OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
Caliban – by Lorina Stephens
Publisher: Five Rivers Publishing, Neustadt, Ontario, Canada, 2018.
Cover Art – by Jeff Minkevics
Naturally, in a galaxy of many intelligent species, when investigating a murder on the most artistically sophisticated planet in existence you hire an investigator from a race so brutal, bestial, ignorant, and primitive that its home planet is under perpetual quarantine. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
To start with, the novel has a familiar backdrop, a collective political entity, known as the United Order of Planets, encompassing 40 inhabited worlds involving many races who treat each other more or less as equals, overlooking each others “faults,” and celebrating each others unique attributes. The one exception is Setebos, the home planet of the Caliban, of which more later.
Other standard items include faster-than-light travel, numerous merchant spacecraft, and spaceliners carrying the tourist trade. There’s even a kind of holographic instant communication system. All this allows the reader to take certain things for granted, such as simultaneous events on far-flung planets without any bother about time differentiation. Everything as cozy and intercommunicable as say, the Victorian era British Empire on Earth. Indeed, much faster, communication-wise. Standard Galactic empire stuff.
Except, certain subtle differences from the expected norm. For one thing, war isn’t the major threat. Political shenanigans placing assorted powers-that-be and vested interests in peril of being trounced by their competitors is the problem at hand, the trigger being the apparent murder of an ambassador representing the planet with a veritable monopoly on mining interests across the worlds. This is particularly dangerous because the entire multi-planet economic system has been in the grip of a steady decline which has investors and power elites mighty worried.
To make matters worse, at least from the point-of-view of Machiavelli wannabes, the single most powerful and influential political entity is the Guild, whose members are the arbiters of culture across civilization. Just as most people today are far more interested in sports or movies or video games than obscure debates on economics or social planning, so the majority of humans, sentient blobs, intelligent trees or navel-gazing fish (hard for them to do) are obsessed with the latest creations of the masters of assorted arts, such as the highly evocative choreography of dancing trees that can move viewers to orgasm (or its equivalent), or sculptors who work with light rather than physical material. Appreciation of true art is more important than mere wealth, in terms of personal prestige and reputation.
Sound far-fetched? Puts me in mind of Constantinople in the time of the emperor Justinian. If someone put up a villa which blocked your view of the harbour, you could sue. But, in order to win, you had to prove you were better educated than the rich lout who had obstructed your view. The resulting court cases were hilarious, what with both parties hurling quotations from Homer and Pindar at each other. These were popular court cases. Standing-room only.
Thing is, every race having the usual quota of power-mad, paranoid personalities, the Guild is highly suspect, since its operation may have one or more hidden agendas, especially since its members are gifted individuals from all the races (except the Caliban) and thus, if you stop to think about it, potentially race traitors who are manipulating everybody and everything for the benefit of the organization they belong to. The ultimate conspiracy theory.
All of which is to suggest that humanity will carry to the stars literally all of our political and historical baggage, and that we will discover other races similarly burdened. Not quite the utopian vision of future progress optimists insist on.
The Guild has to be handled carefully. It has a monopoly on the use of Dreamweavers, a startlingly gifted race of humanoids from the crimefree planet Edain. They have the ability to weave apparent reality from nothing, and their storytelling is irresistible and often hypnotically beautiful. They are the ultimate arbiters of art and are stationed on every planet (except Setebos) to inspire all known sentient species to the highest level of artistic achievement they are capable of. They represent the most ethereal aspirations of all known intelligent species. The Dreamweavers are perceived as a veritable race of angels. The fulfillment of utopian dreams.
Except, there are rumours. That the Dreamweavers can create matter out of nothing. Impossible, unless they be Gods? That they can suck you into their dream-woven realities and you can never escape. Con-artist Gods? That they manipulate realty so that it no longer exists. Now, that’s God-like! And worst of all, that they are not what they seem. Hmm, pretty human, that. But… are they not in fact the most alien of all the species yet discovered?
Fortunately, there is an organization responsible for maintaining equilibrium, if not serenity, among the teeming billions of intelligent beings. It’s the IPCIB, the Interplanetary Criminal Investigations Bureau, whose task is to keep watch and investigate on behalf of an Interplanetary Supreme Court which is the ultimate arbiter of justice for the UOP. The agents of the IPCIB are known as “Actives,” and they are ubiquitous everywhere, except on Setebos, which has but one. His name is Tine.
The race Tine belongs to is known as the Caliban. No doubt there are associations with Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” but I’ve long forgotten them. So, no metaphorical comparisons from me. In fact, the first thing which springs to mind is the character Calibos from Ray Harryhausen’s film “Clash of the Titans.” Not much fodder for comparison there, even though Harryhausen admits Calibos is based on Caliban, “the savage and deformed slave.”
Tine does have cloven hooves, and a swarthy, warty, oily skin, and way too many claws and teeth, not to mention execrable table manners and appalling etiquette. But then his race lives in an incredibly close and complex symbiotic relationship with the flora and fauna of Setebos, his home planet, where seasons and life cycles are generally violent and short. An apex predator, Tine is mostly a creature of instinct, thoroughly in tune with life around him, but not in any hippy-dippy sense. Meals are generally eaten alive and screaming. Life beyond the immediate brood is fiercely competitive. An insult or a slight is a killing matter. Instinct rules all.
So why did the human IPCIB operative Jacob train Tine as an “Active”? Then pick him to go to the precociously and preciously civilized world Edain to solve the murder of an ambassador where no crime has ever previously occurred?
Because Tine, in spite of his instincts, in spite of his mate’s advice, in spite of all the taboos and traditions of his race, harbours an overwhelming curiosity that drives him to soak up as much holographic knowledge of other worlds as Jacob allows him to see. He wants to explore, to see for himself what other civilizations are actually like. Even if it means he can never return to Setebos, or his family. He’s that driven.
From Jacob’s point of view, Tine is the ideal investigator. He will hide in plain sight, uncouth, barbaric, embarrassing, hideous and downright disgusting in his personal habits, someone to be shunned and avoided, except by those whose taste for the exotic and the perverse will regard him with amusement. Tine’s cover as the first Setebos Ambassador going offworld in search of permission to import a Dreamweaver or two to “civilize” his planet alone will guarantee him admission to the elite of Edain. After all, they’re constantly in search of something to alleviate boredom. What better than this revolting thing?
To put it another way, every sentient being will underestimate Tine. But not Jacob. He knows Tine’s predator instincts, his all-encompassing situational-awareness firmly grounded in the here-and-now, not to mention his ignorance of what is expected of him by the pretentions of the elite, will keep him safe from suspicion and, just possibly, relatively immune to the dream realities cast by the Dreamweavers.
For sure, Tine, though often confused and frustrated by the unknown manifesting itself for the first time in his experience, has nothing but contempt for silly things like cooked meat or plates and napkins. Some individuals, especially the artists, impress him, but he can never stop thinking of them as prey. They pride themselves on not laughing in his face. He prides himself on not tearing into them and eating them alive. Diplomatic restraint, you see. Admirable.
And clever. He’s very clever. He’s intelligent enough to ask seemingly harmless questions, observe significant details, and put two and two together to add up to a thousand. Slowly, meticulously, he gets to the bottom of things, all the while enjoying putting down and offending numerous beings with high opinions of themselves.
And then there’s Ela, the Master Dreamweaver, who is either his greatest ally or biggest foil. Takes him a long time to make up his mind. She has been assigned, or herself chose, to be his guide and mentor on Edain. She is as beautiful as he is ugly, at least in human terms, and is invaluable to him. And yet, she more than anyone else, leads him to doubt what he sees and hears. For one thing, much of what she says is meaningless to him. Not just for lack of context, but because of something truly alien in pattern and concept. Gradually he begins to wonder if the Dreamweavers are so different from everyone else as to constitute a danger to the entire population of the United Order of Planets. Or is she just toying with him? Is this the price of extremely evolved intelligence, the inability to take anything seriously?
“Question everything” is good advice. But what if it doesn’t produce answers?
Point is Tine’s quest in search of “the truth” is great, good fun. Along the way, an assortment of characters, whose senses and perceptions are alien to ours, are gleefully explored. The three most important and fascinating being Tine, Ela, and Tylan, the dancing tree. None of them are human-style cliches. They are excellent examples of fictional aliens.
Believe or not, I have said nothing of the plot, which is complex yet clear once everything unfolds, and I’ve only hinted at the nature of the characters or the world of Edain. I’ve merely given you the basic set-up. To reveal more would be to issue spoilers, and I don’t want to do that. But I will mention a couple of things.
First, an interspecies orgy takes place, where Tine’s instincts are triggered such that he can’t help but take part, much to his chagrin. Fairly graphic description I’d say. Raises an interesting point (no pun intended). Assuming inevitable contact with intelligent alien species and, given human instincts at least, inevitable sex between the two, what will be the official viewpoint? Consensual sex between intelligent beings, or bestiality? I believe I know what established religions would say. But what if the aliens are like the Dreamweavers? Veritable angels in appearance and behaviour?
Of course, in the movies alien monsters are always carting off human females, which seems unlikely given species differentiation. But what if sex between intelligent species is the product of intellectual rationalization, call it perversion, rather than biological instinct? And given that, what if it can be exploited for purposes of political manipulation? Relations with aliens may be a darn sight more complex than people think. I think it a worthwhile question to put forward. Might as well get everything sorted out in international law before we get involved with alien civilizations. Put on a united front at least. A practical matter.
Second, in addition to her many other talents, Lorina is an artist, particularly noted for her delicate water colours of country scenes. As a result, she brings to the text considerable descriptive power in terms of colour and light which is probably beyond most writers of fiction. Given that much of the “reality” in this book consists of Dreamweaver influenced scenes, some partially artificial, the product of their minds, and some wholly artificial mental constructs, yet as real and sturdy as the chair I’m sitting on; it’s no wonder Lorina’s power of description adds greatly to the dream-like nature of these settings, lends them credibility and verisimilitude, makes them seem as real as the Dreamweavers intend them to be. Tine is occasionally lost in awe at what he is witnessing. Lorina’s descriptive talent helps us see why.
For me, “Caliban” is the best possible type of science fiction novel, in that it is both concept-driven and character-driven, with each facet original and exciting. It explores every conceivable relationship between technology and rationality, from the stone age (the Caliban) to “Forbidden Planet” Krell-like technology without instrumentation (the Dreamweavers). To sum up, it asks one question of humanity’s relationship with civilization in all it’s aspects, namely “What the Hell is going on?”
For some, the book may be too complex, too difficult to grasp, being a wide-ranging examination of everything we create, to the point where some may see it as a parody of today’s events, or a satire of science fiction tropes and memes. Certainly “Caliban” draws on many sources, but I see it as a profoundly serious philosophical quest, albeit enlivened with considerable humour and delicate beauty while asking hard questions.
In short, I enjoyed reading this book. I found it inspiring.
The answers? Well, that’s up to the readers. All part of the fun. I think Socrates would agree.
Buy it at: < Caliban >