If your first contacts with alien species turned out to be less than perfect you could be excused for developing a slight case of xenophobia. That’s what happened to Dr. Mackenzie Connor (Mac), the central character in Julie E. Czerneda's Species Imperative trilogy. The Dhryn a seemingly peaceful bunch, turned out to be set on destroying the universe, and the Ro, invisible folk, (among whom is Mac’s best friend, who seems to be losing more and more of her physical being every time you see her), are working to defeat them. Then the first alien she had known, Brymn, metamorphosed into a hideous, dangerous creature, begging her to kill him. Both Mac and Brymn had assumed that the Dhryn were victims of horrible persecution on the part of the deadly Ro, and the Ro were intent on finishing the destruction of the universe that they began 3,000 years ago. But when Brymn evolved into a death-dealing creature capable of inflicting horrible destruction, thinking had to change.
At the beginning of Migration book two, Mac is back on earth recuperating from the physical and psychological traumas she has experienced on her first trip off the planet. As is most often the case, the former is a lot easier to recuperate from than the latter. Aside from having nightmares of witnessing scenes of mass destruction by creatures that are calling her friend, her waking moments are also fraught with difficulties. First the process that allowed her to assimilate the language of the Dhryn seems to have destroyed her ability to not only read English, but in times of stress not even notice she is speaking a language unknown to any on Earth but herself.
Second is the fact that her life is no longer apparently her own. As she now seems to be the only target of contact by the Ro, who all the other species in the known universe are desperate to talk with, the earth's Ministry of Extra – Sol Human Affairs, have assigned her permanent protection whether she wants it or not. In spite of all, this Mac is desperate to reclaim the threads of her life and go back to what she feels her true calling to be: the studying of the migratory patterns of salmon.
But as Shakespeare had Macbeth say, she is far too steeped in blood to go back, meaning our Mac is involved up to her neck now and can't back out even if she wants too. The other forces in the universe aren't about to let her. Even running away to hide in the backwoods of Northern Ontario proves to be no escape from either the Ministry or sentient beings from other parts of the universe who want her for the potential of another contact from the Ro.
So it's not surprising that after another close encounter of the strange kind, which you'll have to read to believe, she ends up in New Zealand as part of an interspecies conference on what do about the problem of the Dhryn. While half the delegates are focused on trying to figure out ways of countering their attacks, the other half are trying to figure out how to construct a device that will signal the Ro. Mac's best friend Emily had transmitted the signal code to Mac, but it's now up to the scientists to figure out how to transmit to the"no space" that the Ro exist in.
Only Mac and her strange group of archaeologists studying the remains of the original Dhryn home world seem to have any interest in finding out why this seemingly benign species is doing what they are doing. How had the genetic flaw that turns them into the monsters that her friend had become come about? Could it have been planted by another species? What has caused them to set forth on this deadly and mindless migration?
All of Mac's studies of the migratory patterns of salmon tell her that there is something unnatural in the behaviour the Dhryn are exhibiting. She also knows that a species has to follow some sort of predetermined path for migrating. There has to be something instinctual calling to them, or leading them, to a final destination. But where is it, and why are they making all these stops on the way to destroy worlds seemingly at random?
Migration picks up right where book one of the series Survival left off in terms of the wonderful storytelling abilities of Mrs. Czerneda. Perhaps it's because I'm fortunate enough to be reading them directly in sequence without having to wait for the next book to be published, but the atmosphere of the first book is immediately present in the second. It may sound strange to say that books dealing with death and destruction on a personal and species level can feel comfortable, but that's how it feels to be reading these books. They are like a favourite sweater. By the time you pick up the second book the characters have become friends who you are glad to see again, and the world is one you feel right at home in. Even the aliens feel like they could be your next-door neighbours.
Mrs. Czerneda has an amazing ability to create a world fundamentally different from ours and not only make it seem eminently plausible, but perfectly natural. Part of that stems from her creation of the character Mackenzie Connor. Mac is our only source of information, so we have to take her word for everything that happens, and Mac is a delightful informant.
She's opinionated, stubborn, passionate in what she believes in, loyal to a fault, fallible, foolish, intelligent, and reckless. She's perfect for the task at hand of being our guide and eyes, without being annoyingly perfect, like far too many heroines and heroes these days. She has blind spots you can drive a truck through and misses things you or I may have seen coming, but that's part of her charm and also a brilliant way of advancing the plot.
Setting an entire series through the eyes of one character is a risky proposition. If the character at any time strikes a false note, or deviates from what the reader might think of as her normal behaviour, the whole endeavour will be left in tatters. At the same time if Mac became too predictable, then the stories would lose their edge and their plausibility.
All of our impressions are formed through the eyes of this one person, whether the simple aesthetics of an environment, or the understanding of the science behind the means of interstellar space travel. Our emotional impressions are filtered through Mac's, as are our interpretations of events and circumstances. This could lead to a situation where a lesser author would manipulate us to follow a prearranged path of his or her convenience.
But because Julie has made Mac less than omnipotent and extremely fallible we are given plenty of latitude to question her assessments and reach our own conclusions. We know we can't change what she's going to do, but just like in life where we have to let our friends find things out for themselves sometimes, Mac has to come to her own realizations.
As I was reading Migration I came to the realization that after the better part of two books I knew more details of Mac's life than I had ever known about people who I had at some point in my life called friend. Czerneda has created the circumstances that allow us to be friends with her lead character; real friends who are honest with each other about their flaws and aren't blinkered to the things we do wrong.
The people who are Mac's friends, or are people she admires, become the same for us, because we see them through her eyes, feeling and sensing what she does. Anyone's disappointment of her, or their betrayal of that friendship, sends reverberations through us. Not only are our impressions of others formed by Mac's opinion, we are also able to witness their behaviour and formulate opinions on our own.
Mac is no super being who has amazing powers. She is an intelligent human being who been picked up in the blender of circumstances and spun around at full speed, feeling lucky to have not been shredded, chopped or diced. Her willingness to keep going in the face of adversity is both her saving grace and her curse. Those who are trying to manipulate the events of her life know her sufficiently that they count on her having certain reactions to certain situations. For us, her friends, fellow travellers, and audience, the mystery is, will she be able to change in order to take away this advantage she has given her mysterious foe, or will she again be made victim of her own characteristics?
Perhaps this is something I can identify with more readily than others on a personal level, having had to deal with changing to myself in order to progress, but I think we can all recognise Mac's struggle on some level or another. Species Imperative is about the survival of the universe and an exploration of the biological and other motivations behind behaviours. In the character of Mac, Julie Czerneda has provided a microcosmic reflection of the trilogy's theme.
Read these books for the story and the adventure and you will be well satisfied. But read them for gaining an understanding of human behaviour and making a new friend and you will come away doubly rewarded.