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Survival: Species Imperative #1

by Julie E Czerneda

(DAW, US $23.95 / Canada $36.00, 401 pages, hardback; 2004; ISBN: 0-7564-0180-1.)

Review by Elizabeth Barrette

Four stars.

This is a story of idea, and the idea is right there in the series title: "species imperative." It refers to the need for protecting your cover scanspecies from a threat so serious that it could wipe out all humanity, and thus, all humans are morally and legally obligated to render service to the best of their ability whether they want to or not. This is the only reason for drafted service -- and the main character does get dragged very unwillingly into a ghastly mess of galactic intrigue -- that has seemed really valid to me. It's just the sort of story that a biologist would tell, and it works. Species imperative: the name says it all.

Dr. Mackenzie Connor studies salmon. She chooses to study deep, instead of wide, to learn one thing to completion. Her river is her world. All her interest focuses on watching these fish recover from the environmental degradation of Earth. So when an inquisitive alien seeks her help for his special project, she blows him off: "I study salmon." His entreaties that her work is relevant to his are met with disdain and indifference.

But then something breaks into her bedroom. Scurry, skittle! Dr. Mackenzie ("I study salmon") Connor flings a shoe at it, then takes off in hot pursuit through the forest night. The intruder escapes. Mac comes back to discover her station in an uproar, her best friend abducted, and everyone expecting her to do something about it. One of the humans overseeing the situation plays the species imperative card, despite her ("I study SALMON!") protests. So it's up to Mac to save the galaxy from a nameless "something" that devours all living tissue, leaving entire planets sterilized.

The science in this novel derives quite elegantly from what we know or think we know, from the way that life faces challenges, leaping from "what if?" to "what if?" like salmon hopping up the rapids. The aliens are carefully designed. The descriptions of salmon, their habits and habitat are fascinating. The process of recreating the sounds of the mysterious intruder is the coolest bit of science I've come across in some time, completely new to me and firmly ensconced in the plot.

Special note: If you ever get the chance to hear Julie E. Czerneda at a reading, go! She has a delightful voice and much storytelling charm.

Survival is very, very dark science fiction. The "Portent" sections would not be out of place in the Cthulhu Mythos; indeed, there are things in this story that would make the Great Old Ones mumble an apology and shuffle out of the way. If you like biology, you'll love this book. And the next time you read about impending biological disaster ... the phrase "species imperative" will pop into your mind.

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