After loving Nancy Kress’ Sleepless series (Beggars in Spain and its follow-ups), and Probability series, I thought I’d backtrack and try one of her earlier books. After writing some fantasy early in her career, she moved on to science fiction, with her first such novel being An Alien Light, published in 1988. And I was pleased to find it showcasing the same high quality of writing that I have come to know from her later work.
The novel is set in the mid-distant future after humanity has developed the ability to travel between the stars. And out there among the stars, humanity has found an enemy and is at war with that enemy, the Ged, who seem to be at roughly the same technological level as the humans. The reasons behind this war and how it started are never given, and in fact it plays only a background role and is never described in any detail.
The focus of the book is a small population of humans who have descended from a colony ship that landed on a distant planet, who have forgotten their origins and know nothing of the existence of the rest of humanity. They are primitives, existing at something like an Iron Age level, and furthermore are divided into two bitterly warring factions, each based around its own city, each with its own social identity. The Ged discover this planet and its primitive humans, and see it as the perfect laboratory in which to study aspects of human psychology which they find extremely puzzling, hoping that whatever they learn will aid them in the war (in which they seem to be taking a beating lately).
So the Ged send a team to the planet to set up a massive anthropological experiment to study what they call the Central Paradox. The paradox that has them so stumped is how humans, as violent as they are, could have lasted long enough to achieve interstellar spaceflight without first destroying themselves. As we learn from the Ged, this is absolutely unheard of. Any species whose members commit violence against each other invariably destroys itself long before reaching the stars. Humanity is the first species encountered that has proven to be the exception to the rule. The Ged simply can’t fathom how a species could be intelligent and at the same time exhibit conflict within itself. This is completely alien to the Ged, who value solidarity above anything else — “singing in harmony,” they call it.
I must say that I found it a bit hard to swallow the Ged’s claim about humanity being the sole example of an intelligent yet violent species. Evolutionary logic goes a long way toward explaining violence, and it is very likely that species from other worlds would have developed under that same logic and would thus have violence as at least some part of their nature. And indeed, at the end of the book, when the Ged finally find a solution to the Central Paradox, that solution does seem to imply that violence evolved with a certain level of functionality. It just seems strange that the same didn’t happen anywhere else in the galaxy. I suppose Kress wanted to isolate our own species in order to better examine our own nature, which is of course what good science fiction does. And so it wasn’t too hard to set aside any theoretical debates about the nature of aliens, and focus on the humans, which is after all where the real strength of this novel lies.
One thing Kress is very good at (there are several) is characterization. Her characters are people you can sympathize with and really care about, people who draw you into the story because they seem so real. And An Alien Light was no exception in this area. These characters displayed so much real emotion, and were so complex in their interactions with each other, that they took on a life of their own, and that’s what made this such an enjoyable read.
It’s interesting how conflict is so deeply woven into this novel at every level. There’s the conflict between human and Ged. There’s the conflict between the two human city-states of this lost colony. There is conflict between smaller groups within each of those subcultures. And then, within many of the major characters, there is conflict within a single individual who struggles — often agonizingly — to find the right path between opposing sets of principles, creeds, or desires. But then, set against the concept of conflict is the concept of cooperation; more and more throughout the book, the most unlikely and unpredictable alliances form between characters who, before meeting the Ged, would rather have killed each other than help each other.
In the end, I find it hard to distill a single, cohesive message from this book. If I had to try, perhaps it would be that traits like violence or cooperation aren’t all-or-nothing propositions, but are highly dependent on context, and the context means everything in how they play out. And they played out in all sorts of fascinating ways in this novel full of vivid and believable characters.