Human to Human
Synopsis: Part three of a trilogy. Tom Gentry was a teenage ex-con, a no-hoper heading towards a life of crime. As Tom Red-Clay he works for the Federation of Sapient Planets and has ever since he was picked by them after he and his brother killed an FSP researcher disguised as a human covertly examining Earth. Tom’s brother is dead. Tom is married and has a kid.
As the book opens, the FSP is in Year Eight of the Sharwani Problem. The Sharwani are aggressive, xenophobic and don’t want to be one race in a crowd of equals. They’ve used nuclear blackmail to force one world to submit to them. The FSP is in no way threatened, since it is five hundred times larger than the Sharwani realm, but the FSP is reluctant to rely on a purely military solution, since the gate technology available making tracking down all of a culture next to impossible.
Tom, his wife Marianne and their child Karl are volunteered to take in a family of POWs. The culture on Karst, the capital planet of the FSP, favours multispecific communities. It is hoped that the Sharwani family will be able to live peacefully with the humans. If not, well, Tom is not important, the FSP has an entire colony of Tibetans to draw from if they need more humans and besides, the Sharwani have restraints on them, overt to begin with and later they are given linguistic implants which can also stun them into immobility.
Relations are extremely strained, not least because through ignorance the Sharwani are living in an environment which is very unpleasant for them. While matters appear to be getting better, the Sharwani launch terror attacks on Karst or some Sharwani do, at any rate: they are divided on the Federation Question, it would seem. The male Sharwani turns out to have subverted his controls and is working for the anti- FSP faction. He kills a Gwyng [bat-like being] who is a lover of Tom’s sister-in-law. Tom then strangles the Sharwani. The FSP is highly displeased: killing is to be avoided. Giving into xenophobic rage is especially to be avoided.
Tom is reassigned to the ongoing attempt to contact Earth, which is on the verge of gate technology. An attempt to give a researcher the necessary info is turned down by the researcher, but Earth develops the technology very quickly on its own. As a gesture of goodwill, the FSP hands Tom and at least one covert agent altered to look human over to the humans.
The humans, American and otherwise, grill Tom fairly thoroughly. They do not nail him for his parole violation. Some of the Terrans are disgusted at his choice of the Federation over Earth. Eventually, he is let go. Earth will join the Federation and they think Tom is a test.
He is surprised to find out that TV interviews with people in his old town paint him fairly positively for a Juvie drug offender. Perhaps he was not the total outcast he thought he was. He visits his old home, surprised at all the changes. The visit is not successful.
When he returns home, he is promoted. He also finds out his wife has had an affair with his boss, a bird-like being whose planet did not join the FSP, making the boss a refuge. Tom and his wife go through a period of anger and alienation from each other but reconcile by the end of the book.
The book ends as Tom’s mentor, Black Amber, is dying of old age, an especially unpleasant process for the Gwyng. The Gwyng abandon their old ones and physical and mental disintegration is abrupt. The various species are able to provide services for each other that members of single species cannot provide for one another.
[Warning: synopsis does not do justice to the book at all]
I really like the trilogy this is a conclusion to [Becoming Alien and Being Alien are the other two]. It is out of print as far as I know: it took me half a decade to find Becoming Alien, as it was already OOP by the time I found the second one.
The aliens are strongly influenced by terrestrial animals, all vertebrates. On one hand, this let Ore paint the behavioral differences of the various species in greater detail than most SF bothers with. The aliens are often very unhuman in their needs and behaviors and this is clearly a strength. OTOH, one wonders why every other planet with intelligent life produced species so very similar to a small subset of ours. Where are the exoskeletal, or other species drawn on the wide variety of body plans on Earth or from the ones which are equally viable, but which never evolved here?
The FSP [whose name, we are told, is a lot less silly sounding in Karst One or Two] is neither a plastic utopia like Trek’s Federation or a dystopia: it is a 5000 year old bureaucracy which “wants’ to survive: if it acts in a non-destructive fashion, it is because it has learned, if bureaucracies can be said to learn, which behaviors don’t pay off in the long run. Some of the member species are quite poor [The Gwyng, for example] but on the whole it provides sufficient reasons for species to join peacefully.
Not much detail about Earth: I thought the series was late 20th-early 21st. No dates given. We have space stations and a few other high-tech props, but it feels much like today.
I also like the overall story of Tom. It is my favourite aspect of the series. It’s rare that a character in SF struggles for the sort of success which is just a good job and a happy family. In a lot of stories, Tom would be Human ambassador or have wrestled the Sharwani bloodking for their throne or perhaps thrown an antisun at the star of the folks who killed his brother, the octodimensional bastards! Tom just grows up. There’s a lot to said for growing up. More characters should do it.