Regeneration

by Julie E. Czerneda

Cover image

Series: Species Imperative #3
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: 2006
ISBN: 0-7564-0345-6
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 543

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This is the third book of the Species Imperative trilogy, and this is the type of trilogy that's telling a single story in three books. You don't want to read this out of order, and I'll have to be cautious about aspects of the plot to not spoil the earlier books.

Mac is still recovering from the effects of the first two books of the series, but she's primarily worried about a deeply injured friend. Worse, that friend is struggling to explain or process what's happened, and the gaps in her memory and her very ability to explain may point at frightening, lingering risks to humanity. As much as she wants to, Mac can't give her friend all of her focus, since she's also integral to the team trying to understand the broader implications of the events of Migration. Worse, some of the non-human species have their own contrary interpretations that, if acted on, Mac believes would be desperately risky for humanity and all the other species reachable through the transects.

That set of competing priorities and motivations eventually sort themselves out into a tense and rewarding multi-species story, but they get off to an awkward start. The first 150 pages of Regeneration are long on worry, uncertainty, dread, and cryptic conversations, and short on enjoyable reading. Czerneda's recaps of the previous books are appreciated, but they weren't very smoothly integrated into the story. (I renew my occasional request for series authors to include a simple plot summary of the previous books as a prefix, without trying to weave it into the fiction.) I was looking forward to this book after the excellent previous volumes, but struggled to get into the story.

That does change. It takes a bit too long, with a bit too much nameless dread, a bit too much of an irritating subplot between Fourteen and Oversight that I didn't think added anything to the book, and not enough of Mac barreling forward doing sensible things. But once Mac gets back into space, with a destination and a job and a collection of suspicious (or arrogant) humans and almost-incomprehensible aliens to juggle, Czerneda hits her stride.

Czerneda doesn't entirely avoid Planet of the Hats problems with her aliens, but I think she does better than most of science fiction. Alien species in this series do tend to be a bit all of a type, and Mac does figure them out by drawing conclusions from biology, but those conclusions are unobvious and based on Mac's mix of biological and human social intuition. They refreshingly aren't as simple as biology completely shaping culture. (Czerneda's touch is more subtle than James White's Sector General, for example.) And Mac has a practical, determined, and selfless approach that's deeply likable and admirable. It's fun as a reader to watch her win people over by just being competent, thoughtful, observant, and unrelentingly ethical.

But the best part of this book, by far, are the Sinzi.

They first appeared in the second book, Migration, and seemed to follow the common SF trope of a wise elder alien race that can bring some order to the universe and that humanity can learn from. They, or more precisely the one Sinzi who appeared in Migration, was very good at that role. But Czerneda had something far more interesting planned, and in Regeneration they become truly alien in their own right, with their own nearly incomprehensible way of viewing the universe.

There are so many ways that this twist can go wrong, and Czerneda avoids all of them. She doesn't undermine their gravitas, nor does she elevate them to the level of Arisians or other semi-angelic wise mentors of other series. Czerneda makes them different in profound ways that are both advantage and disadvantage, pulls that difference into the plot as a complicating element, and has Mac stumble yet again into a role that is accidentally far more influential than she intends. Mac is the perfect character to do that to: she has just the right mix of embarrassment, ethics, seat-of-the-pants blunt negotiation skills, and a strong moral compass. Given a lever and a place to stand, one can believe that Mac can move the world, and the Sinzi are an absolutely fascinating lever.

There are also three separate, highly differentiated Sinzi in this story, with different goals, life experience, personalities, and levels of gravitas. Czerneda's aliens are good in general, but her focus is usually more on biology than individual differentiation. The Sinzi here combine the best of both types of character building.

I think the ending of Regeneration didn't entirely work. After all the intense effort the characters put into understanding the complexity of the universe over the course of the series, the denouement has a mopping-up feel and a moral clarity that felt a bit too easy. But the climax has everything I was hoping for, there's a lot more of Mac being Mac, and I loved every moment of the Sinzi twist. Now I want a whole new series exploring the implications of the Sinzi's view of the universe on the whole history of galactic politics that sat underneath this story. But I'll settle for moments of revelation that sent shivers down my spine.

This is a bit of an uneven book that falls short of its potential, but I'll remember it for a long time. Add it on to a deeply rewarding series, and I will recommend the whole package unreservedly. The Species Imperative is excellent science fiction that should be better-known than it is. I still think the romance subplot was unfortunate, and occasionally the aliens get too cartoony (Fourteen, in particular, goes a bit too far in that direction), but Czerneda never lingers too long on those elements. And the whole work is some of the best writing about working scientific research and small-group politics that I've read.

Highly recommended, but read the whole series in order.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-08-31

Last modified and spun 2017-09-01