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Prime Deceptions coverIn a fascinating 1963 essay titled “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid”, the philologist Adam Parry teased out an undercurrent in the Roman poet Virgil’s most famous work, The Aeneid, that is often in tension—and sometimes in open conflict—with its celebration of empire. The Aeneid is the great epic poem of the Roman Empire. Composed during the reign of the first Emperor, Augustus, it tells the origin story of Rome, tracing it back to Aeneas’s escape from the burning, sacked city of Troy, his perilous journey to the Italian coast, and the establishment of a colony through conflict and battle.  That The Aeneid is, on the face of it, a celebration of Imperial power and a legitimisation of Roman history, then, is well established; however, is it only that?

Parry locates two currents in the poem: the “public” and the “personal” voices. He writes that “the frequent elegiac note so apparently uncalled for in a panegyric of Roman greatness … the continual opposition of a personal voice which comes to us as if it were Virgil's own to the public voice of Roman success: all this I think is felt by every attentive reader of the poem.” This “personal voice” infuses doubt and a hint of scepticism about the inexorable march towards Empire and dominion: “the sadness, the loss, the frustration, the sense of the insubstantiality” undermines the easy optimism of the Augustan Age, and turns the “supposed panegyric of Augustus and great propaganda-piece of the new regime … into something quite different.”

Parry’s method bears similarities with Edward Said’s notion of the “contrapuntal reading,” or the method of reading texts against the grain. And for the context of this essay, I believe it provides a particularly helpful analytical framework for reading Valerie Valdes’s Prime Deceptions.

Prime Deceptions is the sequel to Valdes’s debut, Chilling Effect (2019). It features the return of the spacefaring Captain Eva Innocente and the crew of La Sirena Negra, complete with psychic cats. Like Chilling Effect, the novel opens with Mari, Eva’s estranged-but-not-quite sister; only this time, instead of being the subject of a dubious kidnap-and-ransom call, Mari wants to hire the crew of La Sirena Negra on behalf of her shadowy, somewhat-vigilante, underground research organisation, The Forge. The crew’s task: to locate the missing scientist Joshua Zafone, and bring him to The Forge. The purpose of this job is classified, however, other than vague hints that The Forge needs Zafone’s services in order to tackle the intergalactic crime syndicate, The Fridge, but also to address a deeper, unnamed threat. After a series of (wildly entertaining) pit-stops, their search takes the crew to the planet of Garilia, on the cusp of admission into the Benevolent Organisation of Astrofederated States (BOFA). The only problem? The last time Eva was here, her actions led to a massacre and the violent overthrow of the government. In the eyes of the new government, she is a hero; to the survivors, the “Extinguisher of Light.” Not only is this a little bad for her mental health, but it also makes the prospect of a covert mission to retrieve Joshua a little … difficult.

The action on Garilia covers much of the novel (it is bookended by a beginning and the ending which take place off-planet). The story itself is firmly rooted in the tradition of the “Ethics of Non-Interference” sub-genre of science fiction. While in this novel there’s no categorical, imperative-style norm such as Star Trek’s Prime Directive, some of the moral dilemmas echo the Strugatsky BrothersHard To Be A God (1964). Attentive readers will also spot shades of more than one Iain M Banks novel: the ongoing tussle between the Garilian government and the rebel group now in power brings to mind Use of Weapons (1990); the looming shadow of an impossibly powerful ancient civilisation, known through its artefacts, is reminiscent of Excession (1996); the centrality of residual war trauma—almost PTSD—and the perennially-frustrated desire for atonement recalls the best moments of Look To Windward (2000). Prime Deceptions is thus located within a clear set of genre coordinates, but also—through its set of memorable characters (not just the crew of La Sirena Negra, but also Eva’s mother and sister), its subtle exploration of interpersonal relationships, and a clear-eyed look at the limitations of its protagonists—brings a fresh perspective to a sub-genre in which the core arguments are by now well-rehearsed.

What of Garilia itself, which forms the (literal) terrain upon which the central themes of the novel play out? As La Sirena Negra approaches the planet, we are told that the new government calls itself communist. When Eva and her crew are out and about on the planet, they find an illusion of happiness maintained by restricted access, exceedingly heavy surveillance, and the constant threat of discipline and punishment. The word “re-education” pops up on more than one occasion. When Eva is invited to a party organised by the planet’s Prime (echoes of “First Citizen”?), Lashra Damaal, the splendour and luxury of the festivities make her think that “some people are always more equal than others” (p. 303), a direct throwback to Animal Farm (1945). During the course of the story, the Garilian leadership is revealed to have secret designs—via highly advanced psychic surveillance tech—upon the larger universe itself, and its use of the technology of an ancient, very powerful civilisation—the Proarkhe—is a breach of BOFA. These are regulations that carry stiff sentences of quarantining (and presumably sanctions?) plus possible expulsion from BOFA itself.

A combination of all these factors suggests, at first blush, a near-caricature of an erstwhile eastern bloc nation, as seen from American eyes. Totalitarian societies are, of course, frequently found in science fiction (including far-future science fiction); but when that society’s ruling class explicitly calls itself “communist,” relies on historical euphemisms such as “re-education,” uses extreme surveillance to quell dissent and project a picture of social content, and plans to go rogue from a many-worlds coalition, the parallels are a little too obvious to ignore.

It is their obviousness, however, that might prompt us to read Prime Deceptions more closely: the “private voice” of Prime Deceptions can indeed be seen to emerge at various points of the novel. In this reading, the very obviousness of some of those Cold War parallels might prompt us to read more closely—since in their baldness they draw attention to the kinds of pastiche that have, in the past, overburdened English-language science fiction. Consider, for example, the BOFA rule imposing severe, planet-wide penalties on anyone found trafficking in Proarkhe tech. This kind of heavy-handed, top-down, monopolistic control over (potentially emancipatory) technology is revealing, and undermines what appears to be BOFA’s self-image of a primarily mercantile, commerce-oriented coalition of planets. So do its rules of quarantining entire planets, with the consequences that flow from that appearing to be uncomfortably close to those in our own world of untargeted sanctions. Eva’s unexpressed hope—that, in Garilia’s case, this might prompt regime change—echoes all the discredited credos of liberal internationalism. Indeed, it is important that the events on Garilia are relayed through the point of view of Eva, who is not only a (consciously) unreliable narrator who is guilt-ridden at her previous actions on Garilia, but has internalised some of the core tenets of liberal imperialism. What we see, then, is not Garilia itself, but Garilia through Eva’s eyes—eyes that would, despite their efforts to be objective, carry with them their own set of biases.

To her credit, Valdes does not show us how, ultimately, the conflict between Garilia and BOFA is resolved. It is, then, ultimately for the reader to decide whether the “private voice” is intelligible enough to constitute a credible understanding of the novel. But even when not on Garilia, Valdes drops enough hints through the course of the novel to let us know that we are dealing with a universe of considerable moral ambiguity. This ambiguity unfolds most vividly—and most effectively—through the character of Eva Innocente herself. Eva is an acutely self-aware character, much of whose agonising stems from the understanding that the universe in which she exists not only makes it impossible for an individual to do the right thing, but often denies them the tools even to understand what is the right thing to do. The near-parodic nature of the Garilian ruling class’s villainy would be jarringly dissonant without the richness of Eva’s interior mental landscape—something that, I think, makes a strong case for paying close attention to the “private voice” in Prime Deceptions.

Beyond the macro, there is much else to enjoy in Valdes’s joyous exploration of inter-personal relationships on board La Sirena Negra. As in Chilling Effect, Valdes’s universe is a riot of species (humanoid and non-humanoid), and La Sirena Negra is a microcosm of that richness. The magnificent Vakar—who communicates emotional states through changes in scent—has an excellent reprise; Pink—simultaneously ship, co-captain, doctor, and therapist—anchors La Sirena Negra’s chosen family in more than one way; Sue—as Joshua Zafone’s sister, the involuntary lynchpin of the expedition—is portrayed with moving sensitivity. Together, it is these characters that provide us with the most moving, tender, and memorable moments of the novel—and whose nuanced characterisations leave it difficult to suppose that the novel’s politics isn’t similarly multilayered. Prime Deceptions leaves us eager to know where, at the end of it, they will go next.

Gautam Bhatia is an Indian speculative fiction writer, and the co-ordinating editor of Strange Horizons. He is the author of the science fiction duology, The Wall (HarperCollins India, 2020) and The Horizon (HarperCollins India, 2021). Both novels featured on Locus Magazine's year-end recommended reading list, and The Wall was shortlisted for the Valley of Words Award for English-language fiction. His short stories have appeared in The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction and LiveMint magazine. He is based in New Delhi, India.
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