DOWA – Admire Please

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Russell's new book is out.  The Department of Off World Affairs is a fun and sprightly read.

Warning: contains spoilers

The tale is told through a mosaic of interconnected stories, each of which addresses some facet of humanity's interface with alien beings and their culture.  The premise is engaging: Voyager, the first object to actually leave the solar system, tears a hole through a barrier constructed to prevent alien communication from reaching Earth.  Once destroyed, Earth has one opportunity to request the barrier to be reinstated and to remain permanently free from interactions with aliens.  Instead, humanity – represented by scientist Vanessa Hargrove – chooses to let the barrier fall, and a host of alien civilizations crashes this little party call Earth.

I enjoyed the variety of what-if games this premise offers:

  • What if there are lots of alien cultures – and they've all learned to coexist?  Answer: they arrive in peace, but demand an end to all genocide on Earth.
  • What if we happen to possess in great quantities a substance that the rest of the Universe deems precious beyond measure?  Answer: crafty entrepreneurs opportunistically exploit our ignorance (and low prices) by buying all they can before humanity learns the true value of the commodity.
  • What if aliens have learned how to download consciousness into computers?  Answer: outlaws are very, very hard to find.

I also enjoyed the thoughts on the possible forms that alien life could take.  Blues – creatures that enjoy radial symmetry.  Rope Men – creatures who can alter their musculo-skeletal systems at will to create various forms as needed.  And perhaps the strangest alien life of all, Wreath – an intelligent and peaceful colonial virus which seeks a willing host with which to have a symbiotic relationship.

The book has a snappy pace.  Each chapter functions well as an independent short story with almost no cliffhangers, so there's a tendency to read to the end of a chapter, turn the page, and get sucked promptly into a new story.   Russell saves the best chapter for last, with a meatier endeavor that tells the tale of humanity's first voyage to the seat of alien government in a human-built starship.

If I have a criticism of the book, it's that I wished for more of the chunky storytelling Russell saved for the last chapter.  It's understandable that most of the chapters are light on storytelling: the whole point of DOWA is to hit dozens and dozens of topics and not dwell too deeply on any one facet of human-alien interaction.  But once I reached the final chapter, and was offered this tasty, filling fare, I wished for more.

A great book.  Admire, please.

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