47North, 2013, 350 pages
When Earth is rocked by evidence that extraterrestrials may have seeded human DNA throughout the universe, a one-way expedition into deep space is mounted to uncover the truth. What linguist Meg Dupris and her crewmates aboard the Earth ship Damocles discover on Didet - a planet bathed in the near-eternal daylight of seven suns - is a humanoid race with a different language, a different look, and a surprisingly similar society. But here, it's the "Earthers" who are the extraterrestrial invaders, and it's up to Meg - a woman haunted by tragedy and obsessed with the power of communication - to find the key to establishing trust between the natives and the newcomers. In Loul Pell, a young Dideto male thrust into the forefront of the historic event, Meg finds an unexpected kindred spirit, and undertakes an extraordinary journey of discovery, friendship, and life-altering knowledge. Told from both sides of a monumental encounter, Damocles is a compelling novel about man's first contact with an extraterrestrial race.
After the horrible disappointment of Fluency, here is a SF novel about a linguist making first contact with aliens done right.
Damocles is not an action-packed novel. Most of the book is talking, describing the laborious task of humans and aliens trying to establish communications when they share no culture or language in common. The linguistics are not described in detail, but the process of constructing a bridge to translation is realistic.
It should be noted that this is also a "humans are the aliens" novel, in which it's the Earthers who come from outer space, to the shock and awe and terror of a less advanced, but technological, civilization.
The setting the Earthers come from is barely fleshed out — humans have expanded to other colonies, but the message from an older alien race giving Earthers the secret of FTL travel and telling them that there are other races seeded from the same DNA as humanity is never described in more detail than that. It's a MacGuffin to send the crew of the Damocles out into space.
Damocles is told in alternating chapters from the viewpoints of Meg Dupris, the linguist aboard the Damocles, and Loul Pell, a socially awkward nerd in a dead-end government job when the Earthers arrive.
Besides the realistic communications problems, the best part of Damocles is the realistic aliens, the Didetos. They are close enough to human that their psychology and physiology is understandable, but different enough that they're clearly not human. Their culture constantly throws the Earthers off-balance with its similarities and differences - Didetos don't sleep, and although they have an industrial society that has begun launching satellites, they have never in their history undertaken to explore their oceans. Yet, they have press conferences, a military-industrial complex, and comic book nerds.
Loul Pell is one of the latter. A disgraced scientist, now working as a cubicle drone because he once presented a paper speculating about alien contact, he suddenly finds himself whisked away by Dideto Men In Black when aliens actually appear, pretty much where and how he said they would. And so he accidentally takes the role of speaker-to-aliens, and befriends a strange, willowy, extraterrestrial named "Meg."
Although there are some misunderstandings and tension over miscommunications, and questions about whether the Earthers will be able to return home, there is no dramatic action in this book. It's a novel about inter-cultural communications, and if aliens ever do visit Earth, I can see Men In Black whisking S.G. Redling off to advise our first contact team on how to communicate with them.
Verdict: A thoughtful, intelligent sci-fi novel that explores linguistics and alien cultures in a realistic way. Damocles is not a particularly exciting book, but it's a fine work of genuine speculative fiction. 7/10.
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