Book Review: Human to Human by Rebecca Ore
“Human to Human” is the third and final book in a series by Rebecca Ore. I long considered this fictional universe better and more realistic than Star Trek’s Federation. It was fascinating in the beginning before descending into tropes, lecturing and what the author though added drama but subtracted from the book and undermined the characters. And, perhaps worse of all, undermined the message she wanted to share through the stories.
The “Alien” Universe
Karst is a manufactured world intended to be the center of a united gallery of species. There were five original member species. The number has grown to more than 120 member species, nearly all of which have representatives and populations on Karst. The people living on Karst range from ambassadors from their home worlds to involuntary indentured labor sold by the home world, disaffected artists and free spirits going to the weirdest place they can visit to refugees. There is a human refugee population on Karst. They are descended from a Tibetan village that helped a crashed alien on Earth centuries ago and were all brought along. Most are laborers, while a few have risen to the middle class on the alien planet.
Where the Karst universe stands out is that they’re not all variations on humanity with funny hats. There are sentient birds, bats and reptiles. You see how the literal environment like design of bathrooms and phones is handled to truly accommodate everyone. Some of the social rules that allow everyone to live together are discussed. In the second book, when Tom and Marianne have a child, you learn about the deliberate social engineering to train children raised on Karst to get along with aliens despite their instincts. You learn a lot about the little details of life, like alien bats learning to like milk cream from cloned Jersey cows from Earth or trying to translate “bread” to alien languages.
The Story Until “Human to Human”
Tom and his older brother were orphans on a West Virginia farm who discover a crashed alien ship. Tom and his brother capture and try to study the aliens, though they die. For their assistance, Tom is able to go with the aliens. He has no reason not to go, since his brother’s drug dealing has already left Tom saddled with a drug conviction and bad reputation on Earth. Tom becomes the “alien” in “Becoming Alien”, a human on the home-world of this interstellar alliance without a home-world government to back him up or, barring a few rare individuals, friends of any sort.
One of the aliens willed his spot in the Academy to Tom. That alien’s mother sponsors Tom, coming to care for him. Because she invests time and effort into her son’s replacement, he comes to care for her, as well. Tom does surprisingly well in the Academy, graduates, and starts taking on various assignments. Here, he is being the alien in “Being Alien”. He manages to handle one First Contact assignment successfully. Then come the Sharwani, the opposite of the Karst Federation.
The Sharwani’s reaction to the “Federation” is to try to declare war against it. They’re the opposite of this peaceful Federation, conquering several alien worlds and subjugating their populations. Tom had the job of negotiating entry to the Federation with one species the Sharwani conquered mid-way. The Federation wouldn’t help them because they would only protect formal members.
In this regard, the first and second books are fascinating, fun and engaging. There is a mix of personal development, interstellar politics and truly speculative ideas on how so varied a mix of species truly could live together.
The Plot of “Human to Human”
At the start of “Human to Human”, Tom Gentry and his family are at the top of Karst society. He’s a respected de facto diplomat. His wife is a government linguist. His ex-brother-in-law is a famous musician. His ex-lover and the musician’s wife have the child Yangchenla always wanted. Life for everyone in the family group is ideal, though trouble brews outside.
Tom and his human wife Marianne take in a captured Sharwani family to try to teach them Karst One, a language of the Federation, and how aliens can peacefully live together. They’re trying to personally demonstrate and teach the better way of living at literal risk to themselves. The Sharwani frame Tom for the murder of one of their species who has chosen to side with Karst. The fact that the Karst leadership initially believes it is true is where the book and plot itself goes downhill.
Tom kills a Sharwani who personally betrayed him, because the man’s actions nearly killed Tom and did kill Tom’s friend. The Academy leaders per their own biases nearly dump Tom, but the fact that he’s the only good liaison for Earth saves him from being dismissed. The facts of the situation – he was framed for murder by the enemy in a time of war and almost died that time and others – didn’t matter. Nope, just act with irrational xenophobic fear of humans as vicious murderers …
Earth is developing the technology for interstellar travel, so Tom is being groomed as Karst’s representative for First Contact.
Aliens look at humans as untamed animals, despite Tom’s personal performance and the modest colony of humans on the planet. This is paralleled to irrational racism throughout the book, and the author’s heavy handed messaging becomes blatant lecturing at too many points. There are later discussions in the book that fail on multiple accounts to try to hammer the message home; racism in the South was wrong and irrational, but truly alien species are very different and wariness of them is not irrational. Conflating the two is illogical.
Tom himself has come a long way from a Southern redneck ex-con high school dropout. Leaders from Earth are introduced to him as an officer in the Federation. Then the book really falls flat.
Tom is assumed to be a racist redneck despite living more than a decade among aliens, and there are lots of comments to him intended to “check” him on that assumed attitude. His alien sponsors and bosses prepared him to live on Earth as middle or upper class, so he knows the right dinner manners with multiple forks but not how to present himself confidently when dealing with FBI and CIA interrogators. He is awkward staying in a mansion and being around people who come from the “upper crust”, but he was supposed to be prepared for such a role?
Tom is left to his effort to convince Earth to join the Federation, but he gets no help. In fact, the Karst leadership seems to have stranded him there for months without contact or real help as punishment for the “murdered” Sharwani who betrayed and tried to kill him. Tom is successful anyway, and Earth decides to enter negotiations with the Karst Federation. All the while, he’s loyal to his wife, he desperately wishes to return to his son while dreaming of another child, and utterly longs for home. He visits his old home in West Virginia. Here, he's let down by the people yet again by former teachers and police; they blame his alienation and self-loathing on him … while admitting they didn’t do much to support him or fully educate him because of his drug-dealing brother raising him after he lost his parents.
The dialogue suggests the entire point of the meeting was to make him reassess himself and his biases, yet again. However, having an isolated human hero get told it is all his fault for not being better when former teachers admit they were afraid to approach or encourage him, a literally poor orphan kid raised by a criminal older brother .... Talk about victim-blaming.
He gets to go home to Karst. Here, the author seems to have decided to go "soap opera" because she ran out of ideas. Tom’s wife had an affair with a former administrator/mentor of Tom’s, and the bird bragged about it. Tom’s former best friend is now his boss, and that boss orders him to stay together with his cheating wife. His son disappears from the book entirely, never formally reunited with Dad, instead supposedly hating Dad for the murder.
There is no second child, because his wife’s affair is validated by many others around them, and Tom gets lectured for being so traditionally minded. This is a failure on many counts. Are you trying to “check” the main character’s privilege by saying, “Yeah, you solved Earth, but you aren’t so great to get a happy family reunion”? Or is it a sign the author was clueless on how to end it? “I need drama when he gets back, so let’s have his wife have an affair with the most emotionally painful person it could be and make it as hard as possible to reconcile … but he can’t break up.”
It is weird, in fact, because all the children disappear from the book at this point. Even the Sharwani mother who lived with them and pairs off with a new mate gets rid of her son, and Black Amber’s precious replacement child is shipped off. Note that some of the alien children’s relationships were a key part of the book to this point.
The ending is schizophrenic, as it tries to tie up all the loose ends with a “happy” ending. Black Amber gets revenge on Kazargh before dying. Her mate dies off-screen. Tom gets a promotion and a new, big house, as if that makes up for everything. His wife is promoted with him, barely stands him, but they’re together. The Sharwani “solution” outlined for an entire book is magically solved by the end with hand-waving, no further information given. Everyone is barely managing to live together without killing each other, and that’s supposed to be a “happy” ending.
This is a disappointing end to a trilogy that I loved.
Why Does This Book Fail
The message of the entire book series can be summarized as "check your bias, check your assumptions, live together peacefully".
The ending has the "live together peacefully" part, but it is uneasily for everyone, including the central couple. Where the book totally fails is how the last half of the book undermines the entire series.
While actively telling Tom and others to check their bias and not make assumptions, after he's been living 15 years doing and teaching that by both example and in the classroom ... he is:
- betrayed by his adopted government that actively works to avoid bias
- betrayed by his wife and friends
- failed by others who didn't take his species and preferences into account, despite literally being trained professionals
- neglected by his home-world the first time, mistreated a second time on return
The author just undermined the entire argument for her world-view and messaging. If you go to all that effort to save people, planets and an interstellar civilization and still get screwed over, what's the point? If they will abuse a citizen, a dedicated officer, that badly in that many ways per their biased assumptions, what is the hope for anyone else? If someone who trained and worked for years can't move past his tainted past, why should anyone try to overcome the role society assigns to them? If you're loyal to the point of risking your life to prevent wars and the government still throws you to the wolves, why would you defend that government? Why would you continue to work for it, much less risk everything on its behalf?
In short, the ending undermines the entire message of the series, because it shows all of it is for nothing. Not even aliens raised in a multi-species environment trained to understand each other can check their bias, not even with a coworker and friend, and do more than just not kill each other. All while the author is explicitly lecturing everyone to check their bias so you can live together in peace.
Sorry, but the big house and promotion at the end is a sop after deconstructing and destroying the character's gains, not a "happily ever after" ending".
© 2018 Tamara Wilhite