Okay, I'll admit it. I'm a sucker for a good alien. Give me a genuinely different being -- something that thinks as well as a human, but differently, as the old saying goes -- and I'm ready to forgive a lot. Even a serious attempt to render truly different modes of interacting with the world earns an author a lot of credit. And that's the single largest strength of Matthew Farrell's recent novel Thunder Rift; Farrell gives us aliens that are both convincing and intriguing, and, more importantly, who are different from human beings in ways that resonate with the deepest parts of ourselves.
The novel starts with omens. There is a primordial clash of the elements at a propitious moment. Specifically, at the precise moment that lead character Taria Spears is being conceived, a wormhole opens up near Jupiter; it is so bright it can be seen from Earth. The electromagnetic flux, or thunder, produced by the wormhole's appearance would have been enough to force a social collapse and re-organization in itself, but the presence of the wormhole means something more. At the very least, it means that the universe is not as we thought it was, and that there are new possibilities for exploration. The greatest possibility is, of course, that the wormhole was opened by aliens.
Farrell does a nice job of sketching the social upheaval that results from the opening of the wormhole, but his focus is always on Taria herself, and her drive to be part of the expedition sent to find the Makers (of the wormhole). Without giving too much away, let me just say that these sections of the novel work and don't work. By that I mean they are well enough written, but they are backstory, and I, for one, didn't care much about why Taria was the way she was. Nor, frankly, did I believe in the reasons offered. Taria's psychological twists and turns aren't sufficient to explain the intense sense of mission that marks her, and it is a shame that Farrell wasn't brave enough to let her be obsessed with going, or, more simply, Meant To Go. The universe ruptured at the moment she was conceived; let it be a sign!
And if Taria's psychology was unconvincing, her professional training was laughable. Taria is supposed to be a near genius member of an "ExoAnthro" cluster of scientists sent with the military forces to contact the Makers. The ExoAnthro team supposedly combines biology and linguistics with anthropology to produce xenographers of some expertise. Accent the supposedly, because it just doesn't fly. Taria does have some language training, but mostly she acts like a highly opinionated liberal arts major on a mission. She displays none of the adaptability that anthropological field study breeds, and she lacks an anthropologist's methodical approach to plotting the structure of a society. She is also right too often and too easily when she clashes with the military, who are more rigid than they should be, given the marvelous computer software with which Farrell provides them.
But none of that really disturbed me, and you shouldn't let it scare you away either, because in a way these limitations fit the story -- and because of the aliens. At every point where Farrell doesn't quite succeed in evoking complex humanity, it is because his energy has really gone into evoking these wonderful aliens.
At first, they seem a bit too familiar. When the wormhole opens, it opens at both ends simultaneously. Therefore, as Taria's conception is being marked by a great light in the heavens at one end of the wormhole, someone else's life is being marked on the other end. The symbolism here parallels Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Star," in which the star that marked the birth of Christ was the sun for a solar system inhabited by intelligent aliens, all of whom are killed by this portent. This resonates strongly throughout the novel; always Farrell is careful to establish that the meaning of things changes according to one's position, and to one's social context. He does this primarily by shifting perspectives at the beginning, so that the novel begins twice, once on each end of the wormhole, then by closely following Taria's immersion into the culture of the Blues, an immersion that includes a charming exchange of fairy tales from both cultures that baffles both listeners, thus nicely evoking the feeling of being in a truly alien culture for the reader.
Nowhere is this more true than in our understanding of the aliens. At first, it is hard not to see the "Blues" as the representatives of the human military see them: harmless primitives whose low level of technology makes it impossible for them to have anything to do with the opening of the wormhole. As a result, while Taria gets to know the Blues, the military, and the reader, are always looking beyond for another race who could have opened the thunder rift; this creates both suspense and mystery. After all, Blue civilization seems frozen at about the level of the early Greeks. While they are linguistically gifted, the Blues seem to lack key physical attributes for developing advanced technology: they are extremely short sighted and cannot even see the stars, let alone hope to reach them. In many ways, the very technology which the humans see as differentiating themselves from the Blues is invisible to them. From very early in the novel on, Farrell does a fine job of sketching a possible way humans might access computer networks in the future. These explorers are assisted by loyal, semi-autonomous AI constructs called Personal Interface Avatars; these PIA's are visible as holograms and in many ways are avatars of each individual's personality. Some of the better dialogues in the novel are between humans and their avatars.
These avatars are invisible to the Blues; to them, it often seems like humans are talking to the air, to themselves, or to nothing. However, this is not disturbing to the Blues, for they live in a world of sound. They talk, they sing, they chant, they evoke meaning and physical space through a web of resonance, and it is strange and threatening and wonderful throughout. Farrell slowly trains the reader's "ear" to hear the possibilities in these aliens; he uses their complex rhythms to evoke emotional charges deep in each of us -- a mother's voice, a song heard at the cradle, the sound of the world itself. The difference between sight and sound defines everything in this novel. As mentioned above, the humans call the aliens "Blues." The aliens call themselves "The Children-of-She-Who-Sang-the-World."
The difference between the two names is profound. As Taria strives to understand this race, first for her own sake, then for her race, then for reasons beyond her, Farrell weaves a plot that illustrates these differences, and which is complex and interesting in its own right. By the end of the book, humanity's dependence on vision, so integral to our understanding of the universe, seems like a willingness to mistake the surface of a thing for its reality; the aliens' practice of giving names such as "The Children-of . . . " seems an insistence on context, depth, and profundity. In short, Farrell finds ways to demonstrate how language is a way of knowing the world, and demonstrates a range of philosophical assumptions hidden in our most casual speech.
I've mentioned that there are places where I don't find the book wholly successful; I hope I've made it clear that despite these its limitations, I found Thunder Rift a powerful book.
A glance at his Web site indicates that Matthew Farrell has several other books in progress. I for one look forward to them.
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. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.
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