It's 2076, and the nations of Earth have developed into class-driven societies descended from today's corporate culture. Mostly male, power-driven Executives run the show while Professionals perform all the hands-on work. But when the Marq'ssan, a race of aliens from a distant star, broadcast a message across every possible radio, television, and Internet frequency possible, Earth suddenly faces great change. Mankind, they feel, is not an ethical race and must learn to do things their way or face extinction. The Marq'ssan bathe the Earth in electromagnetic energy, disabling most electronic devices and making communications impossible. When technology no longer provides basic needs like food and purified water, and necessary distractions like television and the Internet vanish, the population riots.
Kay Zeldin, a historian living and teaching in Seattle, gets caught in the middle of a disturbance and lands in jail. Fortunately, Robert Sedgewick, the power hungry head of the U.S. Security Services, quickly pulls Zeldin out of her imprisonment. The aliens have called for peace talks, and have asked each nation to send a delegation of women to represent their needs. In return the Marq'ssan promise to repair basic technology. But Sedgewick, who like many believes that the aliens are really a dangerous group of human terrorists, has his own plan.
Zeldin is more than your every day academic. Twenty years earlier, she worked as an agent for Security Services and had a long running romantic and sexual affair with Sedgewick, then her boss. Now Sedgewick plans to use Zeldin as a Trojan horse of sorts; although sent officially as a diplomat, her primary job will be to look for opportunities to counterattack the aliens. Unfortunately, early on she is caught smuggling explosives into the Marq'ssan’s only ship, causing the aliens to retaliate in a new way, by vaporizing a series of U.S. military targets (although they allow time for the government to evacuate them first).
Duchamp's novel, both her first and the first in a five part series, works as political theory wrapped inside a thriller and tucked neatly into a package of science fiction. In lesser hands, attempting to blend these very different facets could result in a huge mess but Duchamp handles them smoothly. Her political world building has a level of detail and believability that rivals Bruce Sterling at his best, and her pacing is much better than most other books driven so heavily by political concepts, such as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or Sherri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Woman’s Country. Additionally, a lot of first books in a series run into problems by sacrificing a strong plot in favor of scattering seeds for major events later in the series. While Duchamp certainly plants a number of such seeds, she also makes good use of Zeldin to push the plot forward. Zeldin is a complex character and her internal struggle—wanting to fight for humanity versus starting to believe in the Marq'ssan—is the major driving force behind this story.
Unfortunately, the supporting characters don't work quite so effectively. Sedgewick's motivations for recruiting Zeldin, for example, seem solely based on reviving their past romance. The Marq'ssan's fall into this as well. Much of their motivation, and even their basic way of seeing the world, is pretty nebulous and difficult to understand. Hopefully these aspects will improve as the series grows and expands.
Much of the politics and concepts descend directly from feminist science fiction of the 1970s, most notably the work of Alice B. Sheldon, a.k.a. James Tiptree Jr. Duchamp's near future Earth sits very close to our own, and her story can be easily viewed as criticism of the status quo. It's not so difficult to imagine any nation, even our own, taking such drastic steps when faced with such overwhelming circumstances. Martial law, curfews, random arrests, gassing the public to keep them calm—all these tactics seem frighteningly close to reality, and Alanya to Alanya has some thoughtful things to say about the current direction of politics in this country.
Tiptree’s writing in the 1970s highlighted different attitudes between men and women, ideas like conflict versus compromise, desire for power versus a need to nurture. She often went one of two ways to get her point across: complete denigration of the male point of view or that the best method blends both male and female parts into one society. Her tongue-in-cheek short story “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” features male astronauts thrown into the future by a solar flare; when they make their way back to Earth, they find men have vanished and the women are running things much better than men ever did. In contrast, her complex novel Up the Walls of the World displays an Earth dominated by a male-driven culture encountering an extraterrestrial race that lives in a more female-oriented society. A conflict from deep outer space develops, and the only way to save both races is through a strategy that combines both styles of thinking.
This early in the series it’s difficult to say which direction the Marq’ssan Cycle is heading; with suggestions of violent uprisings in the U.S. alongside the aliens gaining support from increasing numbers of humans, this is a world that will either be rebuilt totally in the image of the Marq’ssans or modified to include the values of both humans and extraterrestrials. At this point Duchamp’s interest lies not so much in the outcome but in the process, the how-do-we-get-there from where we are now. And while it’s not clear which direction her world is heading in—that is something that will develop as this series progresses—I will definitely be along for the ride on this unique cultural journey.
Matthew L. Moffett is a writer living and working in the Washington, D.C. area. A frequent reviwer for School Library Journal, his own fiction can be found in magazines like Gargoyle and Wordwrights.