeed, this is precisely what happens once the broadcasts start.
It is under less than propitious circumstances that our two main heroes first meet. Ilean, once again separated from the rest of her school, is hopelessly adrift in a treacherous region of sea known as the Viortahk. Korad is on a night watch when he spots the commotion of Ilean’s school fruitlessly searching for her, and then the stricken form of Ilean herself once the others have given up their search out of fear of the dreaded predators that ply the Viortahk. A touching scene ensues in which Ilean and Korad, having found themselves in mortal danger, work together to make their way back to safety.
When Korad attempts to thank Ilean for saving him, little does he know he’s taking the first step in a momentous development in both elllonian and varokian history: the forging of the very first elll-varok lingua franca, known as Elllonian. A process of mutual discovery begins. We fascinatedly watch Korad strive to convey to Ilean the relationship between sounds and symbols, and Ilean coach Korad on how to correctly pronounce the ellls’ sonic codes. And we see our two heroes surmount cultural barriers that stand in the way of their common objective.
There is much to enjoy in what follows: solid character development and world building, unexpected dramatic turns, intense battle scenes, compelling explorations into alien intelligence and technology, and riveting debates about the ethics of interfering with other civilizations. We encounter awe-inspiring new sights and wonderfully bizarre new aliens. We’re lulled by the odd nocturnal charm of the settings (Ellason being only dimly lit by its bioluminescent sea life and the volcanic activity of its 30 moons).
Neeper is a microbiologist by training, and this training shows in the scientific rigor with which she renders the physics and biology of her extraterrestrial settings. For example, she convincingly accounts for the existence of liquid seas, as opposed to ice sheets, on the surface of Ellason despite its being several times farther from the sun’s warmth than Pluto is (deep-sea volcanism and natural nuclear fission being the sources of its life-sustaining heat).
Yet Neeper still manages to make space in her world for the fantastical, most notably in the form of the varoks’ telepathic abilities. Varoks come equipped with appendages known as patch organs, which allow them to read one another’s minds and, after a fashion, those of other species. Varoks are intensely rational creatures who can’t stand physical contact and who mate by linking minds. We’re never given scientific explanations for any of this; and while some might scoff at the insertion of the paranormal into a world otherwise grounded in scientific fact, I think it fits perfectly in this case.
The ellls and the varoks can be read, respectively, as allegories for humankind’s tendencies to discount future risks and arrogate to itself the role of Earth steward (failing to see that its well-intentioned meddling only does additional harm). The plights of these two species shed invaluable light on the real-life situation we humans now face as a result of our shortsighted impacts on Earth’s ecology—but do so without hitting us over the proverbial head the way scenarios in a lesser novel might.