the Little Red Reviewer

This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman

Posted on: July 10, 2015

this alien shoreThis Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman

published in 1998

where i got it: paperback swap








I’ve been hearing about C.S. Friedman’s This Alien Shore for a number of years now. Thanks to paperback swap (which sadly is no longer free) I was able to get a copy.  At over 500 pages, this book is not a fast read. It’s not a fast read for other reasons, but I’ll get to that in a bit.


I loved the premise of the novel. Earth has developed deep space travel, allowing us to colonize as many planets as we can find. But there’s a price. The travel changes our DNA, causing certain genes to reassert themselves, giving entire colonies what many Terrans define as physical and or developmental birth defects. At a time when Earth glorified genes that were free of any type of defects, we learn our path to the stars is rife with them. Contact was cut off from the colonies, forcing the newly planetbound to survive if they could.


This Alien Shore takes place hundreds of years later.  Many of the colonies have thrived, turning genetic concerns to their own advantage. Called “variants”, the story is populated with “aliens” who are humanoid in shape, but physically, mentally, and socially completely alien to Terrans. It lets Friedman have fun aliens without having to worry about what an alien looks like. One such genetic defect allows humans to pilot through the dangerous subspace ainniq. Their secrets are held close, allowing their Guild to hold a monopoly over space travel.  Earth is seen as a backwards and ignorant backwater.  (maybe it’s just me, but I fould it impossible to avoid comparing this novel to Dune. I hear “space travel guild that holds a monopoly over travel and holds the secrets of their travel abilities secret”, and all I can think is Spacing Guild!)


There are two intertwining plot lines in This Alien Shore – a shiny loud one that thinks it is the main plot, and a quiet one that isn’t interested in your attention but in the end is the more interesting.  Let me unpack that a little, because my reaction to how these plotlines are treated was actually more interesting than the actual plots.

Jamisia Shido was raised on Shido Station after she was orphaned. The company has raised her and educated her. She’s got no reason not to trust them. But then something goes terribly wrong. There are things she can’t remember, sometimes she doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror. When the station is attacked, her tutor helps her escape, and loads custom programming into her wetware. His warnings are dire, but too vague to help her.  If she can get out of the system and through the ainniq, maybe she can find someone who can help her. She has no idea why the Shido company and the Guild are after her. She’s going to have to use every and any tool at her disposal to survive.


Elsewhere, on the planet Guera, the famous Dr. Kio Masada pours himself into the wetware and pilot programming he designs. An absolute genius, everyone is forgiving of Masada’s social oddness. It’s not just that social cues don’t register with him, or that he doesn’t pick up on body language or sarcasm, or goes hours and sometimes days without eating or sleeping because he’s concentrating on what he’s working on. It’s that the Gueran culture accepts and promotes all types of social interaction.  Knowing many of their denizens can’t read body language, a person paints their personality and intentions in shapes on their faces, with descriptions that felt like a cross between Maori tattoos and geometric patterns on a motherboard. The face patterns aren’t permanent, you paint them on every day, so you can paint different ones depending on your mood and who you’ll be interacting with that day. Many of the patterns and shapes are based on zodiac style animals and mythos. I could talk about Gueran culture all day! It was hella cool.  There are a few scenes of Masada’s memories of his wife. I loved those scenes.


It goes without saying that Jamisia’s plotline is the “loudest” one.  She’s not loud herself, but she has the flashy action scenes, the negotiating with smugglers for transport, the dark secrets she doesn’t even know about herself.  She’s got the odd voices in her head who help her do things she’s not sure about, who push her to be braver than she ever thinks she can be.  If J.J. Abrams made a movie version of This Alien Shore, he’d film only her plotline, because there are plenty of opportunities for chrome ships and lens flares.  I wish Jamisia had taken more steps to find out what’s going on. She seems to spend the whole book running. At first, that was fine. But two hundred, three hundred, four hundred pages in, and I felt she was no closer to finding out what her big secret was. I was running out pages that could make such a wait worth it.


By definition, Masada’s plotline is quieter and much more subtle. He has no need for speed, or flash, or any kind of attention what so ever. It’s not his way. Hired by the Guild to research and solve a fatal virus that has been taking down ainniq pilots, Masada gets sucked into the politics of the upper echelons of the Guild. Being who he is, he barely notices what’s going on around him. Did Friedman take complete advantage of Masada’s social deficiencies, and purposely make the “villain’s” identity obvious to the reader, but oblivious to Masada? I was able to figure out the identity of the bad guy pretty quickly. Masada has no concept of the person’s sarcasm or body language, and others are simply in denial of what’s happening.  When it comes down to it, Masada’s plotline is far more interesting than Jamisia’s.


Had the novel been paced a little faster or been a hundred pages shorter, I probably would have liked the end more. The pacing was just so slow for the most part, that I was always waiting for something to happen. Because of my frustration with the pacing the end was rather a let down for me. Each plot line has it’s big reveal, and one I had already guessed, and the other wasn’t much of a surprise either.


Concept and culture-building wise, This Alien Shore is brilliant. But plot execution and pacing left me wanting more.

The story that I’d have loved to have read? The story of what got us here. I’d love to read the story of when, how, and why Earth cut off contact with her colonies. We sent billions of people into the great unknown, we realized the dream of colonizing the cosmos, we found an escape from the planet we had nearly destroyed.  Our science fictional dreams had come true.  And being the closed minded, genetic defect fearing people we are, we couldn’t bear the changes space travel caused. So we clamped down on our dreams and crushed them, and cut off all contact with our colonists. I want to read the story of the people who realized what was happening and stood on either side of those decisions. I’d love to know how we got to the point where This Alien Shore could exist.


8 Responses to "This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman"

Didn’t read the whole review because I was afraid of spoilers, but I’ve always watned to read this book, and all of Friedman’s works.


Friedman doesn’t seem to ever be a fast read. I’m still working on a review of In Conquest Born, which is pretty dense. The bifurcated plotlines confused me too – I kept expecting them to be somehow related, rather than two books occupying the same covers.


I felt like it just took me forever to read this. It really shouldn’t have taken me 3 weeks to finish this book.


I have it sitting near they the top of the TBR, but it may slide now, as I really don’t want to read a long, slow novel where lots happens but not much does. I think Carl liked it more than your did.


i think everyone liked this book more than i did.


Pacing must be a perennial problem with Friedman; I read an entirely different book from her and thought I was never going to get through it. (Okay, confession: I didn’t. I gave it 200 pages though.)


Wow, 200 pages in and you gave it up. It must have been really boring. But then maybe it was 600 pages long.


I believe it was, in fact! 😀


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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