Survival

by Julie E. Czerneda

Cover image

Series: Species Imperative #1
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: May 2004
ISBN: 0-7564-0180-1
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 401

Buy at Powell's Books

Dr. Mackenzie Connor, Mac to everyone she works with, is a biodiversity researcher specializing in salmon. In her future United States, humanity seems to have caught on to the importance of preserving wild places and learning about them, and is willing to invest in good equipment and a semi-permanent research installation. This comes with some occasional drawbacks, since she has to fight to get access to the salmon runs inside a nature preserve, but she wouldn't have it any other way. She wins enough of those fights, won the latest, and is now in position to monitor a run in a way that she's never been able to before.

She was not expecting an alien to go diving in the middle of her salmon run. She was certainly not expecting that alien to be accompanied by a bureaucrat insisting that this alien's curiosity is more important than her research (hah). But the accompanying letter she receives is scarily persuasive, if maddeningly unhelpful. Much like the apparently jovial, earnest, eager, and very odd alien.

Mac's continued hopes that she can quickly put this bizarre intrusion to rest and go back to her salmon are dashed by an impossible power outage, an alien visitor, and a violent kidnapping. Now her best friend and colleague is missing, the bureaucrat is not who he appears to be, and Mac is getting caught up in something that feels way over her head.

SF novels feature a lot of science, but not a lot of scientific research. The research that does appear is often impulsive, wildly compressed, or far too focused on the breakthroughs of single people. The SF novel that everyone points to for accurate portrayal of real scientific research is Benford's Timescape, which I found deeply unexciting. Now I have a new novel to point to for a better treatment, although (somewhat disappointingly) Mac's research gets sidelined relatively early in the story and left behind for the conclusion.

Czerneda gives us not just a few scientists and an imaginary research project, but an entire operational field station with a history. The Norcoast Salmon Research Facility is located just off-shore in carefully-designed domes to provide easy access to the sea with minimal intrusion into the local ecology. It's a bustling mix of research scientists, engineers, and the ever-present seasonal grad students, who come and go in all their immature enthusiasm and are viewed with a motherly bemusement that I immediately recognized from years of working at a university. Mac splits administrative duties with another scientist in an arrangement that will be familiar to academics everywhere, and the book opens with a mutually suspicious but mostly scripted turf fight with the guardian of the neighboring wildlife trust, the same fight they've been having every six months for years. I know Czerneda is herself a biologist by training; I'm not sure what her other academic background is, but if she hasn't spent years around academics and field studies, she's at least done some excellent research.

A lot of novels have a quotidian background that's interrupted by the arrival of the plot. At the start of the story, the characters often care more about their day-to-day lives than the plot, and are dragged into it reluctantly. But one sign of an excellent writer is their ability to get the reader to care about that quotidian background alongside the character, and to sympathize with the character's reluctance to get pulled into the promised (and generally more exciting) novel plot.

Czerneda succeeds in this about as well as any writer I've read since Robin McKinley's Sunshine, and that's high praise. I cared about Mac's salmon, I was nearly as irritated as she was when her research was interrupted, and I still want to go back and see more of the experiments and studies she was hoping to run. Interstellar drama and threats to multiple species are all well and good, but the salmon are running!

The actual plot is a mysterious threat that turns into a combination of a biological and cultural puzzle and a sort of first-contact story. Mac is not truly the first human to encounter the Dhryn, but she's certainly the first person they've explained anything to, and the first human to go where she goes. Sadly, it also shares some of the characteristics that sour me a bit on biological SF for personal reasons: a bit too much description of food, eating habits, squishy body parts, digestive processes, and biological discomfort. This is mostly a personal gripe, and won't bother other people as much as it does me, but I could have done without bits like the descriptions of Mac's attempts to figure out how to survive on alien cuisine. I'm also dubious of some of the biology of the Dhryn; given the startling bizarreness of Earth biology, maybe I shouldn't be, but I still think there are a few problems with the square-cube law here. But Mac's irrepressible grumpy curiosity makes this story, even in the bits that made me squeamish. I think I'd read any book in which she's the main character.

I will warn that the ending is surprisingly dark and wasn't what I was expecting, and Survival doesn't resolve its central mysteries. This is clearly the first book of a trilogy and should be read with that expectation. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and hopefully the next book will have more salmon.

Followed by Migration.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-04-30

Last modified and spun 2017-05-01