(Author's Guild, June 2011, 270 pages, $16.95)
(Penscript Publishing House, December 2012, 301 pages, $17.95)
When Cary Neeper first published excerpts of her novel The Webs of Varok on Resilience.org, one commenter dismissed the work as being "merely a polemic pretending to be a novel." Only the first charge is correct. The book clearly is an impassioned polemic against the extravagance and destructiveness of industrial society, but it's hardly "pretending to be a novel." Rather, it is an involving, well-plotted story that does justice to both the hard science underpinning its interplanetary settings and the long evolutionary perspectives typical of the old scientific romances (those of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke). Further, Neeper is in good company in her use of polemic, as Resilience editor Bart Anderson pointed out in his reply to the first commenter's post. Anderson observed that George Orwell, Sinclair Lewis, Aldous Huxley and many other great authors have used polemic to poignant and lasting effect.
The Webs of Varok is the second part in a series. Its predecessor, A Place Beyond Man, came out in 1975. Both novels take place in a near future in which humans are but one among several sentient species inhabiting the solar system. The other species have long been secretly watching humankind's tragic situation on Earth. They are despondent at humans' destruction of Earth's environment, as well as the suffering and death among their own ranks. Yet they are leery of revealing their presence and offering any help. As far as they can tell, humans lack the enlightenment to use such help wisely, and would instead squander it in a last-ditch effort to prop up their excessive way of life. Nevertheless, the aliens will soon try to contact and counsel these woefully misguided earthlings.
The two main species observing Earth are the varoks and the ellls. Varoks look like humans except for the "patch organs" on either side of their heads that allow them to read each another's thoughts. They are intensely rational beings who can't easily process emotion and who abhor physical contact with one another–indeed, their mating consists not of physical union but of a melding of minds. An especially traumatic period in history known as the Mutilation, which involved both a civilizational collapse and a profound degeneration of varoks' bodies, is credited with making them this way. Their home world, Varok, is a moon of Jupiter that is as yet undetected by humans. Though it supports life as we know it, evolution has been stunted by the feeble light and energy coming from Jupiter and not the sun (in an interesting aside, we learn that Varok never had an equivalent to Earth's majestic dinosaurs).
Ellls, on the other hand, are the antithesis of varoks. They are extremely social beings ruled above all by their emotions, and they have a reputation for being cheerful, free-spirited and often mercurial. Physically they're much like Earth's frogs, albeit on a humanoid scale. Their time is generally spent congregating in vast underwater schools. The planet that they call home is a misty water world near the end of the solar system named Ellason. As a setting, Ellason is much more thinly developed than Varok is, though this is excused by the fact that no action takes place there.
The elll chosen to make first contact with Earth is an exception to his species' need for constant social connection. His name is Conn, and he's a natural loner, enabling him to live and function within the confines of spaceships and other isolated environments. At the outset of A Place Beyond Man, he is stationed on the Elll-Varok Observation Base located on Earth's moon–which, again, hasn't yet been picked up by humans–though he lives most of the time among the contingent of similarly disposed ellls on Varok. (As a side note, it's significant that Neeper limits the story's setting to our solar system. This allows her to forego such fanciful sci-fi devices as faster-than-light travel and multiple-generation starships, which become necessary when dealing with vast galactic distances.)
Our first human character is a microbiologist from Earth named Tandra Grey. Conn journeys to Earth and recruits her to be the lunar base's resident expert on inter-humanoid immunization. He introduces himself during a costume party to which he wears a clunky space suit that obscures his alien appearance. Tandra believes his entire story to be a lark—until, that is, she gets a glimpse of his real face beneath the helmet. She's at once stunned, exhilarated and terrified, but ultimately it is the plucky scientist in her that prevails. In short order, she moves herself and her daughter, Shawne, to the moon station where they become the first extraterrestrial transplants in human history.
From here, the story follows two parallel themes. The first one is Tandra's personal growth as she comes to understand the aliens' ways, abandons her ties to Earth and ultimately becomes part of a multi-species family. This family consists of Tandra, her daughter, Conn and a varok named Orram, with whom Tandra shares the varokian mind-link.
The other major theme is the seeming futility of convincing humans at large to choose a wiser path. Appeals to stewardship and altruism are lost on the human public and its leadership, ruled out of hand because they go against the imperative of economic growth. As Tandra succinctly puts it, "man's conscience is made of money." Indeed, most of the humans we meet seem far more likely to capture the aliens, to be put on display or used as guinea pigs, than to take their concerns seriously.
The version of A Place Beyond Man reviewed here is an Author's Guild Backinprint.com Edition that came out in June 2011, the original having long since gone out of print. And what a worthy revival it is, in both its continued timeliness and its intelligent, believable rendering of alien values and cultures.
Its sequel, The Webs of Varok, was a long time in coming, but it's finally here waiting to be discovered by a new generation. And I'm happy to report that the 38-year lapse between offerings has not dimmed Neeper's storytelling ability nor dampened her ambition: the new novel is every bit as well made, poignant and entertaining as its predecessor. Set on Varok shortly after the events of the first book, it takes a break from the human drama unfolding on Earth and focuses instead on a homegrown threat. This new threat takes the form of a rapacious varokian businesswoman who intends to become rich and powerful by emulating humans' disregard for the future and the lives of other creatures.
Her name is Mahntik Mahnate Tikahn, and she is Director of Genetic Research on the island of L`orkah. She has a new product that she insists will save vast amounts of energy by eliminating the need to heat buildings and homes. It is a type of garment known as a warming cloth, which derives its warming ability from the rare earth element rhenium. Just as on Earth, rhenium is rare and energy-intensive to mine on Varok–but this is only the beginning of what's wrong with Mahntik's operations. Mahntik is also using banned strains of the plant used to make the cloths, and is transporting them over long distances in a society where long-distance transport isn't done. Also, her prices seem far too low to include all the costs of production, most notably the costs exacted upon the land.
It soon becomes clear that alarming trends are developing with both the economy and the land surrounding the site of Mahntik's shady business. The region is becoming grossly overpopulated, and potable water is growing scarce. The lake level is dropping fast, and its shores are becoming clogged with toxic algal blooms caused by fertilizer runoff. There's also evidence of rampant pesticide use and radioactive contamination from a nearby decommissioned nuclear reactor, which Mahntik's charges have begun to bring back online.
Tandra and her newfound family, now living on Varok, become unlikely heroes, using inter-species teamwork to thwart the villain's plot. And when they aren't busy getting to the bottom of Mahntik's mischief, the focus of the story is on Tandra and Shawne's acclimation to varokian culture. In the process, we readers receive a sort of guided tour of life on Varok. We learn of policies that would seem backwards to those steeped in industrial capitalism on Earth, but that have allowed varokian civilization to prosper for centuries. Chief among these is the careful prevention of economic growth. The money supply of every locale is held constant, material production is kept from going beyond need, banks observe a 100-percent-collateral rule and tax rates are punishingly high for anyone who makes more than 15 percent above the minimum income. There are no such things as interest, inflation or money-making schemes.
The Webs of Varok closes with a list of suggestions that Conn has for present-day humans. His parting request: "Print this on your forehead: the economy is a sub-system of the environment. It's not the other way around...Invent more new ways to explore how to stabilize, not grow, the economy."
Three more Archives of Varok novels are in the works and are set to be released between now and the end of 2014. I look forward to seeing what additional insights their alien worlds have to contribute to the growing debate about our species' predicament.