Hex by Allen Steele
Well, here we go again. I keep hoping the next Allen Steele will be a return to the glory days of his early books so, with some trepidation, I open Hex (Berkley Publishing, 2011). My first impression is less than encouraging. The passive-aggressive alien culture calling itself the Talus recognise that humans have made contact with the danui. This is one of the more enigmatic races and somewhat reclusive. Except this race has made what can only be described as a grand gesture to the universe. They have constructed the tanaash-haq (which translates the “the living world”) and, in their off-hand way, offered its potential as a habitat to races considered actually or potentially worthy. Through the nord acting as third party intermediaries, a small group of humans from Coyote is invited to view this engineering marvel which turns out to be a massive Dyson sphere completely enclosing the danui sun. They have dismantled all the planets to provide the raw materials for the construction project and, now that it’s all done, they have relocated to part of this new habitat. With more than enough space to go around, other races are also moving in.
If we go back to the days of Big Dumb Object science fiction like Ringworld by Larry Niven and Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C Clarke, we had Earth exploring alien objects not knowing who had built them. They were just there and our “boys” went around poking everything with sharp sticks to see whether anything reacted to the poke (a bit like Facebook, really). The problem with such novels is that, without finding someone immensely old who could tell our explorers where these Objects had come from and how they came to be built, we were often left with little better understanding than when we started. That’s why they were “dumb” objects. In this case, it’s obvious who built the thing and, to some extent, why it was built. More to the point, it’s already filling up with different races all of whom have developed societies capable of interstellar travel. Dumbness should not an issue here. What should happen is that the Talus should provide facilitators or, if you prefer, ambassadors to give us the cultural background and introduce us to the right people so we can be allocated habitat space and smoothly integrate into the neighbourhood.
But no! There would be no story in that. So everyone must act dumb to generate the maximum potential for misunderstanding, bloodshed and political brinkmanship. None of the alien races must be allowed to contact the humans before they arrive in the system and give them any useful information about what to expect. The team therefore arrives “dumb” and “blind” hoping to play a mean pinball. Once at the relevant coordinates, they continuously send out messages asking what they can or cannot safely do. Naturally, no-one answers. As to the crew, they have been picked with an eye on complete dysfunctionality. The leader of the away team is fundamentally incompetent. Fortunately, he’s quickly killed when contact is made with one of the alien races. Another member of the team, Sandy, also has a kind of death wish whether for herself or others. The captain of the starship is mother to one of the away team, but they don’t speak to each other. There’s also a problem in the chain of command because the only one who might be considered an expert in alien contact and negotiation is not in charge. The best he can do is offer advice to the captain. So, instead of having a well-trained team capable of acting with a reasonable chance of survival when under pressure, we have a group of people who don’t get on with each other and are prone to do daft things. As you can imagine, this rapidly degenerates into a chaotic situation that tests the reader’s patience. I have no problem in watching something go wrong when everyone is doing their best. I get extremely annoyed very quickly when stupidity gets people into difficulty and then, instead of learning from these mistakes, they go on to make yet more stupid decisions. There comes a point when you just wish the aliens would go off and do stupid alien things without seeking to involve us, and we humans would all commit suicide to save the aliens the trouble of killing us when we repeatedly do stupid things.
As we come to the end, we find human impulsiveness at its best or worst depending on your point of view. Having been clearly told of a rule, the ship’s captain deliberately ignores it. None of this, “When in Rome. . .” rubbish for her. It’s “My way or the highway!” for her and, by association, the whole of humanity. Personally, I was less than indifferent by this time. I hoped the aliens would just wipe us all out and feed our molecules back into their living world system. I’m not sure what message Allen Steele thinks he’s sending to readers in this book, but it seems to be that recklessly going forward all the time, no matter what the circumstances, is always the right thing to do. This also seems to be the thinking behind the stand-your-ground laws that are causing so much national and international interest in the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida. Essentially these laws permit gun-totting Americans to shoot each other without any duty to retreat or first explore peaceful options to resolve the crisis. They get an immunity to prosecution so long as they reasonably believe they are being threatened. Perhaps I’m wrong, but Allen Steele seems to be promoting exactly this NRA-backed approach in all dealings with aliens, even if they have superior technology and could eradicate our species without blinking. It also underpins the notion of American exceptionalism which is used to justify unilaterally interfering in the affairs of other sovereign states. This is hardly the right law for a civilised country and certainly not the right approach in a technologically sophisticated galaxy. So unless you feel like having a slow-motion lobotomy, give Hex a miss.