Empire of Bones - Liz Williams
I've had this book kicking around in the house for a few years now, but have only just gotten around to reading it - quite a common fate for books that I didn't spend my own money on. In this case, it was a hand-me-down from Robert Rankin, who used to be a friend of ours, and had been given it by Williams herself at a meeting of local authors; he never reads fiction, so I got to nab it. It's a short but ambitious near-future SF story with the premise that human life is the result of long-ago genetic colonisation by an alien society, and that the aliens now believe us ready to resume contact. The contactee is Jaya, an outlawed guerilla leader and prophetess from India's Untouchable caste, whose class-warfare backstory mirrors the strict caste system on the alien homeworld; there is also a parallel storyline set amongst the aliens, where inter-caste conflict is threatening the survival of the Earth project, as well as the lives of our alien protagonists.
The plot is well constructed, with the two plotlines nicely complementing each other and mirroring the theme of resistance to the social order, but unfortunately the writing isn't brilliant. Despite Williams's bold attempts to give the aliens real alien-ness with their hierarchy and pheromonal communication, their motivations are all too human - with the driving factors of jealousy, greed and petty social climbing, it looks like just Earth-based political scheming in fancy dress. Similarly, I was never entirely convinced by the portrayal of the future India, and Jaya's too-rapid journey from magician's daughter to Bandit Queen to intergalactic ambassador seemed to be missing more than a few steps.
Character-wise, the only one developed beyond two dimensions is Jaya; the rest remain ciphers for pushing the plot forward. The bad guys, both alien and human, are particularly flat, and seem to just be Bad for the sake of it. The grand ideas of the plot serve to conceal a shallowness elsewhere in the book, in particular a superficial worldview that needs to look a bit harder at itself. Jaya's strong female character is undermined by the storylines of the alien female courtesan, whose every chapter seemed to end with a cheesy girl-in-peril cliffhanger (she gets almost raped by a mindless beast/almost eaten by a carnivorous house/forced to distract a guard by having sex with him, etc); the condemnation of paternalistic colonial masters sits uneasily with the book's rather Western portrayal of India as a backward country full of superstitions.
The view of India, despite the whiff of patronage, was obviously based on some thorough research; the rest of the book rather less so. The scientist in me is standing up and screaming at the suggestions of alien interference in human evolution and the effect of pheromones on human behaviour; the linguist is puzzled by a Japanese man being named "Naran". Sometimes I'm happy to accept hand-waving pseudo-science in my SF, but the closer to home it comes, the harder it gets to maintain the balance, and here it just crosses the line and breaks into my disbelief. As a reasonably entertaining bit of SF fluff this just about works, but it falls short of its ambition, and a believable near-future social-comment first-contact story it's really not.