Book Review: From Elsewhere, by Susan Baethge
This is a middle of the range, soft sci-fi adventure story which covers the subject of inter-species contact but doesn’t stay long in the mind as something special. The cover design doesn’t give any clues.
The first thing I’d say is there’s a difference between a synopsis for a publisher (who does need to know it all to make an acceptance decision) and a synopsis on Goodreads, which is really an opportunity to intrigue the potential reader into buying a copy. It can pose a few unanswered questions, a cliff-hanger for example, or showcase the author’s gorgeous writing style if they have one. This synopsis seems to summarise the whole plot in a matter of fact style and saves the potential customer the trouble of reading it.
The best section of the book is the raid on the alien ship, followed by an escape and evasion sequence. There’s also this sweet idea about capturing enemies, putting them into a block of ice and dropping that on their own people from orbit. If you suspend disbelief around the heat of re-entry, this is a very cinematic idea. The main conundrum is which of the opposing alien species represents a threat to Earth and which would it be strategically sensible for the humans to side with — and this decision is kept deliberately unclear for the reader as new information and alien explanations of their actions, or promises, alter the context in several places.
The standard slips a little when a character arrives on Earth, although that should have been where the book took off because it’s an opportunity to show the problems of blending in, the culture clash and unique approaches to problems that highlight the differences between terrestrial and extra-terrestrial life, their alternative philosophies and understanding of time etc., or even set off an exchange about what the Universe is for. The best sci-fi addresses these kind of issues.
What we got instead was two alien species who look exactly the same as and can be mistaken for humans (mathematically close to impossible, as they evolved under totally separate conditions so won’t have the Earth mammal skeletal pattern [4 limbs, central spinal axis, rib cage, bipedal, head and eyes at the top] and they will not even be based on CGAT DNA and they won’t breathe the same proportions of atmospheric gasses). If an author is going to design a species or two and wants the reader to accept them as credibly alien, I think they should show how they have been shaped by the completely different stimuli in the radically different places where they evolved. Recycling the human body plan for your aliens is idle thinking. It won’t convince anyone. If a human actor was playing an alien part, they would at the very minimum put some deely boppers on.
The classic language barrier problem is instantly solved by a device which draws information from others’ minds, conveniently. The difference between this version and other stories where a device has done the same thing is that this one leaves the subject damaged.
What I viewed dimly was the padding and repetition, especially about what the brain ray does. In other words, the device is shown doing its thing, zappo, then a few pages later someone says ‘this is what the device has just done’, then the explanation of what has been done is brought up again on a few more occasions after that. All the author needed to do was show the thing in action and then we’d know the change was the result. Then drop it and move on, please. I didn’t count but there are also an extraordinary number of sentences which end in an exclamation mark, some rhetorical and some not. When there are too many, the reader becomes aware of that and anticipates the next one which spoils the flow of the story.
I may have been overly critical there but I wouldn’t be surprised if other reviewers don’t labour these points even harder. It is an easy-going adventure with a touch of intrigue and, I must say, it wins a star from me for being a first contact story with ordinary people for a change because too many others follow the cliché of landing on the White House lawn and wanting to speak to exactly the same person every time. You can read this book for light entertainment and draw some fun and adventurous ideas out of that but it’s advisable not to compare it to any of the more famous tales of aliens stranded on this planet because, with the exception of K-PAX, they have a lot more to say and aren’t so mild and pedestrian. Sorry.