by Mary Sisson

Cover image

Series: Trang #1
Publisher: Mary Sisson
Copyright: 2011
Printing: December 2013
Format: Kindle
Pages: 374

Buy at Powell's Books

In 2113, a radio mapping satellite near the Titan station disappeared. It then reappeared five days later, apparently damaged and broadcasting a signal that made computers crash. The satellite was immediately sent back to the Space Authority base in Beijing for careful examination, but the techs on the station were able to decode the transmission: a request for the contents of databases. The general manager of the station sent a probe to the same location and it too vanished, returning two days later with a picture of a portal, followed shortly by an alien probe.

Five years later, Philippe Trang has been assigned as the first human diplomat to an alien space station in intergalactic space at the nexus of multiple portals. Humans will apparently be the eighth type of intelligent life to send a representative to the station. He'll have a translation system, a security detail, and the groundwork of five years of audiovisual communications with the aliens, including one that was able to learn English. But he'll be the first official diplomatic representative physically there.

The current style in SF might lead you to expect a tense thriller full of nearly incomprehensible aliens, unexplained devices, and creepy mysteries. This is not that sort of book. The best comparison point I could think of is James White's Sector General novels, except with a diplomat rather than a doctor. The aliens are moderately strange (not just humans in prosthetic makeup), but are mostly earnest, well-meaning, and welcoming. Trang's security escort is more military than he expects, but that becomes a satisfying negotiation rather than an ongoing problem. There is confusion, misunderstandings, and even violence, but most of it is sorted out by earnest discussion and attempts at mutual understanding.

This is, in other words, diplomat competence porn (albeit written by someone who is not a diplomat, so I wouldn't expect too much realism). Trang defuses rather than confronts, patiently sorts through the nuances of a pre-existing complex dynamic between aliens without prematurely picking sides, and has the presence of mind to realize that the special forces troops assigned to him are another culture he needs to approach with the same skills. Most of the book is low-stakes confusion, curiosity, and careful exploration, which could have been boring but wasn't. It helps that Sisson packs a lot of complexity into the station dynamics and reveals it in ways that I found enjoyably unpredictable.

Some caveats: This is a self-published first novel (albeit by an experienced reporter and editor) and it shows. The book has a sort of plastic Technicolor feel that I sometimes see in self-published novels, where the details aren't quite deep enough, the writing isn't quite polished, and the dialog isn't quite as tight as I'm used to. It also meanders in a way that few commercial novels do, including slice-of-life moments and small asides that don't go anywhere. This can be either a bug or a feature depending on what you're in the mood for. I found it relaxing and stress-relieving, which is what I was looking for, but you may have a different experience.

I will warn that the climax features a sudden escalation of stakes that I don't think was sufficiently signaled by the tone of the writing, and thus felt a bit unreal. Sisson also includes a couple deus ex machina twists that felt a bit predictable and easy, and I didn't find the implied recent history of one of the alien civilizations that believable. The conclusion is therefore not the strongest part of the book; if you're not enjoying the journey, it probably won't get better.

But, all that said, this was fun, and I've already bought the second book in the series. It's low-stakes, gentle SF with a core of discovery and exploration rather than social dynamics, and I haven't run across much of that recently. The worst thing in the book is some dream glimpses at a horrific event in Trang's past that's never entirely on camera. It's not as pacifist as James White, but it's close.

Recommended, especially if you liked Sector General. White's series is so singular that I previously would have struggled to find a suggestion for someone who wanted more exactly like that (but without the Bewitched-era sexism). Now I have an answer. Score another one for Susan Stepney, who is also how I found Julie Czerneda. Trang is also currently free for Kindle, so you can't beat the price.

Followed by Trust.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-07-16

Last modified and spun 2022-07-23