The Disappeared by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Published by DAW Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
This novel has a particular resonance after the events of September 11, 2001. For the last several decades, we have been bombarded by the left-liberal academic establishment with messages that the belief in absolute standards of morals and justice are a form of ethnic bigotry that we need to outgrow, and that we should regard each and every culture as equally valid. If a culture should choose to follow practices that would be considered barbaric here, that is their business, and we have no right to criticize.
In the future world of Miles Flint, lunar detective, multiculturalism has been written into law. Humanity is fully subject to the laws and cultures of whatever aliens rule the areas they visit, even when they have no way of comprehending the very categories upon which those laws are based. Barbaric and often grotesque punishments are meted out upon them, or worse yet, upon their innocent relatives. The only hope of these unfortunates is to Disappear, to sever all their ties and create a new life for themselves. But that is highly illegal, and as such the Disappeared are vulnerable to blackmail or outright betrayal.
As Miles is forced to face the true nature and consequences of the high-sounding rhetoric of multicultural justice, he grows to doubt the rightness of what he is doing. In order to obey the law, he is being forced to betray his own understanding of justice, time and time again. Can he in good conscience hand an innocent child over to aliens to be brainwashed, simply because the child's parents were among the first to deal with those aliens and thus discovered certain things about not just their culture, but their biology, the hard way?
This last part was what really bothers me about this novel. While I like the implicit criticism of the transnational-progressive "all cultures are equal and must be treated with equal respect, except Western culture which is vicious, rapacious and must learn to hang its head in shame and submit" notion, it seems that by retelling it in space with aliens, Ms. Rusch has introduced a really big Elephant in the Middle of the Living Room -- namely, the notion that the differences between human and alien are purely cultural. That is, that it's all a matter of learned behaviors, and getting along with aliens and obeying their laws is simply a matter of being willing to set aside our own assumptions and learn how.
But what if it isn't just cultural? What if the observed culture is at least partly the result of differences in the hardwiring of the alien brain, such that humans literally cannot learn because they are not hardwired biologically to parse the society with which they are being confronted? If this were true, it's very possible that each society would keep trying to see the other in their own terms, with disastrous results along the lines of the original human settlers on the atevi homeworld in C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner series, who didn't realize that they were dealing with aliens hardwired to make social connections on a radically different basis than humans, and thus did things that connected groups that must never connect, creating social tensions that finally erupted in deadly violence.
If it is true that the differences in these societies are the result of differences in the hardwiring of the brain, then no matter how hard people try to obey alien laws while within their jurisdictions, they will still end up transgressing them simply because the humans are still thinking in terms of human categories while trying to obey them, not being hardwired to comprehend the alien categories that underlie the laws in question -- resulting in a situation of never-ending injustices.
Which raises to me the question of why this is tolerated -- it seems like even after a substantial amount of time (at least decades, if not generations, is implied) in which humans have been dealing with aliens, everybody is still assuming that transgressions of alien law are happening for the same reasons transgressions of human law happen -- willful transgression or obstinate unwillingness to inform oneself of the differences in another community's legal system -- rather than a fundamental incompatibility of alien cultures to human hardwiring (and vice versa). Why is nobody raising the question? Why is nobody objecting to their fellow human beings getting effectively sold down the river to alien justice systems in order to further the supposed financial benefits of trade with these alien races?
This is one of the central weaknesses of the worldbuilding of this novel, one that brings to my mind the question of whether we have a second-order idiot plot -- that is, a fictional society that works only because everybody in it behaves like idiots. There is no evidence of totalitarian repression, at least not in the parts of Earth (and Lunar) society that traces its culture historically from the United States of America, yet there is no sign of popular outrage or any movement to oppose the situation. I can't quite believe that everybody out there is lulled by the idea that it couldn't possibly happen to them and the people who fall afoul of alien law must be stupid and deserve it, and there's no evidence that the government is issuing gag orders or covering up the horrible situations like the little boy who had his tongue torn out for having taught his Disty neighbor English. If it were to happen right know, it would be all over the Internet five minutes after the verdict came down, and the usual activists would be passing the word, getting people to sign petitions and join Facebook groups in support of the child, and generally demanding that Something Be Done about this gross miscarriage of justice.
Perhaps they're afraid to speak up just in case they might someday need to travel to an alien jurisdiction and their prior activism on behalf of someone else who ran afoul of alien law might suddenly get them in trouble. Yet there is no evidence within the story that people (especially college students, who are the most likely to be active in these sorts of causes, since they have plenty of time on their hands) are carefully warned of the dangers that such activism may pose to their future career possibilities, or of people having judgments levied against them simply for protesting an alien court decision that they regard as monstrously unjust. People who actually try to get people off on technicalities are mentioned as having fallen afoul of alien laws, such that lawyers were afraid to take potentially dangerous cases -- but there was no evidence that simply writing a sharply-worded blog entry or USEnet post could result in a knock on the door, or even a mark in an alien logbook to arrest and charge should the person of interest ever enter that race's space.
Thus it starts feeling more and more like this situation exists entirely for the convenience of the plot, so that we'll have a lot of sympathetic characters, nice people like us rather than obvious criminals, running afoul of bizarre and incomprehensible alien laws and having to go into hiding through a gray-market version of the witness-protection program. If the populace would act like real people instead of puppets of the author's will, there'd have been such a hue and cry within the first generation that either human governments would have put do-not-travel warnings out on all the dangerous worlds, or fighting those judgments in order to keep peace with their constituencies. Or if the governments are really in the control of the greedy corporations who want the profit of dealing with alien races even at the cost of selling their employees down the river at need, the velvet glove would've come off and there would've been visible restrictions on free speech, free association and the right to petition for redress of grievances that would have created a very different human society than what we see in the book.
Review posted April 29, 2010.
Buy The Disappeared: A Retrieval Artist Novel from Amazon.com