If you saw Scott Mackay's recent novel in a bookstore, and you didn't know his earlier novels (Outpost, Cold Comfort), there really wouldn't be any reason for you to pick it up. The title, The Meek, is flat and manages to attain ambiguity without carrying any real mystery with it. The cover design is misleading. The cover's pale circuit patterns and stylized gray faces imply that this is some sort of cyberthriller, which it decidedly is not.
If you made it past the cover and read the first few pages, you still might not bother reading on. Sure, a mystery is deftly introduced on the first page when a "Public Works" vessel spots new construction on the asteroid Ceres when there shouldn't have been anything man-made there in thirty years, but after that initial hook, the book starts slowly. The dialogue tends to be stiff and expository, the characters wooden -- more like functions than fully rounded human beings. And having read the whole book, I will admit that the timing is off throughout. Key scenes seem to take more time than they should, or less.
Nevertheless, I am going to suggest that you read The Meek, and I'm going to devote the rest of my space trying to let you know why -- and why I laughed out loud at times with sheer pleasure at some of what Mackay pulls off. So, with all of those opening caveats in place, let me give you the reasons in a nutshell first, and then explore them in more detail below. You should read The Meek because it is a work of hard science fiction that manages to both be realistic and magical. It re-awoke in me a lot of the classic sense of wonder that led many of us to read science fiction in the first place, and it did so via a string of images that are original and resonant. For his images alone I would have forgiven Mackay almost anything.
The opening of the novel quickly establishes that we're in the near future and near space; the public works ship is using advanced but recognizable technologies, and conversation among the crew of the Gerard Kuiper takes several generations of asteroid-based civilization for granted. The ship was sent from Vesta, one of the inhabited asteroids, to start what looks to be an extensive but fairly pedestrian reclamation project on Ceres. The crew of builders, construction workers, and engineers expects to fight known and fairly limited physical challenges (vacuum, low gravity, machinery damaged by low temperature and micro-meteorites, etc.) as they reclaim the asteroid in order to build a better habitat in which to raise children, one where they could mature free from the debilitating weakness that comes from growing up in too weak a gravity field. The crew is therefore well-meaning and pretty well-educated in the technical arena, but completely unequipped to deal the mystery of the new construction. As they first document the construction, then explore it, they begin to find things outside their purview. The first things they find are patches of "plants. In a vacuum. In deep-space cold and dark, with no water." When the crew shrink-wraps a specimen and brings it back into the ship, all of my SF/horror movie instincts started to jangle. Don't they know that the blue-green color is a warning?
But what was it was a warning of? In the pages that follow, the explorers, led by viewpoint character Cody Wisner (eventually the novel's hero), find a "mummified orphan corpse," which they bring back on a stretcher. Again, my nerves were jangling -- No! It isn't dead! -- but Mackay was working something subtler than this. Mackay uses this scene, which resonates with both archeological expeditions and first-contact narratives, as a springboard to introduce a sketch of a known history. The "orphans" are genetically-modified humans who were designed to live in the harsh conditions of Mars. Unfortunately, the designer -- a classic mad scientist who sought to be humanity's benefactor -- bred intense aggression into the orphans to give them the edge they needed to handle those conditions. Predictably, the result was conflict: between humans and orphans, between those who wanted to exterminate the orphans and those who wanted to take responsibility for humanity's creation of yet another outsider class. Again, the image of this Great White Father of science standing inside the domes of Mars, staring out at his savage children -- his created savages -- is both vivid in itself and resonant with connotations. Mackay here literalizes how we create our own enemies out of ourselves through pride and ignorance. And because that's where our enemies come from, their remains will stay with us forever, littering our high-tech utopias and reminding us of our limitations.
But after the orphan corpse, the explorers find another corpse. If the orphans were new to readers but familiar to the explorers, the second corpse is new to everyone. It is humanoid, but blue-skinned, with huge, beautiful eyes and ears. Who is this? As they try to answer this question, the managed/artificial gravity surges out of control, and their machinery begins to betray them. These events follow so quickly after the discovery of the corpse that one seems to cause the other. On a symbolic level, it does. The blue aliens turn out to be "the Meek" who give the novel its title, and discovering them causes as great a distortion in the emotional and philosophical worlds of the explorers as the gravitational surges do in their physical landscape.
For it soon turns out that the Meek are still alive; soon Cody spots a beautiful blue-skinned girl, who somehow survives nearly-naked in the vacuum (shades of Edgar Rice Burroughs)! The explorers capture her and another girl, but when they are taken into custody, the girl whom Cody first saw writes a message: "Kiss me!"
How bold! Every humanoid alien that has appeared in science fiction since before the Golden Age has been the subject of sexual speculation; when one takes the initiative, the act -- like the images of the angry orphans -- brings the fantasy out into the open. Cody is a little embarrassed, and, frankly, so was I. When the kiss leads to an eerie form of telepathy, mostly images and sense data, it becomes the magical mirror that every romantic novel promises a kiss can be: a way to really know the other. When Cody finds himself changed by the kiss, it becomes what every cautionary fairy tale warns us about: if we get to close to magical beings, we will never go home again. The wonder of Mackay's presentation of the Meek is its economy; in a short space, Lulu (the Meek girl) is all of these things, and the rest of the novel is always at the same time a romance novel, a Golden Age adventure novel, and a symbolic/fantastic reflection upon our world, all of which demand serious critical reflection. Not the least of these is the kiss itself. Cody is a fine fellow, but he is essentially a well-meaning construction engineer. When the novel opens, Cody is clueless about women, love, and people in general, and this seems directly related to his mechanical skills. Both seem to come from a fairly simple orientation to life. When he kisses Lulu, he enters another world; he moves into her mind and learns how to deal with people by embracing the other, a rare event.
The plot is complex; there are wars, family conflicts, technological clashes, space travel, and environmental adventures worthy of a Jack London novel. There are another dozen or so images as complex and intense as those I've just sketched. The individual aliens are well-rounded and convincing as characters. However, I'll let you explore the details of all of this on your own and will limit myself to commenting on the greatest of Mackay's successes: the Meek themselves.
The Meek are orphans once removed: they were orphans, but they have consciously altered themselves. They changed their physical make-up so that they could live on Ceres without the desperate longing for air and warmth that drove them on Mars. At least as importantly, they changed their insides. They knew that their aggression had been built into them, and they did not like it. As potentially ethical as any branch of humanity, the Meek set out to master their savage selves. Their name is a symbol of this: they were designed to be aggressive outsiders, but they choose to be Meek, and to live communally. They have largely succeeded, but their "blood still tingles with the ghost code" of their original genetic conditioning. The sad and savage irony of the novel is that this condition alone would make them completely human, caught as we all are between what we think we should do and what our drives urge us to do, and it is these ghost codes that make humanity fear them so. The Meek become living embodiments of human failure and hubris and perhaps also of sin. Not only has it proven impossible to eradicate or control the orphans -- those aspects of humanity we would disown -- these rejected splinters of humanity have taken control of their own destiny. You can read them as impressive semi-aliens, threatening and enticing in a dozen different directions, and you'd be right. But you can also read them as profound mirrors of humanity, and you'd be even more right. Take a look at The Meek, and see what you see there.
Greg Beatty recently completed his Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa, where he wrote a dissertation on serial killer novels. He attended Clarion West 2000, and any rumors you've heard about his time there are, unfortunately, probably true. Greg's previous appearance in Strange Horizons was "The Bridge Between Truth/Death and Power/Knowledge: Ted Chiang's "Seventy-two Letters"."
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