Sunday, 12 April 2009

Review: What Happened To The Indians

Terence Shannon's novel starts on familiar ground - pilot UFO sightings and mysterious plane crashes, the Roswell autopsy and CIA cover-ups. Don't be fooled - this is actually a novel about nuclear stand-off, taking its cues from West Wing, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the all-time classic Wargames as much as the X-Files.

The arrival of an alien presence generates a White House crisis and divides the President's emergency committee into hawks and doves, with the President seemingly swayed between the two sides. The crisis escalates in steps and at each stage the committee have to decide how to react. The debate is seen through the eyes of Doyle, a footsoldier drafted into the committee -
this third-person observer perspective works particularly well. Most of the other characters on the committee fall quickly into their hawk or dove stereotypes, however the President is convincing and seems genuinely thrown by the challenge he faces; also Doyle's boss Thurman Mather quickly develops into a likeable antihero. Every government office should have a Thurman Mather.

The central idea is the parallel between humanity's first encounter with the aliens, and the native Americans' first encounters with colonists - did the natives squander a brief window of opportunity to turn the invasion back? It's an apt analogy - the aliens have technological supremacy from the start and make few efforts to communicate, so the humans have to make guesses about their motivation based on a few data points, ultimately gambling the future of the planet on their theory.

Shannon raises the fascinating point that the biggest threat to the native American population over the years wasn't outright warfare but culture-shock. There's a sequence where humans are taken aboard an alien vessel and I wondered if this would develop into a culture-shock subplot. Instead military events on the ground take over and the fate of this interesting group is not reported. Also I couldn't help but wish for a native American character in the plot, historically and culturally aware, to make a few more links with the past, although I'd hate to lose likeable redneck Doyle in the process.

This novel got me thinking about history and colonization. While they may or may not have missed opportunities, I'm not certain that the native Americans didn't actually fight back - seems to me they more or less invented the concept of asymmetric warfare out West. Also, consider the South American civilizations who responded to the Conquistadors with mass suicides and fights-to-the-death perhaps even more insane than some of the options considered by the committee; history suggests the Conquistadors were too busy half-inching ancient treasures to notice, and these civilizations are more or less gone while there's still a significant native American presence and culture in the US. Overall this is an enjoyable and tense first novel although with a few under-developed elements. If you're interested to read more there's a sample chapter on Fantasy Debut here, and the author can be contacted via this e-mail. [updated 17.4.09]

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