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The Foreigners by James Lovegrove
(Victor Gollancz, £16.99, 421 pages, hardback; published 28 September 2000; ISBN 0-575-6894-9.)

The Foreigners is a very British piece of sf (as indeed is the title itself, I think). It's quiet, ambiguous and a little dark. James Lovegrove writes this kind of thing very well, from what I know of his work. Almost too well, in fact, since the dustjacket is itself a similarly sober and restrained exercise that rather failed to grab my imagination with both hands and whine forever in the back of my head that I NEEDED to read this book.

With three books in my "To Review" pile this one remained stubbornly (but undeservedly) at the bottom. Sorry, James!

The Foreigners is the perfect antidote to a surfeit of space opera or wookie books. It's very much a police procedural novel… No, wait, come back -- I haven't finished yet! It's a police procedural sf story but one that portrays an odd kind of police force, a variety of which I've only ever encountered before in utopian anarchist tracts (or perhaps in Banks' Culture novels -- are these different things?).

Jack Parry, a former London copper, has joined the Foreign Policy Police in New Venice, a beautiful crystal city grown into being in the Mediterranean. It has been created thus for the entertainment and delight of the Foreigners: elegant, enigmatic and elongated beings who have appeared from nowhere on a near-future Earth that had seemed all but done for. Their presence has sparked, if not a full-blown Renaissance of Man, then at least an apparently global attack of soul-searching.

The Foreigners love to hear humans sing, and an entire industry (that invites disquieting parallels with prostitution) has sprung up in resort-cities like New Venice to encourage them to stay with us on Earth.

Parry is called in when a Foreigner is found dead in a hotel room with a Siren, one of the human singers the Foreigners love so much. And it seems perhaps everything is not as perfect as Parry wishes it could be within the ivory towers of New Venice.

To reiterate, James Lovegrove writes stories that are quiet, ambiguous and of a thoughtful twilight hue rather than unpleasantly dark. Swashbuckling hard sf this isn't.

Although the Foreigners have given humanity some singularly useful pieces of technology, these are not of the whiz-bang school but more vital everyday ones (comp-res, a pollution-free power source, and crystech are the two main ones -- the latter a nanotech-crystal construction set enabling resort-cities like the beautiful New Venice to be built).

It is their therapeutic effect upon humanity that Lovegrove plainly sees as more valuable here; these "free gifts" have halted much of the environmental damage that was being wrought upon the planet previously. Both comp-res and crystech register quietly but persistently in the background of The Foreigners, until, with a dash of irony, the very end, when they impose a much-needed speed limit upon humanity -- literally in the case of comp-res, whose limitations mean it cannot release a large amount of driving power quickly, but can provide plenty over a slightly longer period. This struck me as a fantastic idea while reading The Foreigners on the bus in central London and watching idiot sports car drivers savagely cutting up anyone who dared slow them by more than 5mph!

The Foreigners is much more a story of rehabilitation, freedom and the individual nature of utopias than it is of alien contact. The Foreigners themselves seem closer to angels than aliens; they are only seen as beautiful, inscrutable yet oddly awkward golden masks atop equally golden robes that, upon inspection, are always empty. The Foreigners cannot speak but communicate through a limited sequence of gestures that have been adopted as their own by the Foreign Policy Police and Sirens alike.

This is a story twinkling with metaphor.

Parry's efforts to unravel the mystery of the dead Siren and Foreigner combination lead him into some choppy waters, and to question whether the weight of guilt from his perceived distant previous life in England and a desire to somehow atone for this in the companionship of the Foreigners is not driving him from his own people. The recognition that his own particular desire for a heaven on Earth is not shared or even recognised by so many of those around him is a necessary reawakening for Parry, whose bewildered emergence from a wilful naiveté is superbly handled, too. If you've ever wanted to believe that people are nicer than you think and been disappointed then Parry is someone you'll understand.

Lovegrove has a superb and subtle eye for character detail, and The Foreigners is a very worthwhile read. It won't make you shout out loud and the subject of disapproving stares on public transport, but it's a thoughtful, and more importantly humane, book that you won't regret reading.


Review by Stuart Carter.

 

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© Stuart Carter 26 May 2001