Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Otherness of Ourselves: This Alien Shore by C. S. Friedman

C. S. Friedman's This Alien Shore is one of the deepest science fictional meditations on diversity I've encountered.  Not only do the people look differently from one another, they think differently.  Physiological diversity is paired with cognitive diversity.  And as scary as all this can be at first, the message is that humanity is better off for our differences.


There's a lot of Dune here (there's even a Guild) with a dose of computer capers à la Neuromancer or Snow Crash.  Despite these obvious influences, Friedman's book doesn't feel derivative.  I'm a huge Dune fan, and I'm a little surprised that such a classic hasn't inspired more books like Friedman's.  Even though there is a Guild, they are something more like a combination of Herbert's Guild, Bene Gesserit, and Mentats all in one, but not exactly any of those things, either.

I'm not much of a computer person, and although I appreciate the genius of Gibson and Stephenson, I've never been a big cyberpunk fan.  Maybe it's because Friedman had to learn about computer programming to write this novel (as she says in the acknowledgments), but I found the computer passages of this book far more engaging and readable for a non-programmer than any cyberpunk story I've read before.

A bit on the plot

There are two main stories that swirl around each other, occasionally touching.  There is the story of Jamisia, who is forced to leave her corporate-owned home on a station near Earth.  She goes on the run across the galaxy with a lot of help from random strangers as well as the other personalities in her head (a bit of that cognitive diversity I mentioned).

The other plot thread is woven around a computer virus known as Lucifer, which threatens to kill Guild pilots and destroy the transportation network that keeps humanity connected.  My favorite character in this part is Dr. Masada, a luminary theorist in the world of computer science who meticulously paints his face with meaningful patterns and is part of a class of people who exist somewhere on the autism spectrum (a fact that he and everyone else is okay with even if they sometimes find it exasperating).

All of this takes place in a universe where there have been two phases of human interstellar expansion.  This is one of the most original aspects of the book.  The first phase took place hundreds (thousands?) of years earlier using something called a Hausman drive that resulted in major genetic mutations.  These mutations pushed the boundaries of what counts as human, which caused Earth to rudely cut off the colonists to fend for themselves (a sore point between the two divisions of humanity).  Much later a safer technology was developed by the Guerans (one of the cut off colonies) that requires unique genetic traits developed from the first phase as a result of what they call "a gift of Hausman" (i.e., what first seemed like a terrible mutation ends up saving everybody).

Some reviewers complain that the novel drags on too long.  I didn't feel that way except for a chunk about 3/4 of the way through where Jamisia's POV(s) is lacking.  Although Friedman's not the most literary writer and mostly lacks the unique styles of her influences (Herbert, Gibson, Stephenson, etc.), her engaging prose style kept me going.

How diverse is the diversity?

For all the diversity, there were few LGBT characters or hints of such characters, although Friedman has some gender fun when one of Jamisia's male personalities takes over her body.  One of the female personalities uses her sexuality to get men to do her bidding, which isn't quite as lame as it sounds when you consider the context of a young woman on the run with few resources, but it's still a bit of a shame (and makes the men look pretty stupid, too).  Also, every computer programmer we meet is male and acts pretty much like the type of young male programmer you'd meet in Silicon Valley today.  Maybe Friedman is a difference feminist who thinks men and women are different but equal?  Maybe she's trying to suggest that some sexual and gender patterns are human universals?  Maybe she's just trying to give her readers some points of familiarity in a strange new universe?

The Philosophy Report: Why is diversity a good thing? -- On the otherness of ourselves

What this novel does best is to give some resources for thinking about the question: Why is diversity a good thing?  There's a big push for diversity these days in business, education, government, media, and so forth.  But why?  What's so good about diversity, anyway?  Why is there such a backlash against diversity among the GamerGaters, Sad Puppies, Trumpists, etc. of the world?

Friedman's answer - and I think it's a good one - is that recognizing the diversity within and between ourselves makes us stronger, better people.  One of the deepest themes of This Alien Shore is that of otherness not just of others, but otherness within ourselves.  We are aliens to ourselves in some sense, a point I made awhile back in my post, "Aliens are Everywhere."  To reject the otherness of others is to reject the otherness of oneself, to put oneself in a constant state of self-loathing auto-xenophobia.  In the novel, this is dramatized most clearly via Jamisia's multiple personalities, but who among us has not occasionally felt not entirely at home in their own skin?  Who has not occasionally been surprised by their own thoughts and feelings?

What if, instead of rejecting these surprises from oneself and others for the sake of ensconcing some pure personal, national, gender, or racial identity, one were to wait and see what good these differences might do, what benefits they might bring for all of us, and what new horizons of knowledge they might open up?  In Friedman's novel, the economic, technological, and moral basis of a vast human civilization depends on valuing such diversity.  And I'd like to think that we could recognize that exactly the same is true for us here on Earth in the 21st century.

Rating: 93/100

(See also my Goodreads review).

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