Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Lesson

Cadwell Turnbull
Completed 9/20/2020, Reviewed 9/20/2020
4 stars

I found this book by a recommendation of an author I follow on Twitter.  I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it.  It’s a first novel by an African-American native of the US Virgin Islands.  His previous works were short fiction pieces, a few of which have been included in anthologies, including Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019.   It has strong prose without being pretentious.  It has a fairly large cast of characters, much like a disaster movie of the ‘70s – well not that many, but the plot follows quite a few characters to tell the story.  It’s short, but packs a big punch with the horrors of colonialism and slavery as themes.  It wasn’t nominated for anything, but received a lot of good press, and I expect to see very good things coming from this author in the future.  I think he’s one to follow.

The story takes place on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.  In the very near future, an alien craft comes to earth and hovers above the island.  The aliens say they’ve come in peace, wanting to give us new cures for diseases and new technologies in return for peaceful cohabitation.  However, when someone crosses an alien, it quickly and mercilessly kills that person.  This causes misunderstanding and heightens tensions resulting in more violence.  Mera is the Ynaa ambassador to Earth.  She has been around a long time, posing as a slave and after emancipation, as a healer.  Now that the full contingent of Ynaa have arrived, she acts as an intermediary with the people of St. Thomas.  She hires Derrick, a local young man, as her secretary.  With the rise of violence and misunderstanding, Derrick is believed to be a traitor by the locals.  The story follows his childhood friend and one-time girlfriend Patrice and the members of both of their families from the few weeks before the Ynaa arrival to five years later.  It also gives us vignettes of Mera’s previous time on Earth in the 17-, 18-, and 1900s. 

The characterization is pretty good considering the number of characters and the shortness of the book (barely 290 pages).  I felt I could empathize with most of the characters, particularly Derrick, Patrice and her father Jackson.  Jackson is a teacher who retires after the arrival of the Ynaa.  He and his wife Aubrey split and Aubrey falls in love with the local veterinarian Alice.  While Aubrey has moved on with her life, Jackson struggles to find meaning and direction in his.  Mera the alien ambassador is a bit wooden, but it works in that she’s trying to maintain emotional distance from humans, and also because there’s a sort of wooden way she and the other aliens walk and move.  The aliens wear a mask of human features, but can generally be picked out of a crowd by the way they walk. 

The story is really gripping.  It starts with a brief introduction of the major characters in their lives right before the invasion, then jumps to five years later when tensions are high and humans have been murdered after attacking the aliens.  Even with the bouncing timeline to give Mera’s background on Earth for the past couple hundred years, the author maintains a brisk pace and the tensions increase. 

The metaphor for colonialism is pretty obvious, sort of the way District 9 was an obvious metaphor for apartheid.  But it works well, particularly as the author goes back to a slave revolt during the Dutch occupation of the island in the 1700s.  It also calls to question the morality of working with the occupiers in the character of Derrick who is Mera’s secretary.  He took the job because it was high paying and because he was infatuated with this first contact.  But is he the traitor that everyone says he is.  Even his grandmother kicks him out of the house for getting too close to Mera.  He’s sort of like the tax collectors of Roman-occupied Israel in Jesus’ time. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I think it’s a terrific first contact novel with a different setting in a culture we have too little exposure to, considering it’s part of the United States.  I think the book is well written and pretty imaginative.  In the acknowledgments, Turnbull says that he was a kid with lots of strange ideas.  After reading this book, I’m hoping he gets to write down more of his strange ideas. 

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