Becoming Alien

Rebecca Ore
Becoming Alien Cover

Becoming Alien

Sable Aradia

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge and the Second Best reading challenge.

I really enjoyed this book. This is the ultimate stranger in a strange land story. A hillbilly boy from the Appalachian backwoods rescues a crash-landed alien, which is a threat to Tom's older brother's drug-manufacturing business. Through a complex series of unfortunate events, Tom is offered a chance to become a cadet in the Federation of Sapient Beings in place of the alien he aided. A whole series of odd situations ensue due to the general strangeness of trying to get along with other intelligent beings with a completely different evolutionary tree. Unlike in Star Trek, communication is not a simple matter of a Universal Translator, even with surgical adaptations, and species are not generally of the same phenotype. In many cases, instincts of one species trigger contradictory instinctive reactions in another species, and being able to interact with one another requires a great deal of effort, compromise, and in some cases, mind-altering drugs and surgical adaptations. For instance, one of the major species, a bat-derivative called Gwyngs, has an instinctive fear of avians, who make up several other significant species in the Federation.

Which leads me to a point of complaint. The book cover of this edition pisses me off. First of all, the reason I picked up this book in the first place is that I recognized the Drac on the cover from "Enemy Mine," an excellent sci-fi movie that I watched in the 1980s that was one of the primary sources of my interest in science fiction; and I was aware that it was based on a short novel, and I thought this might have been that novel. Which it wasn't. I'll forgive it for that because I thought it was an excellent novel anyway. But I can't forgive it for the fact that there is not a single alien species in this book that looks remotely like the alien in this picture, even if you stretch the limits of your imagination. All of the aliens in the Federation, it says specifically, are mammals or avians, because it's just too difficult for birds and mammals to understand and relate to other genus of lifeforms. That alien on the cover is clearly a reptile. Why is it that sci-fi books seem determined to use the worst covers possible? Why can't the publishers commission a couple of in-house artists to paint scenes from the actual books? The fantasy publishers seem to have this well in hand, so you guys have no excuse.

But I digress. Otherwise I have no complaints! I thought the story was engaging and interesting. I liked the characters, from Tom to his alien companions and compatriots. I would also like to say that I thought that these were some of the best aliens I've ever read. They clearly are not human; they have different instincts and motivations, and often what they're trying to get across requires a second read to comprehend; much as I imagine Tom, in the novel, had to play things back in his head a couple of times to grasp the full meaning of what the aliens were trying to say. Yet, their motivations are understandable and even empathetic. I have read other reviews that make the comparison to C.J. Cherryh, whose aliens are brilliant, and I thought of that comparison myself as I was reading.

Some other reviews have complained that the plot wanders and that some situations are confusing to the reader as well as the character. I disagree. The plot is about adapting to the strangeness of these alien species and learning to appreciate and support what it is that the Federation stands for. Events transpire in the course of Tom's learning process as a cadet that help Tom to do these things. If people are confused I suggest they think of it in terms of theme. This is not the story of a single event; it is the story of Tom's growth as a character, and in many ways, it's a bildungsroman. Some events seem totally unrelated to each other; and they are, but their purpose is to confront Tom with his xenophobia so that he can grow beyond it, even eventually helping others to grow beyond theirs; and also, to hold up a dark mirror to show us our own xenophobia. How are we ever going to be able to interact with intelligent alien birds, should we encounter them, if we can't stop racism? And what's going to happen if we encounter something truly weird, like insects or a crystalline entity?

I admit that sometimes I had to read a phrase twice within a dialogue in order to figure out what a particular alien was trying to say; but as I said, I liked that because I think it reflected Tom's experience nicely, and gave me a rather intense first-person experience.

A lot of things remain unresolved, so now I've got to find the rest of the trilogy somewhere. But regardless, the main story arc is resolved and I really enjoyed the ride. I guess I'm just not giving it a full five stars due to style elements. I thought it was really interesting and I wanted to find out what happened next enough to breeze through this in a couple of days, but I wasn't as emotionally engaged as I have been in other books. Still, well worth reading and I'm likely to hold onto my copy for a while.