White Queen

by Gwyneth Jones

Cover image

Series: Aleutian Trilogy #1
Publisher: Orb
Copyright: 1991
Printing: November 1994
ISBN: 0-312-89013-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 316

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Johnny is an engineer-journalist, originally from the United States, who is living in a land-locked African country at the start of White Queen. He's there because he's been exiled; he is infected with a contageous virus that will destroy any of a futuristic silicon-chip replacement that he comes into contact with. This has both destroyed his professional life and separated him from his family, driving him to the outskirts of society. But there, he encounters a woman named Agnès who turns out not to be a woman at all. She's a member of one of three parties of aliens who have apparently crash-landed on Earth.

White Queen is a story of first contact, but of a strange sort. It's told through the eyes of both the humans and the aliens, and it takes place on Earth rather than on a remote planet. The aliens have come to us, in a startlingly low-key manner, and look almost human. (They appear to have what in humans would be a cleft palate and, for rather more important reasons, seem to have a nasty skin disease.) At the start of the novel, they seem to fall into the extremely human class of aliens: their thoughts seem comprehensible, they mostly pass for human, and although telepathic they manage to communicate reasonably well in spoken language.

All this is hiding drastic differences, and unraveling those differences is the strength of this book. The Aleutians, as they're called by the humans due to the first of the three groups to make contact, are, under the surface, desperately strange. In a way, White Queen is a reversal of the normal first contact story: the aliens are the visitors, are in many ways more advanced, and think they understand humans but are utterly wrong, sometimes in tragic ways. The humans similarly leap to assumptions, nearly all of which are totally incorrect. Indeed, one of the problems I had with this book is that the humans keep making incorrect assumptions even when the correct analysis seemed blatantly obvious to me, although it's somewhat hard to judge since the reader is privileged with the alien perspective as well.

The first contact part of the book is both interesting and disturbing. White Queen is the co-winner of the first Tiptree award (for SF that explores gender) because one of the hidden but deep differences between humans and aliens is that the Aleutians have a radically different concept of self, gender, sex, and bonding. Sometimes this is fascinating, such as when the Aleutians establish their primary interaction with humans via a long-running intergovernment conference on the role of women in society while entirely misunderstanding the issues involved. Sometimes it is deeply shocking, such as the results of the complete misunderstanding between Agnès and Johnny when it comes to personal relationships. It's not the sort of exploration that results in conclusions, but it's a solid examination of just how different an alien culture can be and how unbridgeable the cultural gap can become despite superficial similarity.

So far, so good; White Queen is the sort of examination of assumptions and possible differences that good first-contact fiction can create. It's very quiet and often slow, but it's thoughtful and delivers some real tension (even if much of the tension is driven by some incredibly frustrating misunderstandings). The problem is that it's set against the backdrop of a human world that is frankly less believable than the aliens.

White Queen is supposedly set about fifty years into the future in a world whose politics have changed considerably. Japan has been destroyed by a catastrophe, the economy is a mess, the power of the United States has declined considerably, and socialism (presented in a mostly positive tone) is widespread. All that is relatively believable as a relatively near-future SF setting (pace Internet reviewers with firm beliefs in US exceptionalism), and the global conference on women's affairs that plods on for years while accomplishing nothing is a note-perfect example of groups like the UN Convention on Climate Change. Having the Aleutians decide that it's a representative global body to contact is a brilliant narrative stroke.

But while some of the broad strokes of history are believable, human reactions writ large in this book are not believable in the slightest. The world may change in fifty years, but I could not believe that human reactions would change this much.

For example, the first contact is almost a non-event. There is some curious media attention, but almost no other reaction. And this isn't because people don't believe the Aleutians are aliens; by the middle of the book, this is quite well-established and widely accepted, and yet most of humanity doesn't care in the slightest. Even in the face of a bad economic and environmental situation and a variety of regional wars, this is simply not credible. Even worse, the Aleutians start meddling and demonstrate various types of advanced technology, and the human reaction is unbelievable deference, with only a few attempts to understand the Aleutians better. There isn't even a serious attempt to learn how the Aleutians entered the solar system or where they came from!

The degree of passivity and the lack of popular fear or tension is simply absurd. Even if governments could be convinced to react this way, there would be splinter groups that would take much more direct (and violent) action, particularly after some of the events in this book. But the only group that does anything seems to be the one that's involved with the protagonists, and none of the political reactions to those events ever make sense.

The specific human characters who play a large role in events are somewhat better, although they're all still fairly passive and slow to act. I could forgive that from some individuals as part of a general dream-like deliberation in the tone. But the overall world reaction, the backdrop against which the story plays out, is so completely bizarre that I could never take this book seriously, which undermines the slow and thoughtful approach of the rest of the story.

I wanted to dig into the issues raised by the contrast between Aleutians and humans, but it isn't compelling and fast-moving enough to overcome my failure to suspend disbelief in the setting. A few more likeable characters would have halped; I mostly disliked the primary cast, and probably would have forgiven more of the background if I'd managed to identify with anyone. As is, while parts of the premise are interesting, I can't recommend the book. I can see why it won a Tiptree, but it just wasn't a credible enough story for me to enjoy it.

Followed by North Wind.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-10-23

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21