THE XENOS ARE HERE
At first, the bizarre series of “cosmic skyjackings” could be hushed up by a baffled and frightened military. But aircraft continued to disappear, plucked out of the sky without warning, only to reappear months later, thousands of miles off course.
AND THEY THIRST FOR BLOOD
All too soon the reason would become horribly apparent. Earth has been found by a horde of creatures from a world that not even the wildest imagination could invent, parasitic creatures that took to their human hosts with deadly speed and bloodthirsty precision.
They were named Xenos. The word meant “strangers.” It would come to mean something much more frightening and final now that…
Since my last two reviews have been so glowing, I was starting to get worried. Have I run out of bad books? Have my tastes shifted irrevocably? Have I learned to filter out the bad parts and only see the good in books? Am I doomed to positivity?
Well, it seems that such is not the case.
Folks, this book was something else. It even started off sort of promising, title and cover art notwithstanding. Yeah, it looks corny and cheesy from the outside, but the inside is anything but. It’s cynical, pointless, and all over the place. It’s hard to say it went off the rails because the rails were hard to see anyway. I spent the whole thing wondering just where it was supposed to go, only to find that where it went was supremely disappointing and unsatisfying.
I’m glad to see my critical sense has not been completely deadened.
The book was originally published in Britain with the marginally better title of Xeno. I’m not sure what caused the title change, although part of me wonders if it’s part of the same deep cynicism for human intelligence that permeated the book. “People won’t get it,” I hear someone saying. “They don’t know what that word means.”
Never mind that it’s science fiction, and most science fiction readers are capable of finding out what a word means if they don’t know already. You can throw all sorts of adjectives at us and be somewhat justified: escapist, spacey, outlandish, weird. I probably won’t be too insulted by any of those if I were judged based on my reading preferences. But willfully ignorant is not one of those. If I don’t know what a word means, I’ll find out what it means. I feel like most readers of science fiction are similar in that regard.
On top of that, the word “xeno” comes up a number of times in the book, and the word is helpfully defined. It also shows up on the back of the book, where it is also defined.
Still, Earth Has Been Found, is a great, although misleading, title. I’m not sure what found us, since the whole plot hinges on an alien parasite that doesn’t seem to have any real sort of intelligence.
It’s an ensemble cast, full of characters I just didn’t get a crap about. They included such notable characters as
- Army guy
- Air Force guy
- Secretary of State
- Competent American doctor
- Competent Russian doctor
- American doctor’s assistant
They all have names but with only a few exceptions did I find myself remembering any of them.
The most common viewpoint character is the American doctor, whose name is Mark Freedman. He’s quickly identified as very capable and smart. It’s considered odd that he’s working out his career in a backwater New York town. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We don’t meet Mark for a while, actually. The first bunch of pages are focused on military guys, chiefly Air Force, but we get some others. There’s also a CIA guy. The reason they’re all in a wad is because some weird things are happening.
Some airplanes have disappeared. That’s not the weird part. The weird part is that months later and miles away they are reappearing. Usually this results in a crash because the pilot is completely disoriented by the fact that the sun just jumped forty degrees in the sky and the leaves are a different color. That’s definitely what happened the first time. Another few times happen as well with similar results, but they manage to get the planes down. The pilots seem fine except for the fact that they’re out of time a few months.
A big one happens a bit later, though. Up to this point, all of the un-vanishing planes have been military. The poop hits the turbine, though, when an airliner with about eighty people, most of which hail from the town of Abdera Hollow, New York, vanishes. Everybody is sad about it until, months later, it reappears. Everyone on board is saved and in perfect physical condition.
Here’s where a lot of the cynicism cuts in. For one, there are all these narrative asides about how the short attention span of the American public is held for about a week after the disappearance. We get a similar one when the plane reappears. It goes back and forth between “people adapt” and “people don’t care.”
The thing that bugs me about that is that, yeah, I agree with the author, sure. We live in a time period with so much going on that it’s hard to keep attention focused on any one thing for long. Our society is always looking for the next thing to be entranced or outraged by. It’s the same now as it was in 1979. Sometimes I’m dismayed by it, as are a lot of people. This author is really torn up about it. Okay.
But dammit, this book had to be so smarmy about it. And when I say the book, that’s what I mean. This isn’t some character with a pessimistic streak who frets over the way Americans react to things. That is something I could get behind. It’s good to have a character you agree with, even if sometimes you don’t want to admit that to anyone else. But when the narrator does it, over and over again, it gets old.
It’s partly because it breaks the old “show, don’t tell” rule. The other part about it is that yeah, odds are you’re preaching to the choir. I’m not sure if anybody can deny that there are a lot of things to be annoyed by in our society and our government. You don’t have to keep rehashing it (like I’m doing right now). And then there’s the fact that if it were a character, I could hope that he or she would eventually learn a lesson, grow, or leave the narrative somehow. When it’s the narrator, I’m stuck with it for the whole book and I know it.
The cynicism really comes into play when the government gets involved. Sure, it was involved the whole time, I guess, since it was chiefly military planes doing their vanishing act, but now it has to deal with the public and nobody comes out of this one looking good. The Feds state that the whole thing was an accident. They were testing some kind of new device that manipulates the space-time continuum and the plane accidentally got caught in it. They’re sorry for the inconvenience and hope that a couple bucks here and there will make up for it.
The public bites and everybody’s happy.
Okay, so where are the skeptics in this? I know I’d be skeptical. I’m no scientist, but I like to keep tabs on what IS AND IS NOT POSSIBLE. You’d hope that real scientists would come out and say “Umm, no. That’s dumb. What you are describing is dumb. Unless you let us see the data, we are going to fight this tooth and nail until we find out what is going on.”
See, it’s attitudes like that that got Andrei Sakharov declared an unperson by the Soviets.
Oh, and this kind of thing is happening to the Soviets, too. Like that segue? I’ve been sitting on it for a while.
In a remarkable show of international relations, the US and the Soviet Union team up and try to figure out just what the hell happening.
This is where we meet Dr. Freedman. See, Mark is a doctor in a town that is mainly comprised of old people. It’s like Florida for New Yorkers who don’t want to move all that far.
Oh, this book had a lot of snark to say about Florida and old people, too. Like I didn’t know already. Ugh.
Abdera Hollow is where most of the people on the jumbo jet were from. The government contacts Mark and asks him to keep an eye on the people who were involved. Dr. Freedman is curious about it himself, so he agrees.
Those people are, oddly enough, in excellent health. Too healthy. Healthier than they were before they left. One of those people is named Shane, and she’s the woman character. That’s all she is in this story. She becomes the love interest, not of Mark, but of his assistant Jaimie. It helps us keep tabs on what’s going on as well as some nifty sexy bits.
Things progress as usual until the narrative takes a ninety degree turn for body horror.
First, a lot of the people who came back start to develop odd eating habits. They just devour liver. Huge craving for it. Other meat will do, but liver is the best thing ever. Speculation involves the fact that liver has a high concentration of vitamin B-12, so there you go. After gorging themselves for a while, the victims get tired and then go into a coma.
A Russian doctor, Tatyana Ivanovna Marinskiya, a cytologist, comes over from Odessa to share her findings. The same thing has been happening over there, although they have a smaller sample of people to examine. Their situation progressed more quickly, though, and she has some stuff to reveal.
During the coma, each of the affected people developed a cyst that grew to about the size of a ping-pong ball. They removed the cyst from one individual, who died. The other was allowed to grow. It eventually popped and it looked like something escaped from it. No one saw what did.
Over in America the same thing happens. Each of the infected develop the cyst. Fortunately, Dr. Freedman has enough forewarning to post a watch on them so that whatever escapes can be caught. I guess what happens is supposed to be horrifying but I was just sort of bored.
The thing that comes out is some kind of larva, about five millimeters long. It’s vaguely insectoid, but with differences. They have lungs instead of spiracles, and also they shoot poison. Mark gets shot with the poison, but most of it hits his glasses so he survives. Another doctor takes a full dose in the eye and dies. Most of the larvae escape, although the medical team manages to catch one and kill it.
While all this is going on, the government team starts to get weird. Speculation about where these things came from takes an unexpected and nonsensical religious turn. The idea seems to be that these things inhabit some kind of parallel universe, or maybe another world, where they are parasites to whatever intelligent entities live there. Those entities are the ones that pulled the planes from the sky and put them back much later. They figure that the Xenos (the name they give to the bug things) are to those entities as fleas or mites are to us. A minor nuisance to them, but fatal to us.
This is an interesting idea and a good premise for a novel. It was just poorly executed.
The discussion turns to what these entities might be. For no reason everybody just straight up decides to call these things God. Some other terms are tossed around like angels or something akin to the Greek pantheon, but yeah, science just flies right out the window.
This leads to consternation on the part of Dr. Tatyana and her Russian colleagues. See, Communism is atheistic, as we all know, so the idea of beings akin to gods is a strict violation of Communist principles. The idea is thrown out by the Russians and Dr. Tatyana is blacklisted for even suggesting it.
Where did all that come from? There’s no reason to bring the supernatural into all this. We have a weird situation, yes. We have no idea what is going on and what could be doing it, sure. But there’s no reason to jump to the idea that God did it and He has fleas that kill us. Even the Russians, surely, could accept that just maybe there are aliens far in advance of us, doing things with space and time that we do not understand and won’t for a long time. But that’s not supernatural, it’s just inexplicable.
And if it were just one character suggesting a religious explanation and getting shot down, that’d be one thing, but the debate rages throughout most of the rest of the book. “We can’t explain it, so it must be God or something akin to It.” Ugh, so pointless and shoehorned and, well, cynical I guess. Is the author trying to make a point about how people react to the unexplainable?
The escaped larvae disappear and everybody thinks that maybe they died because they aren’t adapted to Earth. No such luck. They come back in the spring, and it turns out they can fly.
Not only can they fly, they do it like little jets. Neat.
They also attack people and drink their blood and kill them. Less neat.
The book is winding down at this point. You’d think it would be the climax but there wasn’t one, just a series of “Oh crap we were wrong” moments. The government can’t keep this development away from the public, so there’s mass panic. They manage to capture and examine several specimens and learn a lot about them. They decide that they have to destroy them all, and they have a pretty good idea of how many there are so that helps.
Except that as they’re reaching the end, they also find several more planes appearing from the past. Some come from as far back as World War II. Another is found in the middle of the jungle. They also learn that the Xenos breed more effectively than previously thought. Humans aren’t the only hosts. Everything is doomed.
The book ends with Jaimie and his new wife Shane (remember them?) at home. Their marriage is happy, and Shane is pregnant, but, uh-oh, Jaimie catches her eating some raw liver! Oh noooooo!
Ugh! I’m not one to hold a downer ending against a book. Honestly I’m not. Stephen King can do them well sometimes. This book did not do it well. At no point did I think that the situation was fixed in the first place, so it wasn’t a surprise to see that humanity is doomed and that someone I don’t care about is going to be sad.
It was also unsatisfying that the mystery of where these things came from was never resolved. I’m not asking for a full explanation, or even the right one, but there was barely any at all. It just happened. Surely some scientists would have come up with something at least more useful than God Or Something Like It. Everything was just speculation, which I understand since it was supposed to be unexplainable, but I would have at least liked some clues. Something to think about instead it was just “Stuff happens.”
I fibbed about the liver being the end of the book. There was a half-page epilogue that took place at some unnamed future date. It involved a dude recounting what he just read, which I guess was supposed to be the text of this book. The world is a blasted hellscape and it seems that humanity lost the battle against the Xenos. The Xenos have become a full-blown religion. They were “sent” to punish us for all the bad things we did back in the seventies. Fornication was mentioned. Perhaps most notable was that the character (whose name I forget) mentions that the tale had really flat characters. I’m serious. The author calls himself out on having boring characters that don’t grow or learn or anything. It must be hard to be so self-aware and yet not do anything about it.
Despite its many problems, the book was quite readable. There’s a certain something about popular fiction from the late seventies/early eighties that makes it approachable to me. I’m not sure what it is and I wish I could identify it. I mentioned Stephen King once before, but I’ll mention him again to say that there was an element in this book that I feel it has in common with him. It’s hard to put my finger on it, it’s just a vague sense of style. Or something. Maybe it’s GOD.
What makes it more odd to me is that D.F. Jones was an Englishman. Most British science fiction I’ve read for this blog takes place in Britain. This one did not. His style was also very American. Maybe that’s something that got changed along with the title.
To its credit, there were some good things about the book. It was easy to follow and had a sort of cinematic quality to it that fired my imagination. Not a lot of books do that for me. And, like I said, it had a good core of an idea. The concept of our species being threatened by a minor nuisance to some other species is very interesting. You can draw parallels to War of the Worlds in reverse, I guess, but I like the fact that the threat wasn’t a disease so much as something like fleas. For one, the idea that some kind of hyper-advanced alien species even has something like that is a thing I’ve never seen before in any fiction (or really thought about), so that’s a bonus. To make it a threat to humanity takes it in another interesting direction, although I’d like to see something else done with the idea. What if those parasites ended up benefiting us instead? What if the Martian equivalent to ticks turns out to be the next superfood? What if tapeworms from Sirius are the secret to longevity?
There. I’ve thrown out some writer’s prompts. Do with them as you will and get back to me.