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Wanderin’ Worker

Being Alien  (Becoming Alien, volume 2)

By Rebecca Ore 

22 Aug, 2023

Big Hair, Big Guns!


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1989’s Being Alien is the second volume in Rebecca Ore’s Becoming Alien trilogy. The first volume, Becoming Alien, was reviewed here.

Tom Gentry has been recruited to serve the galactic polity, the Federation. He has been given a new name, training, and employment in the Federation’s monitoring and first contact bureaucracy.

For the most part, Tom has adjusted well. 

The Federation has known about Earth for at least five centuries. They haven’t opened contact; there’s no pressing reason to do so. When, from time to time humans have become aware of the aliens, they have been permitted (or compelled) to relocate to Karst, the Federation’s capital planet. Tom is one such recruit.

The aliens are convinced that Tom would be a more efficient team member were he pair-bonded. There is a small human colony in Karst, but Tom hasn’t clicked with any of the women there. Hence Tom is dispatched to join a community of monitors living in Berkeley1, California. There he is assigned three tasks, one optional: research Japan (specifically the Meiji Restoration), go to dinner with at least two humans, and find himself a bride.

The Berkley mission is a success, despite the minor complication that a number of humans suddenly realize their odd neighbors are in fact aliens. Tom returns to Karst with a number of refugees,” as immigrants from uncontacted worlds are known, one of whom is his brand-new lover, Reann.

Back on Karst, Tom is drawn into the ongoing struggle to deal with the Sharwan. Contacted by the Federation after developing gate technology, the Sharwan spurned the offer of membership. The Sharwan have no interest in partners, preferring to use gate technology to find and conquer less developed worlds.

After being contacted by both Sharwan and the Federation, the planet Isa is bullied into accepting Sharwan domination. Once conquered, Isa’s Wrengee people discover that the Sharwan are abusive masters. The Federation wants to help Isa regain its independence, but liberating Isa now that the Sharwan are present will be the work of generations. Tom has been enlisted in an endeavor that offers little satisfaction.

Tom has two distractions from workplace angst. A happy one: he and Reann have been licensed to have a child. A sad one: while on Earth, Tom had his jailbird older brother Warren kidnapped and brought to Karse, hoping that drug-addict Warren would find some happiness there. Tom’s intentions were good but the results are tragic.


Many SF aliens, in books and on film, are humans in rubber masks. Author Ore writes aliens who are animals in rubber masks. All known intelligent races (in her setting) fall into one of a few categories: humanoid, ursine, avian, and chiropteran. Nobody knows why the same basic types appear on world after world. Nobody seems interested in finding out why, either: every Federation member is technologically sophisticated, but there is very little in-text evidence they have science as such. No inquisitive scientists.

In fact, as mentioned in my review of the previous volume, the Federation does one thing well and many things badly. Thus far, they have succeeded at their primary goal of avoiding war between members2. However, the list of fields in which they do not excel is long. They wait until they have no choice to contact new civilizations, in part because they don’t seem to have the resources to do much more than monitor non-gate worlds. Their efforts to defend Isa fail. Finally, despite having centuries of experience absorbing new civilizations, the results are still displeasing enough that the aliens are keenly interested in how Japan managed modernization3.

It seems that the primary cause of Federation issues is that it is made up of a variety of species, many of whom have considerable trouble understanding each other. The Federation has coping mechanisms, including conlangs designed to be as universal as possible. However, the default approach is to view beings of other species in stereotypical terms, interpreting their behavior according to the template of aggregate behavior for that species. Thus, if Tom and Reann argued about doing the dishes, their alien neighbors would interpret that purely in terms of human male and female dominance struggles.

As the plot makes painfully clear, this reductive approach is insufficient in many cases. Warren’s sad story is driven by the fact alien doctors are far more adept at modifying human brains than they are at understanding motivation, while Tom is too blinded by the Warren he wants Warren to be to see Warren as he actually is.

As mentioned in my review of Becoming Alien, Being Alien was the first Ore novel I had encountered. Long-time readers may recall that beginning the trilogy in the middle was exactly the same approach I took with Dune. There are parallels, in particular that both are essentially tragedies. Aside from Tom’s courtship of Reann, the overwhelming theme is failure: humans who should not have learned about aliens do, Isa is not saved, and neither is Warren. Being Alien isn’t an upbeat experience but it was engaging enough that I spent years finding the first volume.

Being Alien is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada)

here (Amazon UK), and here (Aqueduct Press). I did not find Being Alien at Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, or Chapters-Indigo.

1: Federation agents on Earth are selected from races who can be made to pass for human. However, many of the aliens are still pretty clearly not human, passing because humans are as a class incredibly unobservant. Also, the Federation is pretty sure any reports of aliens in Berkley will be dismissed by human authorities as the claims of lunatics.

2: It would be impolite to mention the semi-melted ruins on Karst.

3: It is possible to interpret the alien request for reports on the Meiji Restoration as a hint that they have only just noticed the Meiji Restoration happened at all. But after all, Earth is just one of hundreds of barbarian worlds on which the Federation keeps an eye.