The only problem with an alien species is that, well, they're alien. As in so completely different from you that their physical appearance is the least of your worries when it comes to getting to know them. Having seven of what appear to be arms can at least be deemed to have practical applications and can be taken at face value. But not being able to tell whether someone is hungry or sad is another matter altogether.
Dr. Mackenzie Connor (Mac) is a Marine biologist whose major concerns in life are ensuring that the research facility she helps administer has access to protected land, and making sure she's out in the field on time to be there when the salmon run. She never envisioned having to deal with anything more difficult then the civil servants who controlled their funding, so to say she was surprised to find that a representative from a species that had never visited earth before had traveled across the universe to meet her would be putting it mildly.
Compounding matters is it seems that the rest of the known species, in the shape of the Interspecies Union and specifically Earth's Ministry of Extra-Sol Human Affairs, consider the alien a flake whose theory is far-fetched. Unfortunately for the known world they can't take the chance of him being right, because if he is, it would mean the end of all life. The end result being that no matter what Mac would rather be doing, she must drop everything to work with Brymn from the planet Dhryn for the duration of his stay on Earth.
Mac isn't xenophobic or anything, but she'll be the first to admit that her work has been more than a little earth-centric. "I study salmon" becomes her standard means of expressing, to herself and others, her incredulity at the situation. What could a marine biologist working on the West Coast of British Columbia studying the genetic patterning of salmon do to help a seven-armed, blue-skinned archaeologist who believes the universe is in deadly peril?
In spite of her predisposition to despise, or at the least resent, Brymn (his presence dragging her away from her field site just as the salmon are beginning to spawn), she finds herself being drawn into his work in spite of herself. There is something endearing (and flattering) in his delight at meeting her, and his genuine enthusiasm for anything scientific that is new to him is infectious.
There are a couple of hitches that affect their work, and both are due to the rather odd taboos that the Dhryn are live by. The first that it is forbidden to study biology of any sort among their people, which explains his anxiety to meet with Mac; the second is their custom of not talking about anything from their past or of refusing to deal with matters that are unpleasant to them. If they don't talk about it, it doesn't exist, and if it doesn't exist, it can't bother them.
This of course makes it exceedingly difficult to get Brymn to open up about what is threatening all life through out the Universe. When someone refuses to put into words the information that would be of use, the name and description of the species he thinks who may have a hand in this plot for instance, it presents difficulties in communication that are worse than any language barrier could ever be.
Now this is probably beginning to sound like familiar territory to science fiction fans. New species comes to earth, a plot to destroy the universe is uncovered, plucky human scientist saves the day and so on. But in Survival, Julie E. Czerneda manages to stand quite a few of our preconceptions on their heads and turns this into more than just another cliché.
From Mac, our protagonist, through to the vast array of supporting cast, human and otherwise, characters are more then just types. Through the eyes of Dr. Connor we meet a wide variety of individuals who are more then just a cheering section for her heroics or lack thereof.
This includes Brymn. As Mac develops her relationship with the representative of Dhryn culture, it becomes easier to think of him as just one more person in her circle of friends. In some ways this blending of the boundaries between the two species makes the differences all the more striking. Hearing Brymn refuse medical treatment by saying, " a Dhryn is robust, or a Dhryn is not," or something equally outside our range of understanding becomes that much more disquieting because of our easy acceptance of his companionship.
The choice of rooting Mac so firmly on earth results in an air of believability around the book, and hopefully the series as well. Earth may have colonies beyond our atmosphere, and contact with other life forms is normal, but that's not Mac's world. Going off planet with her, moving into other species' galaxies, and experiencing it all through the eyes of someone like us who never even considered it an option, makes it all the more believable to read.
We can empathise much more with Mac than we would if she were just another space pilot. How do other species use the toilet? Is it compatible with human anatomy? These are the concerns we can all relate to. We share the surprises and indignities that she experiences, so that as she is gradually acclimatized to new surroundings and feelings, we go through the same process.
On other occasions where I have read hard science fiction books that have included scientific data, both real and postulated, it feels like chunks of a test book have just been copied and pasted into the story. Not only does Mac's occupation as a biologist lend itself to the natural introduction of these topics, they sound like they're coming out of the mouths of humans, not regurgitated from an encyclopaedia.
Not only does this make for ease of reading, it ensures a level of credibility that up until now I have not experienced in this style of book. Czerneda's description of the means employed for travelling light years in no time at all is an example of that human touch that is too often lacking in other books of this type.
Of course, no matter how approachable the science, believable the circumstances, or acceptable the characters, none of it matters if the plot isn't worth the pages its written on. Thankfully Czerneda's abilities don't fall apart at this most important of junctions. Within the context of the world she has created, everything that happens is completely credible. From the means of transportation, to the events that occur on Haven, the home planet of the Dhryn, and here on earth, she never pushes the envelope so far that we fall short of believing that the events depicted could be happening.
If the tone set by Survival, the first book in the Species Imperative series, is maintained by the remaining two books, then they are more then a cut above the standard hard science, Science Fiction. Wonderfully written and with moments of great humour, fear, sadness, love and anger, the journey experienced in Survival by Mac, both metaphorically and literally, is a joy to share.
Hitch a ride on Species Imperative and sit back and enjoy the tour of the universe and the amazing beings that populate it.