A spacegoing researcher who studies the religious folklore of aliens dangerously violates noninterference protocols.
Sidanius’ (Five Blocks Down, 2016) sci-fi novel introduces Li, part of a nomadic race called Spacefarers. Eons ago, their king refused a god’s harsh command to sacrifice a child. As punishment, their home world became engulfed by their sun, with the Spacefarers taking to the stars. Now, with evolved bodies granting them translucent forms that allow chameleonlike camouflage, they travel the cosmos as secret recorders of traditions and folktales of alien species—especially recurring “sacrifice narratives.” It turns out that many species hear deities demanding the ritualistic killings of animals or their own kind. Li is more sensitive than most Spacefarers after witnessing numerous slaughters. On the drought-stricken world of Plena, she monitors a “holy man” called Bram about to kill his own son to appease the heavens. Unable to stand by impartially, Li calls from her hiding place and prevents the sacrifice. Subsequently, she is tormented by her action and whether to tell her superiors that she violated a prime directive of noninterference. Moreover, Li receives visions of lives and mores on Plena drastically altered by her meddling. This novel is, of course, an adaptation of the Old Testament tale of Abraham (Bram) and Isaac. But the book never becomes a hoary, sci-fi shaggy god story with rocket-ship versions of Adam, Eve, or Noah as the punchlines. Sidanius’ prose is limpid and unhurried (perhaps a trifle too unhurried) and suffused with melancholy as Spacefarers gather centuries of ethnographic data. This is apparently a bid to come to existential terms with their own expelled-from-Eden condition (nobody discusses investigating the mysterious holy spirits). There’s an ever-so-metaphorical detail that to survive space, the Spacefarers’ adapted anatomy eliminated hearts—though conscience-stricken Li continually feels twinges from her “phantom” one. Her empathetic qualities make her shed the cold impartiality of a detached field researcher. While traditional sci-fi notions—Einsteinian relativity and quantum entanglement—figure into the plot, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to steer clear of the white-lab-coat exposition of hard sci-fi and technology and render the material fablelike. Even when Li takes desperate action, it’s far from zap guns and straining warp engines. Fans of Ursula K. Le Guin, Doris Lessing, and other humanist, anthropology-minded sci-fi masters are the ideal readership.
An intriguing, introspective, and parablelike sci-fi/fantasy tale with moralistic edgings, more idea-based than thrill-oriented.