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Alien Influences by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Cover art by Stephen Youll

Published by Bantam Spectra

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Turkey City Lexicon, often used by critiquers in discussing the strengths and weaknesses of a work of fiction, defines "idiot plot" as a story that works only because all the characters are idiots. The characters do whatever the author needs for each turn of the plot, and not out of any internal motivations. The late Damon Knight referred to a science fiction story as being a second-level idiot plot if it involved an imagined society that could only function if all the characters in it were idiots, doing whatever the author needed them to do to keep the plot going without any reference to rational self-interest.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has written a number of books in which, although the civilian characters behave in a sensible manner, the plot only works because a government official or agency persistently behaves in a colossally idiotic fashion. For instance, take the human government in the Retrieval Artist universe -- it's not portrayed as a tyrannical dictatorship along the lines of Nazi Germany or the former Soviet Union, yet it has created a legal system by which humans are constantly being handed over to alien governments for things that would never be crimes under human law, often relating to categories and concepts humans aren't even equipped mentally to process, and allow them to be subjected to grotesque punishments, without there being any evidence of discontent and call for change on the part of the citizenry, let alone the sort of protests that I would expect in the here and now. Am I supposed to believe that the entire citizenry has become a collection of idiots who ignore the horrors being perpetrated in the name of law, just so that we can have stories of people disappearing (a la a witness protection program) and the hero trying to track them down and reunite them with their loved ones after the charges have been quaashed.

Alien Influences is a stand-alone novel that doesn't appear to have any connection to any of the other sf novels Ms. Rusch has written, but it too depends for the workings of its plot on an almost unbelievably stupid government that violates every known principle of juvenile justice in its rush to judgment. True, the murders which Justin Schafer is brought to the colony world of Bountiful to investigate are horrific -- children turning up with their hands cut off and their internal organs torn out. But when it is discovered that the perpetrators are themselves children, nobody stops to even ask them why they did this.

Had they done so, they would have discovered the principal puzzle at the heart of the plot in chapter one, and there would've been no novel. We can't have the authorities with the power to dispense justice discovering right away that the children, having been exposed to the natural life cycles of the native sapient race known as the Dancers, and made desperate to grow up in order to escape families made dysfunctional through addiction to a drug called Salt Juice, have applied magic thinking to believe that if they use the Dancer puberty rites on members of their group, they can be forced to grow up right away.

Except that the biology of the Dancers is notably different from that of humans. The hands and internal organs are more like our teeth -- there is a baby set which is used until puberty, at which time they are replaced by an adult set that grows under them. In order to allow the adult hands and internal organs to emerge and take their roles, completing the process of maturation, the adult Dancers use crude but terribly sharp stone knives to cut away the baby hands and to open the chest cavity to remove the baby organs. Needless to say, trying to carry out this primitive surgical procedure on a human child in an effort to force them through puberty has disastrous effects on the subject's vital functioning.

But Justin is so obsessed with a previous disaster in which he wrongfully blamed the native race of another world for human deaths that when he clears the Dancers by discovering that the murders were in fact the work of the victims' playmates, he loses control of the investigation. So the children are condemned as murderers, and they are packed offworld to harsh penal regimes, to be banned any contact with alien species. The woman who was responsible for taking them to the Dancer settlement is also judged guilty of having led to the murders, and is condemned to a life of lowly work, stripped of everything but the minimum of possessions and made an outcast with a gag order forbidding her to speak of what happened.

So the entire novel consists of Justin's struggle to straighten up a mess that should never have happened if there'd been a sensible juvenile justice system in place. His only hope is something called the Alien Influences Act, which is supposed to permit clemency in cases where it can be shown that the crime was the result of the perpetrator being so heavily influenced by an alien culture as to lose track of human morals and ethics. Never mind that it should've been a non-issue if their society applied principles of child development that are already known in the here and now -- that children's minds are not fully developed, they do not necessarily apply adult logic in anticipating the consequences of their actions, and thus are very likely to not be able to form deadly intent.

Meanwhile, the kids struggle to survive in a system that regards them as hardened killers rather than a bunch of scared kids who are struggling to come to terms with the failure of their attempt to become Dancer and go through puberty like them. And after one of their number dies under mysterious circumstances, they are denied even the comfort of one another's griefs, for they are divided up and each sent to different worlds, to toil in harsh regimes meant to grind them down to nothing. For instance Beth is indentured to a hotel where she must serve the wishes of the rich and powerful. No matter how well she works, it does her no credit, but every time things go wrong she is slapped with demerits that increase her indenture. Her boss, Carla, rubs it in with a snippy lecture about how Beth would be a star employee if the hotel ran on merits, but because it runs on demerits, her indenture is rapidly growing beyond a human lifespan. It was so gratuitously cruel I seriously wanted to punch Carla in the snout.

Allen's death, the cause of their being divided up and sent to different worlds, is the first clue of the part of the story that I really had trouble suspending my disbelief about -- namely, that the kids somehow were actually developing Dancer abilities, moving outside of the realm of the human. And it continues with Beth's strange ability to "become Dancer" and determine the desires of her clients, as well as the strange nature of her demise as things become too harsh for her. And then the others, one by one, until only the leader of the group is left.

Even at the time of the murders, John had seemed oddly self-possessed and knowledgeable, yet at the same time childishly naive in his certainty that he and his friends could become Dancer just by thinking and moving as they did. A decade later, he is now a young man who has traveled the spaceways and has acquired his own spaceship. In violation of the edict that the Dancer Eight have no further contact with aliens, he returns to Bountiful to retrieve a wind sculpture, a device made on the world of Bodean to capture a native lifeform known as a bodeangenie. And in the process he encounters Allen.

It seems that he has transfigured into some kind of incorporeal being, and that the other six of the Dancer Eight who died also underwent a similar transformation. So off John heads with a supply of Dancer jars to capture their souls to bring them home to Bountiful. Because we're supposed to accept that just by being exposed to the Dancers, these children were able to become some kind of Lamarckian hybrid of human and Dancer. And that if the adults had just not interfered, their attempts to grow up by imitating Dancer rituals would really have worked.

I'm sorry, but as Marion Zimmer Bradley used to say, "suspension of disbelief does not mean hanging it by the neck until dead." I can buy that exposure to aliens could possibly awaken previously latent human talents such as telepathic abilities (although even in Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land it always seemed more like a symbolic representation of something else than a literal extrapolation), but I simply cannot swallow the idea that it could change the basic facts of human biology, or that the idea that it could being anything but childish magic thinking. So while the concepts are interesting, the story logic and execution runs aground on the rocks of the later revelations of the book.

Review posted March 19, 2009

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