Tell me if you’ve heard this one:
A teenager in a rustic, backward community happens to be in the right place at the right time to encounter a distressed space craft. His attempt to help entangles him with a vast interstellar government, one that sits in judgment of humans. His actions could affect the course of human history.
Except this isn’t squeaky-clean Kip Russell, but Tom Gentry — who, when we first meet him, is the unwilling witness to his brother Warren’s ambitious drug dealings. Warren is trapped by mental illness and a criminal record; manufacturing drugs is the only way he can imagine to pay the mortgage on the family farm and keep the family fed. Tom doesn’t have Warren’s mental issues but he might as well have the criminal record, because the local authorities, all too familiar with the Gentrys, have marked him as a future criminal. Tom might dream of a better life but his odds of escaping to one are slim.
And then the alien space ship crashes in front of Tom, leaving only a damaged survivor whom Tom calls “Alpha”.
It turns out that a twitchy would-be drug lord and his kid brother aren’t the best choice of saviors. While they don’t actively want to kill Alpha, the combination of terrestrial ignorance and Warren’s paranoia means that that the brothers cannot effectively help Alpha. Warren also actively blocks Alpha’s attempts to contact his people on Earth.
Alpha’s co-workers and kin know he is missing and they are almost manage to find and save him. Almost. By the time they show up at the farm, Alpha is dead, Warren is in prison, and Tom has a brand-new criminal record courtesy of the War on Drugs. But all is not lost. Because Alpha thought Tom had potential, the aliens rather firmly recruit Tom to take Alpha’s place as a cadet on the artificial planet Karst.
It turns out that there is a vast Federation out in the stars, ancient and experienced enough to know how awful interstellar war can be. The space-twisting technology that puts worlds within easy reach also makes it easy to flee and hide until retaliation is possible. Rather than continue cycles of vengeance, the Federation is determined to negotiate peaceful trade and contact between the worlds.
The Federation isn’t quite as naïve as some Federations I could name. They’ve known about Earth for at least five centuries but contact has always gone so badly that they’ve settled for keeping an eye on us as we slowly ascend the technological ladder. They are hoping that we will be able to get past the whole pervasive xenophobia thing which — given that they could have nuked us into extinction in the 17th century — is mighty nice of them.
Having had a role in Alpha’s protracted and horrible death does not do Tom’s standing as a cadet any favours. Neither does being human. Despite their misgivings about Tom, the Federation does invest as much effort into training Tom as they would for any other recruit. Tom finds opportunities in space he would never be given at home.
The situation that provides the backdrop for much of the book is a tricky first contact with Yauntra, a world on the verge of developing interstellar travel. Only a few decades more advanced than Earth, Yauntra is similarly divided between great powers, each with its own agenda. The Federation may want Yauntra to become another world amongst hundreds but Yauntrans have their own goals, goals which may preclude peace.
For an organization that has been doing this interstellar diplomacy thing for millennia, the Federation is actually pretty awful at it, especially first contact. I will give them points for their determination to bridge the cognitive gaps between species and their willingness to accept some horrific costs1 in the name of avoiding war but it seems to me if they thought things through a bit better they might not go through personnel at the fearful rate that they do.
This book was one of a short lived Tor series called Ben Bova’s Discoveries. Starting in the 1970s (?), there was a short fad for naming imprints and series after specific editors. Ben Bova’s Discoveries may have been the last hurrah for that approach. Offhand, I cannot think of a later example. Readers will doubtless tell me how wrong I am in comments.
The series, as far as I can tell, consisted of:
Ether Ore by H. C. Turk (1987)
Napoleon Disentimed by Hayford Peirce (1987)
Becoming Alien by Rebecca Ore (1988)
Phylum Monsters by Hayford Peirce (1989)
Being Alien by Rebecca Ore (1989)
Cortez on Jupiter by Ernest Hogan (1990)
Father to the Man by John Gribbon (1990)
Human to Human by Rebecca Ore (1990)
If there was a stated theme beyond “notable books Ben Bova thinks you should read”, I cannot think of it. There was a strong tendency for the first Ben Bova’s Discoveries novel by any particular author to be their debut novel. (Some of them, Peirce for example, had track records at shorter lengths and Gribbon, at least, had had a number of novels published before Father to the Man).
With the exception of the Turk, which was awful, Bova’s tastes were similar enough to mine that I always snapped these up. Ben Bova’s Discoveries novels weren’t particularly well distributed in Canada (for which I guess I can think HB Fenn, which has since imploded) so the first Ore I encountered was Being Alien, the sequel to this book. It took me years to track down a used copy of the first book. I liked Being Alien enough to spend those years looking for Becoming Alien.
The aspect of Being Alien that caught my interest was Ore’s aliens. Rather than settle for humans in rubber masks or worlds with one exaggerated trait (The Planet of Poet-Warriors! The Planet of Logic! The Planet of Poor Impulse Control!), Ore appears to have turned to animal behavior for her model. Using existing species as her model does raise the question “how is it that evolution is so narrowly parallel that it makes sense to call aliens ‘apes’, ‘bats,’ and ‘birds’?” Not to mention the question that will come naturally to anyone with a modest background in the history of evolution: “how is it the aliens are analogous only to animal lineages that survived into the modern day on Earth?” But those questions aside, Ore’s aliens are more complex and truly alien than is the norm for SF.
I also wondered why most of these interstellar civilizations arrived at the same tech level at more or less the same time. The galaxy as a whole seems to be more synchronized than is probable, making Earth an outlier. The explanation may lie in the fact that some groups in the Federation deliberately feed information to the less technologically sophisticated cultures. I’d love to say that there was also evidence Someone took some animal species from Earth and bred other intelligent beings from them but that is contradicted by the text.
The most remarkable aspect of the book may be Ore’s choice of protagonist. You don’t see many sympathetically-depicted poverty-stricken drug dealers as protagonists in SF. Nor is much attention usually paid to the fact that the expectations of those in power can force people like Tom towards crime. Any evidence that Tom is unusually smart is waved away by his teachers; they insist that he tests well because he has a criminal’s iron nerves. By the time the aliens drag him off Earth, Tom is stuck on the margins of society, with most of the jobs open to him criminal in nature.
Although this book has the rough edges one would expect from a first novel, it is well worth the reader’s time. Better yet, Ore is still writing and her skills have improved with experience. This is a good place to begin with Ore’s but not a place to stop.
1: One of the little details Tom notices is that at some point in the not-too-distant past, someone partially glassed Karst. The wall of Dead Cadet Names is also not small.