Book review: Vis Major, by Edward Hochsmann
The story was alright as an introduction to the much longer and I dare say more developed journey that follows (Engage at Dawn; First Contact) but this novella version as a stand-alone piece seemed a touch too systematic to me, in which a series of events are explained to the reader functionally, without any personal thoughts, feelings or impressions. Questions are answered for us, so the reader has little opportunity to draw their own conclusions.
There’s no hint that the aliens in this story have brain design, function or logic which are any different to how humans do it, apart from extra empathy (used as a remote scanner). There’s not enough here to show this life form has evolved in total separation from us, which they must have, alongside their own unique belief system and deeply layered traditions. Does all advanced life in the Universe gravitate toward a common template because it is the best possible design, even when you significantly change the environmental context? Or — is the fictional universe an author creates a reflection of their own niche experience of reality?
The plot is reminiscent of a Star Trek (original series?) episode I watched where they have to forage a planet for delirium crystals to get the USS Frisbee up and running again, then Kirk punches a lizard and rips his jumper. Anyway, the plot in this novella starts with a setback event which places a space ship’s crew in distress, which is a reliable story opening, then they are forced to risk revealing themselves to effect repairs and there’s a chain of events and consequences. Vis Major means superior force, by the way.
Of course the space ship lands in the United States of America, the only country on the whole planet where aliens ever land in fiction (arguably because the US has put in more effort than anyone else into making good sci-fi entertainment, who pays the piper calls the tune, so fair enough), but it would be refreshing to read at least one exception to this unwritten rule every quarter of a century or so. Naturally there can’t be 40 pages in a row without people waving pistols about in some doggone gunfight (plus an RPG in the teaser pages from the novel this story dominoes into). The aliens do, of course, praise the uniformed Americans they meet as intelligent, honourable and understanding; so that’s galactic endorsement established to everyone’s satisfaction then. There’s a similar scene in the original Battlestar Galactica series where US Navy fighter planes intercept Apollo’s Viper as it descends through Earth’s atmosphere and he exclaims “Boy, those guys are good”. Cultural affirmation is always open goal. You’d probably only notice it if another country said it about themselves.
I thought that as an example of the genre this was good enough, but missing a certain something that sets great stories apart.
Perhaps these disciplined aliens are soulless anyway and that’s just how they are, or not off-beat enough to fascinate us? Our anthropologists and exobiologists would have nothing to work on because they’re like humans with more ‘magic-seeming’ technology, having cracked problems to enable advances in physics that we’ve only identified theoretically. It is correct, as the author says, that the Einstein-Rosen Bridge needs a lot of power (exponential, they say) and humans simply don’t have the batteries. That’s the true mark of a superior stage of development but, boy, those AA batteries we have are so good.
Over-egging the speculation, the aliens could be from their planet’s equivalent of Western culture and that’s why we have too much in common at first contact — or is it possible the aliens have subtly steered us over the millennia to become more like them, I wonder? I expect if you read the main novel this promotes, all these questions and more will be answered, so let’s leave it on that doorstep.