A few years ago I read one of Brown's short stories (in The Mammoth Book of Mind-Blowing SF), which I loved, so I've been keen to read more of his work. The Serene Invasion has a lot of great ideas that made me want to love it, but it doesn't come together as well as it could have.
I'm a sucker for the SF trope of benevolent aliens. Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End is one of my all time favorites, and Brown obviously owes a lot to that novel (see my review of Clarke's novel and the recent SyFy miniseries). Like Clarke's Overlords, Brown's aliens, the Serene, come to Earth to help us create utopia, although the Serene are slightly more proactive in that they make all acts of violence on Earth impossible (how they do this is pretty interesting).
I liked all the characters, and it's good to see an international cast. Ana Devi, who we first meet as a street kid in Kolkata, was my favorite, but I also liked the others, especially Kath, a kindly English friend who has some big surprises.
Although I enjoyed all the Big Ideas SF elements, the plot meanders around with random threats and various characters veering in and out of the narrative. This could have been a great book if it has been more focused and some of the more extraneous features trimmed away. I'd have liked it more if it had been about 200 pages shorter. A lot of the scenes are focused on dialogue, which is fine since this isn't an action story, but there's a lot of beating around the bush and seemingly random subjects discussed while some of the really big questions remain undiscussed. Brown's writing style is perfectly serviceable, but it's not particularly beautiful.
Mild spoilers ahead: The fact that we ultimately learn so little about the Serene and the grand scheme of things in the galaxy was maybe Brown's attempt to maintain some mystery, but I think if you're going to do Big Ideas SF, you either have to go more complete mystery (like 2001: A Space Odyssey) or fuller disclosure (like Childhood's End). Brown's halfway measure is a bit frustrating.
The Philosophy Report: Can nonviolence be imposed?
Aside from the issues of colonialism and human potential where Brown owes a lot to Clarke, I love that Brown has the Serene impose nonviolence on humanity, what they call charea (does this intentionally echo the word "sharia"?).
This raises a number of questions: Is it ironic to force people to be nonviolent even if nobody is physically harmed in the process? Do we need nonviolence imposed from the outside to move beyond our violent impulses? Would this be a justifiable form of paternalism if it were possible? Is violence an inherent part of human nature such that imposing nonviolence would harm us? Do we need violence to defend ourselves from other humans or from malevolent aliens?
Some readers might feel that Brown is a bit heavy handed in his handling of these questions, but, as a proponent of nonviolent philosophy and fan of Martin Luther King, Jr., I personally like that he's trying to make a case for nonviolence at the cosmic level.
This could have been an amazing Big Ideas SF novel, but the ideas aren't explored quite enough for my tastes and the whole thing is hampered by a meandering plot. I can forgive some of these faults on account of what it gets right, so I'll say this is a book I liked but wanted to love.
See also my Goodreads review.