A Hard Man Is Good to Find

Exo
by Fonda Lee
2017.


Exo, a young adult SF novel by Fonda Lee, is a great illustration of three of the things a science fiction story can do really well.

One is fantasy fulfillment. Exo is set 150 years in our future, and its protagonist, 17-year old Donovan Reyes is a soldier with a difference. He is an “exo,” meaning that his body has been modified so that he can exude at will a hard exoskeleton, tough enough to stand up to bullets. Don’t even try to hit him with your bare hand. In the time it takes you to swing, his armor will go up and you will hurt yourself worse than him.

It’s high concept, and a great metaphor for a young adult novel. What adolescent wouldn’t want emotional armor that snaps into place when things get tough and lets all the hurt just bounce off you? But this is science fiction, so there’s a catch. Earth of the mid-22nd century is a complicated place. A hundred years earlier, humans were defeated in a terrible war by a non-humanoid alien race called the zhree. Now zhree colonists rule the planet, in cooperation with human governments. Their rule seems benevolent, or at least gentle, but then we are seeing it through Donovan’s eyes, and Donovan is one of the elite humans whom the zhree have admitted into their complex caste system. What life is like for the majority of humans who are not among the chosen is left largely for the reader to speculate upon. Donovan himself isn’t much interested; he seems pretty divorced from the concerns of ordinary humans. His father is a high-ranking official in the collaborationist government; his exo armor is zhree technology. Donovan’s role as a soldier-cop seems mostly to hunt down Sapience, a well-organized anti-zhree resistance movement. Is it that most humans who are not among the elite support Sapience, as the novel makes it appear? Or is this a consequence of seeing his world through Donovan’s eyes, where most of the humans he meets are either the elite or Sapience troublemakers?

A second thing science fiction can do well is illustrate for the reader the experience of being othered. Sapience extremists believe soldiers like Donovan are traitors to their species, and that exos are not merely modified physically by the zhree but also mentally, and have been made into mindless slaves. Killing an exo is to them no crime. It may even be an act of mercy. The zhree colonists on Earth like humans well enough, but we also meet zhree from other worlds who find human appearance repulsive and question whether humans are worth all the trouble they cause. Donovan believes in himself and his work, yet as his story unfolds, he must endure abuse—both emotional and physical—from both zhree and human extremists.

Yet conflicts come in shades of gray, another lesson science fiction, and Exo, present effectively. Not all Sapience members are cold blooded; some see Donovan as a likable young man led astray by the aliens. Some zhree fully embrace humans as their equals; one of the zhree characters even covers for Donovan when he goes rogue. It helps that Lee has given us a cast of well-drawn characters to illuminate the full spectrum of views in this complicated world she’s created.

This world is big. It’s no surprise that a sequel is in the works, as there’s plenty of room left for more stories. Though the canvas is broad, Exo is a personal story. It is Donovan’s story. At first he seems pretty confident in his understanding of the world and his place in it. I might even call him “hard bitten”; surprisingly so in such a young man. But then when you follow him from the warrens of Sapience to the highest levels of zhree government, you discover along with him that there is much more to his world, and to Donovan himself, than either of you suspected.

Exo is just the kind of story that got a lot of us started reading science fiction. It would make a good gift for a young person interested in science fiction. It might also be just the gift for that young person you’re trying to get interested in science fiction.

Barbarian at the Gate

Arslan
by M. J. Engh
1976.


(Warning: This review contains spoilers for a forty-year old book.)

Arslan was written in the late 1960s and was first published in paperback in 1976. It must have come and gone with little notice: I certainly didn’t notice it. But some important people did, because in 1987 it was reissued in a hardcover edition by Arbor House. Algis Budrys, who did a book review column for Fantasy & Science Fiction at that time, wrote an extensive and enthusiastic review that motivated me to buy and read Arslan. I only read it once, thirty years ago, but I never stopped thinking about it. Once Arslan gets into your head, he’ll never leave. This is an amazing and horrifying work. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that those important people who read it in 1976 were agitating for a reprint eleven years later.

From time to time I’ve wondered what became of Arslan. Recently I got an email plugging the book and learned that yes, Arslan lives on. It’s still drawing reviews; there are some good ones here and here and here. And so, I decided to read it again after thirty years, and see how it stacks up after all this time.

Engh is a scholar of ancient history. If you know even a little ancient history, you probably heard stories of peaceful, prosperous civilizations suddenly confronted by an irresistible barbarian army led by a charismatic commander. Think Attila. Think Genghis Khan. Think Tamerlane. Think, an army of people who respect nothing but raw power. And they have all the power. We think of this sort of confrontation as something belonging to the ancient past. Arslan asks a simple but hard question: What would it look like if middle America of the 1960s encountered a modern Genghis Khan and his horde?

I can’t honestly “recommend” this book. It is powerful and memorable. It is also deeply disturbing. Whether you ought to read it depends on how you feel about a deeply disturbing book that will haunt your thoughts for the rest of your life. Some people rave about this book; others report throwing it against the wall after the first chapter. I should give a trigger warning here, because this book contains, well, just about every awful thing you can imagine one human being doing to another. To paraphrase Nietzsche, beware of looking too deeply into Arslan, lest you find Arslan looking deeply into you. Follow me to the other side, if you dare, but don’t say I didn’t warn you….

Continue reading