the Little Red Reviewer

Survival, by Julie Czerneda

Posted on: March 25, 2014

survivalSurvival (Species Imperiative #1), by Julie Czerneda

published in 2004

where I got it: purchased used

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Just because we’ve traveled to the stars and met with aliens doesn’t mean everyone wants to travel to the stars and hang out with aliens. Evolutionary biologist Dr. Mackenzie Connor  is perfectly happy to study salmon at the Norcoast research facility, working with other quirky research scientists and grad students.  Why should she care about aliens, outlying human colonies, or a dead spot in the galaxy, when all her salmon are doing just fine?

Let me save you a lot of reading by simply saying Julie Czerneda’s Survival is damn near perfect. There is no possible way to cram all the awesome of Survival into one review, so I won’t torture us by trying. But by all means, keep reading. Excellently researched and presented hard science fiction, characters in difficult situations, betrayal, aliens, and genocide, it took me a while to write this review because my brain was so Wow’d by the implications of what I’d read.

As there’s a big blue alien on the cover of the book, it’s no spoiler to tell you that an alien, a Dhryn to be specific, visits Norcoast. Instead of being flattered that the first Dhryn to ever visit the Earth has chosen her research facility to visit, Mac is less than thrilled to have her meticulously timed research interrupted by a huge alien name Brymn.  When I first met her, Mac reminded me of Dr. Ellie Arroway from Carl Sagan’s Contact. Both women are so very focused on their fields of research, that they take it as a personal insult whenever someone tries to interrupt their studies.  And it’s not just an alien who visits Norcoast, it’s the entourage of political hanger ons and the media, all stomping all over the place. So much for this season’s salmon spawning research.

The Dhryn, named Brymn, is most interested in Mac’s research that is focused on genetic variety within a population. As in, how much variety is required to sustain a population?  Brymn is an archaeologist by trade, why would an archaeologist be interested in the genetics of a population? Turns out, Brymn is interested in meeting a human biologist. Because you see, biology as we know it is unheard of on the Dhryn homeworld. They don’t think about it, don’t study it, and don’t care about it. But why would an alien be interested in the genetic varieties found in fish populations? Mac is, after all, an evolutionary biologist.

Shortly after Brymn’s arrival at Norcoast, the station is attacked by an invisible alien.  Mac’s office is ransacked, her best friend is kidnapped, and parts of the science station are destroyed. But Mac knows what she heard, and thanks to the audiophile lab and a scene reminiscent of the “it sounded like a cocktail party” scene from the movie Sneakers, they are able to recreate the sounds the alien made, in hopes of identifying it should it appear later.  Audiophiles at a marine biology lab? But of course, how else will they identify each individual whale?

To zip through the rest of the plot without actually telling you anything that happens, Mac soon finds herself on a Dhryn ship, being whisked off to the Dhryn homeworld.  This is where the story really took off for me. Brymn is the only Dhryn she’s ever met, so how could she possibly know that he’s not quite a model citizen?  His fellow Dhryn don’t seem pleased to see him, and they couldn’t care less about the soon to be dying of thirst human on their ship. Who would have thought that vast differences in biology would make for such fascinating reading? Well, it does.

And the Dhryn homeworld? I don’t know which is more incredible – the planet itself, or the logical assumptions Mac is able to make based on Brymn’s size, dietary habits, and physical mannerisms.  When all those assumptions prove false, she should be more than a little suspicious.  Mac is a scientist, she’s been trained to observe and ask questions. For the most part, the Dhryn simply refuse to answer her seemingly simple questions. Has she touched on something taboo? Is the meaning being lost in translation? If only she could find the right way to word it.

The plotting was both fantastic, and well, not.  Let me unpack that. You know how some Tv shows just have damn brilliant writing? Side characters are fully realized with full backstories without feeling tacked on, something that happened in the first episode becomes important later on, there is a surprise betrayal, by the end you’re not sure if the good guys are really the good guys, etc, and it’s just damn good writing?  The plotting of Survival felt  like that.  But on the other hand, the dominoes kept lining up too well. Too many guns were left on too many tables. There were too many coincidences.  That was the only weakness this book had: halfway through I had too good of a guess of what was going to happen at the end. That huge reveal at the end? Not so much.

and yet.

Words fail me, so allow me to use an architectural analogy. Imagine yourself on the uppermost floor of the Guggenheim.  At the end of a nondescript hallway, an industrial door is marked “authorized personnel only”. Are you really going to be surprised if that door leads to the roof? And if it does lead to the roof, does that take away from the architectural masterpiece you’ve just walked through? No, no it does not.  Okay, so the big reveal wasn’t a surprise for me. But I still got to walk through the Guggenheim. And maybe finding that door wasn’t the big reveal after all.

To tease you a little further, chew on these seemingly unrelated questions for a minute: When evolution takes you in the wrong direction, is it possible to go backwards? How much do parents owe their children?  What’s the best way to handle an invasive species?

I don’t read science fiction to have my questions answered. I read science fiction to be inspired to ask questions.  Because the first step in answering the question is voicing them in the first place.  Julie Czerneda got me to voice them, think about them, find parallels, and connect some dots.  No answers found yet, which means my journey is just beginning.

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14 Responses to "Survival, by Julie Czerneda"

Ok, I’m sold.
On my TBR pile it goes (somewhere to the top). ;)

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Just added this to my kindle. I don’t usually read hard SF, but I’m enjoying Contact at the moment and so I reckon I’ll enjoy this, too.

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Ya. Just where do you think I have the time to fit this in to my schedule? Have you no consideration, read a few bad ones that don’t interest me for a bit.

Seriously, looks really good.

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I love that it sounds like there is lots of science in this story. I am giggling at the blue alien on the cover, but your review makes me want to pick this up:-)

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That cover is just so bloody funky! And, I know I’ve seen it before but can’t remember where/when! I love the sound of this (and you know I’m more fantasy than sci fi). *goes away to investigate*
Lynn :D

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I’m relieved that you liked this. Must re-read for the third go-round!

That big reveal? The big reveal is that that’s not the big reveal. ;). This is a trilogy, so let me insert the cliche: “but wait! There’s more!”

What did you think about the pacing of the writing in the novel? I thought it was well done and matched Mac’s mood. The scene where she’s dying to death on the alien ship, it takes a long time. The part (one of) where the science station gets attacked and people are missing and things are on fire, that all happens really quickly.

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I can see why you’ve wanted to read and reread this series! i thought the pacing was spot on perfect. you hit it right on the head, that the pacing matches her mood. if time is flying for her, the pacing is ultra fast. if she’s bored, or dying, the pacing is slower, because everything has slowed down for her. Not a lot of authors take notice of details like that.

“The big reveal is that that’s not the big reveal.”
that’s kinda what I thought. *big grin*. and i’m a huge fan of that “but wait! there’s more!” cliche. :D

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I have not read this book or anything by Czerneda, but I do have her latest fantasy novel A Turn of Light I am planning to read soon! And then I’m sure I’ll be very curious to check out her sci-fi next.

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Curious: take away the aliens and is this still SF? Sounds like it could easily be mainstream but for that one element.

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Why you gotta ask me tough questions like that? I mean really Richard. ;)

the Big Questions that get asks are more societal questions than alien questions, so there’s not reason why this couldn’t be a mainstream novel even with the aliens.

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Augh. Echoing Nathan, please review bad things. Now I have to put this on my list too. In fact, this is the sort of thing that I feel like I should be introducing you to, not the reverse. You’re knocking the Hard SF junkie off his pedestal here.

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I started out as a hard SF junkie, you know. It’s Patrick Rothfuss and Scott Lynch’s fault that I read so much fantasy these days.

I’ll read some shitty vampire paranormal romance for a spell, okay?

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Nathan and I will both appreciate that. I seriously can’t pile up any more TBR in here, or I will be walled in, Edgar Allen Poe-like. (The Cask of TBR?)

I read more fantasy than ever last year, but still remain the most consistently SF of any other reviewer in this little community, I think.

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