The Xenocide Mission
(David Fickling Books; £10.99, 388 pages, hardback, published
2 May 2002. Corgi, £5.99, 388 pages, paperback, this edition published
Ben Jeapes' "young adult" novels have an air of bygone straightforwardness
about them -- good,
science fiction, like Grandma used to make -- but coupled with this
is a modern sensibility that lends them a richness of texture to rival
the best of contemporary "adult" SF. Jeapes' aliens are, well, alien,
with alien ways and alien bodies. His human characters have to work
hard to deal with them politically and socially.
Admittedly, these aliens do have handy-dandy translator devices that
allow them to speak to the humans, but I suppose it'd be a pretty short
novel if they didn't. At least they don't all speak impeccable English
The Xenocide Mission picks up where His Majesty's Starship
left off, with an egalitarian Commonwealth of Humans and First Breed
(or "Rusties") quietly observing the world of the Kin (the eponymous
Xenocides, or "XCs"). The Kin are relatively new to space travel; their
last observed flight was an interplanetary expedition to a neighbouring
world, where they exterminated another alien species, apparently for
no reason. The Commonwealth is naturally concerned that the Kin might
develop or discover the step-through technology that allows Humans and
Rusties to socialise, and start wiping out other civilisations. So it's
cause for panic when a Kin attack squad sneaks up unnoticed on a concealed
Commonwealth observation post, wreaks carnage and discovers the step-through
technology mentioned above.
The Kin, I have to say, are an excellent alien race. This is not to
cast aspersions on the Rusties, but I did find it rather easy to visualise
them here, as in His Majesty's Starship, as outsized spaniels
with face-tentacles. They're just a bit too cuddly, face-tentacles notwithstanding.
The Kin, on the other hand, are toothy and taloned, and as physically
intimidating as their martial culture requires. Their speech, in an
appropriately military touch, consists of drum-like sounds produced
by an internal membrane. They also have Sharing, which struck me as
perhaps their most inspired trait. Personal messages, crafted from ideas
and memories, are grown on the back of the head in the form of shareberries,
which are then surgically removed by priests and eaten by the recipient.
Essentially one Kin absorbs the memories of another, which is a very
quick and comprehensive way of catching up on the news and extremely
useful when half the Kin population is in hibernation at any one time.
Contrary to my expectations, this device did not feature prominently
in the explanation for the Kin's past actions -- well, not in the way
Characterisation of the Humans is generally good, although it's not
the Humans who are the stars this time round. The Rusties are much as
they were, cuddly in an intriguingly alien way. For newcomers, there's
enough material in the text to constitute a recap, without resorting
to clumsy info dumping, and some excellent scenes that make dramatic
capital out of the Rusties' consensus politics.
It all goes a bit Astounding Stories towards the end, when a
Human/Rustie contact party ends up on the dead planet and uncovers the
secret of the Kin's act of xenocide. At the same time, though, the scale
of the story opens out in a way that raises new questions, leaving a
clear path towards the next sequel. I'm impatient to see how this saga
Review by John Toon.
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