May 2004
2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Survival by Julie E. Czerneda
Daw / Penguin Putnam HCVR: ISBN 0756401801 PubDate: 05/01/04
Review by Madeline Yeh

464 pgs. List price $23.95
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This book is pretty nearly perfect. It has very good characters, good plot, good style, good dialogue, a good universe and a wonderful mystery. It's a very textured story; neither the surroundings nor the people nor the adventures are simple. The story doesn't start on the Pacific coast, it starts on a granite outcrop overlooking the Tannu River as it travels down the Rocky mountain to the Pacific Coast. The alien Brymn uses subtle makeup and silver ear rings. Brymn is a 7 armed, 2 legged bright blue alien with elephant like skin, about the size of a giant grizzly. The main mystery starts out as an investigation into recent disappearances, perhaps connected into a 3,000 year old disaster, segues into an inquiry into invisible aliens and thence to various great conspiracies. Examining only the plot of this novel is like going to a dog show and looking at an X-Ray of the champion, the skeleton might be excellent, but so are the muscles and skin and fur and color and personality.

In a universe where humans have achieved the stars, and most heavy industry have gone off planet, there are still people whose only interest is on Earth. Mac, is one such, she has devoted her adult life to studying the salmon of the Pacific coast. Mac has just started a season of tracking and investigation the migrating salmon when she is interrupted by an alien visitor. Brymn believes that his species is threatened and wants Mac's help. Mac is prepared to refuse: how can an expert on Pacific Salmon help with a series of mysterious disappearances on various planets outside the solar system? But the Ministry of Extra-Sol Human affairs orders Mac to work with Brymn. The Ministry wishes to be sure that there is no threat to earth or any of the human colonies. These disappearances are perhaps related to the Chasm, an area in space devoid of life. Not intelligent life, all life. Once living planets are now a barren wasteland, of interest only to archeologists.

Soon after this Mac's research base is attacked by mysterious aliens and her best friend and fellow researcher Emily disappears. Untidy secrets start revealing themselves. After a subsequent attacks, Mac flees with Brymn to the Dhryn home world. A third attack drives the main Brymn and Mac to a world in the Chasm and the secrets behind it.

I found myself searching for reasons why Survival isn't completely perfect. It was such a humongous improvement over other books that looking for flaws in it started to resemble criticizing the Hope diamond. Flaws in perfection: 1) it's the first book in a series and the rest of the series isn't available. There are many wonderful things to say about this story. it's one of the best examples of an SF mystery I've read. The main characters, three humans and one alien are all distinct and individualistic. The Brymn and Mac are both stubborn, obsessed scientists who start out dedicated solely to their own fields.

Nikolai Piotr Trojanowski, introduced as a rather dapper, colorless bureaucrat, turns out to be a Ministry special agent. Emily, Mac's best friend and fellow biologists has secrets of her own. The foreshadowing of the central mystery is well set up. The writing style is good. The dialogue is believable there are no slow digressions to explain the society or technology. The universe is wonderful -- new technology and old habits blend seamlessly to create a real world. The aliens are alien, not humans in a different skin or a pastiche of bad anthropology, nor terrestrial animals in dress up. Mistakes are made despite good intentions. Almost all the people are individuals: competent and bright. The best thing about this book is the vividness and thoroughness of the description of the surroundings. The NorCoast Research facility is 6 pods floating in the bay which are littered with graduate students and laundry and equipment. The way station is filled with noisy confusion of trucks and boxes and machinery and people. I guess this book is too much like a excellent cheesecake. Imagine a cheese cake which starts with chocolate crumb crust, goes on to a perfectly flavored and textured creamy filling, is topped with fresh raspberries and chocolate sauce, with two chocolate curls and a lemon cookie on the side. Everything is wonderful, it's just overwhelming in its perfection. Someone get me a second serving real quick :)

I've read the author's other books. They are all good, but this one is by far the richest and most detailed. There is character development and world development and descriptions of the surroundings and society. In some ways this is a simple book, it goes forward in a straight chronological order with a single point of view. Of course by some standards, a cheesecake is a simple dessert. In other ways the book is very complex. Emily, Em, akka Emily Mamani Sarmiento, biologist and social butterfly, knows much more about the Dhryn and the mysterious aliens than she is willing to tell. The Dhryn has secrets, the Ministry has secrets and the alien Ro have secrets. At the end of the book some of these are revealed but not all. This is truly a wonderful book, like a cheesecake, it's utterly delicious from the first chapter to the last, and a sense of triumph at finally finishing it off.

2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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