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The Xenocide Mission

by Ben Jeapes

(David Fickling Books; £10.99, 388 pages, hardback, published 2 May 2002. Corgi, 5.99, 388 pages, paperback, this edition published 2003.)

Ben Jeapes' "young adult" novels have an air of bygone straightforwardness about them -- good, cover scanhonest 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 already.

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 I anticipated.

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 develops.

Review by John Toon.

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