Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Imposing Nonviolence: The Serene Invasion by Eric Brown

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.

The good

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.

The bad

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.

Final verdict

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.

Rating: 82/100

See also my Goodreads review.


  1. I read this article a little over a week ago. I have to say, I laughed when you said, "I'd have liked it more if it had been about 200 pages shorter." The book doesn't sound like one that I would want to read (simply judging from your review). However, you have raised some very interesting questions that are quite purposeful and relevant to the world we live in. I have been thinking whether things like peace and love can be imposed and if they can does their implied benevolence justify the means... I sort of feel like nothing, no matter how good it is, should ever have to be forced on anyone. We, humans, ultimately choose to do what we WANT to do.

    Our actions will always speak louder than anything we ever say. You can't strangle someone and tell them to love. You can't verbally and physically abuse someone and then claim that said abuse has not and will not impact their behavior.

    You aren't nonviolent if you plan on using force anyway. Such behavior is aggressive. Especially if you think that physically assaulting/raping/maiming/killing is proving some kind of point. The aforementioned behavior highlights behavior that has been justified for as long as humans have been around.

    I think we have to remember that humans are hurt to prove a point. Rape normally happens to take strength from the victim. Killing normally happens to show that someone can get away with murder or to say that this particular human life is of no worth. Physical abuse, again, is an attempt to show superiority. It stems back to a power struggle.

    I honestly can't tell you if nonviolence is always the answer. I would always prefer not to hurt other humans. One of the main reasons I hear people are killing folks for is to 'protect their family' which I find interesting at best. Especially when the dead person had nothing to do with their family and wasn't really a threat. I.E. man walks down the street and gets shot because someone THOUGHT he had a weapon when he didn't. What then are we really trying to protect our families from?

    Obviously an intruder or terrorist getting dusted would be more understandable. Because it's either 'them' or 'us.' I also can't help but notice who is expendable. This varies from person to person. Determining who someone's 'us' is very valuable. These are the people that are immune from maltreatment and said abuse. It is the 'they/them/you people' who should be concerned about their safety.

    Also, when is violence actually okay? I feel that violence and hate speech fuel and perpetuate negativity. There is a reason why so many terror groups continue to spring up all over the world. These folks fill their ranks with people who feel like they are rejects/outcasts in their societies/nations. There is a reason why we have so many domestic terrorists and why these 'incidents' are more and more common with each passing day. There is a reason why these issues are not addressed.

    So yeah. Nonviolence. Is it the answer? I don't know if hugs and kisses can stop folks from wanting to harm people simply because they exist but I do not think that violence is not the key to stability (safety, peace, prosperity). The answer is far more complex. Or maybe there simply isn't one.

    1. Thanks for your complex comment! I don't know if I can do justice to everything you said, but I should clarify that in the book the aliens prevent violence without actually causing harm to anyone. People who try to stab someone, for example, start spasming and are physically unable to do the stabbing, but the spasming doesn't cause any harm to the person trying to do the stabbing. They just can't do it. This is given some kind of vague quantum mechanics based explanation along with a big dose of Clarke's Law that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The aliens are so advanced that they can do this ... somehow. If we could stop people from doing violence without hurting them, would it be okay to do so? In the book this gradually reduces people's violent tendencies (why want to hurt people if you can't do it?), but not everyone thinks it's a good thing.

      As for whether violence is ever okay, it's worth noting that proponents of nonviolence don't necessarily mean you should never, ever hurt anyone. Gandhi famously said that if he had to choose between cowardice and violence, he would choose violence. Still, the basic idea is that violence is never ultimately the answer. If you have to hurt someone to stop them from hurting you or others, this is always to some extent a regrettable situation. It would be best to resolve conflicts without violence if possible and to work toward a world in which that happens more often. This is what I think people like King and Gandhi had in mind, not a simplistic blanket prohibition of interpersonal violence in all cases. There will remain difficult cases, too, like humanitarian intervention (could more soldiers in Rwanda, for example, have stopped the genocide there?). Proponents of nonviolence don't claim to have all the answers, but then they point out that it's not so clear that anyone else does, either.