By Kristine Kathryn Rusch
This is a book that has been sitting on my bookcase for years. It is also the first novel by Rusch that I have ever read, though I have read many of her shorter works and enjoyed them. Alien Influences is a ‘fix-up’, a novel constructed from a number of short stories. I haven’t read the original stories and am not sure how much of this book is original or reused. I’m only going to judge this story as a whole.
Alien Influences is the story about Humans on a colony world called Bountiful, which produces a valuable drug and is home to an alien race called the Dancers. The Dancers have a number of differences to Humans, such as an apparent inability to recall the past. Their heart, lungs, and hands also work like our teeth; the baby forms fall out to make way for more permanent replacements. The Dancers speed up this process with a ritual that removes a child’s heart, lungs, and hands, allowing them to grow up. When a few Human children turn up dead and mutilated in the same way, this understandably causes some tensions between the colonists and the Dancers. There are also questions on how the colonist’s children are influenced by spending time with these aliens.
Given that this is a fix-up novel, the book suffers from some pacing issues and an uneven plot. We start with what seems like a murder mystery/ethical dilemma, with questions about how to ethically deal with aliens who see killing and mutilating children as a good thing, and cannot be taught that Humans don’t work that why because they learn through instinct and repetition rather than knowledge of the past. This story comes to a satisfying end (for a short story) but then the book goes on to other stuff. First we get the trials of the Humans involved in the whole affair. We also see the Human government being extremely corrupt and terrible, and get hints that there will be a legal drama that seeks to undo it… but that never really materialises. Then we have a time skip, and find out what happened to the children that were influenced by the Dancers at the start. One of these children has become a bounty hunter, and ends up having to go back to Bountiful and confront his past.
I really enjoyed the first part, even though the true nature of the murders was quite obvious. Though to be fair, part of the reason it was obvious was because of the blurb. I also liked the end part, where John is a bounty hunter going after first a creature called a Bodeangenie and then some very special Dancer jars. There were also cool bits in the middle, but overall it got pretty slow there. And we never really get to see anything get done about the big government cover-up. A lot of the problems facing the characters in the second part of the book seemed to just disappeared on their own during the time skip.
Another problem I had was that I went in expecting a science fiction book, but it’s more of a fantasy in a sci-fi setting. This threw me for a while, because I was trying to figure out how the magic worked rather than just accepting it as magic. I’ve read a lot of books lately that blur the line between science fiction and fantasy and enjoyed them, but this didn’t go over so well for me. Until right near the end it just feels like a SF story with fantasy elements being patched on.
Alien Influences has some interesting ideas, and a lot of really emotional scenes. I really felt for a lot of the characters, and enjoyed this story despite the issues with the fix-up nature of the plot.