OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
THE FLIGHT OF THE SIREN – by Brendan Myers
Publisher: Northwest Passage Books, Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, 2020.
A derelict alien space probe is discovered on Pluto. What are the implications?
I am a sucker for derelict alien stuff no matter where or when discovered. Half the fun is following the unravelling of the hidden meaning and significance of the thing, and the other half is enjoying the consequences of the ultimate revelation. I love a good mystery.
As soon as I realized, courtesy of the first chapter, what the book was about, I immediately thought of Ice Henge by Kim Stanley Robinson which came out in 1984. A “primitive” bit of architecture on Pluto is discovered in the 23rd century. Who or what built it, and why? A fun book, as I recall. Haven’t read it since it first came out but I do believe I enjoyed it. I’m always up for mysterious artifacts found on other planets.
So, an alien probe on Pluto? More than happy to plunge into the book. A concept I was prepared to be excited about. I assumed hard science would be involved.
But the lack of particulars unique to conditions on Pluto took me aback. People walk around in spacesuits. Ride vehicles apparently similar to the contraptions the Apollo Mission astronauts drove on the Lunar surface. The probe is inside a geodesic dome with insulation in the floor and space heaters along the walls. The tech seems barely adequate for the Canadian arctic, let alone the extreme conditions on Pluto.
I decided the tech aspect probably wasn’t important. Not a hard science SF novel. What tech there is would appear to be taken for granted and not worthy of mention. Of course spacesuits and vehicles can manage perfectly well in the extreme conditions. No need to describe how and why. It’s the future after all. No need to take the Gernsback approach and describe the “wonder” of everyday tech. Details pertaining to high tech are not what the book is about.
I then assumed the book would be some sort of space opera, no doubt involving efforts to discover the home world of the aliens and communicate with them, perhaps build a starship to go to their home planet. Or possibly the space probe would act like the 2001 monolith and trigger a response from the aliens, maybe even a full scale invasion. I envisioned titanic battles in space, or at least much weirdness as humans and aliens attempt to understand one another and fail miserably. All kinds of entertaining possibilities. Nope, not a bit of it.
Even worse, from my cynical point of view, the protagonist, a wide-eyed innocent of a scientist named Lorelei, seemed to be the sort of idealist who takes for granted that everyone, including politicians, thinks like Carl Sagan (showing my age here) in clear and precise terms about the wonder of human progress. She appears to know nothing about how petty most individuals are in comparison to such lofty visions. Lorelei is part of the first scientific expedition to Pluto and is outraged the military have gotten there first and are telling the expedition to bugger off. Outraged, I tell you. Shocked!
I confess I considered putting down the book and finding something else to review. I don’t review books I don’t like and I was thinking maybe this was an amateurish Sf novel unrealistic in its setting and characterization. Since I don’t enjoy tearing down an author’s earnest effort I felt I had stumbled over enough red flags to quit and move on to something else.
But I do enjoy a mystery, and for me the mystery was what the heck was the intention of the author? What was the point of the book? I decided to read further.
I’m glad I did. As I read I got more and more involved in the plot and characters and couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen next. The book clipped along at a merry pace and I found myself drawn into events to the point of much chuckling and a certain amount of awe. You might say I enjoyed the book for much the same reasons I enjoyed the movie Shin Godzilla. Let me explain.
To be fair, there are multiple efforts to build starships and blast off in search of the aliens. But, unlike space opera of the 1930s, that’s not the point of the book. Flight of the Siren is all about what silly buggers we humans are and how we routinely and automatically take a bad situation and make things worse, almost as if our primary religion is worshipping Murphy’s law. Shin Godzilla isn’t actually about Godzilla, it’s a satire of the uniquely convoluted Japanese bureaucratic mindset and its inability to cope with the unpredictable. Similarly, Flight of the Siren targets nationalism, political hypocrisy, social conflict, greed, selfishness, the folly of the greater good, elitism, and just about every other self-destructive social construct that results from human nature at its worst.
Granted, there have been social satires in abundance in Speculative fiction. Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants springs to mind. But Flight of the Sirens is a kaleidoscope of humanity’s endless capacity to betray itself. The sheer amount of shenanigans and hidden agendas tumbling one after the other is mindboggling. Poor Lorelei is shocked and outraged frequently and relentlessly by the failure of everyone, and I mean absolutely everyone, to live up to even her minimal expectations. This makes her character an extremely useful focal point. Everything revolves around her. Everything dissolves around her.
Oh, to be sure, she hits back when she can. Tries to bring order into the chaos. She even evolves as a character once she begins to realize that repeated efforts to get people to “reason together” isn’t going to work. She attempts to manipulate others despite being handicapped by her perpetual horror over her discovery that people seldom, if ever, tell the truth under any circumstances. She can’t get a handle on what’s actually going on, much less exploit the situation to her advantage, but she does grow a tad cynical and that helps somewhat. And her friends and enemies are so busy switching roles and backstabbing each other this occasionally solves problems for her inadvertently, or at least pulls her out of one pit of despair and plunges her into the next. Progress of a sort.
Lorelei is practically the only human who considers the aliens’ likely point of view, nature, intentions and so on. The rest of the human race comes across as 100% narcissistic, interpreting the “fact” of the probe entirely from their own perspective with reactions ranging from “it’s a hoax” to “the only good alien is a dead alien.” Carl Sagan’s majestic sense of wonder is entirely missing. The aliens are in fact irrelevant to the novel. It is probably the most detailed study you will ever read of the near-infinite number of ways nations, organizations and individuals will compete for purely imaginary advantages over one another, with every plot and plan subject to our magnificent capacity to rationalize and justify anything and everything no matter how vile or brutal in its outcome. Dang, what a nasty bunch we are.
If you are in the right mood this comes across as exhilarating satire. If you are in a dark mood, you find everything you’ve always suspected brilliantly confirmed. At the very least you will be amazed at the sheer level of depth and complexity the author has employed to explore the multi-layered inadequacy of the human race. As a psychological dissection of what silly buggers we really are Flight of the Siren is a masterpiece. It isn’t about outer space or aliens, it’s about us, and we are the weirdest subject imaginable, and possibly the most entertaining.
At the end of the book it is revealed the author is a Professor of Philosophy. Aha! No wonder he knows so much about what is wrong with us.
So what IS the point of the book? That we should straighten up and fly right if we want, as a civilization, to survive our faults. In that sense Lorelei is presented as a role model. Or, Carl Sagan, if you prefer. I agree. If we all thought and behaved like Lorelei and good old Carl we’d all be a lot better off, at least to the extant of reaching for an enlightened and decent future. A philosopher might think that possible. Myself, I’m not sure. Still, better to reach for the stars than reach for a gun. That’s the way I figure it. Can’t hurt to try.
Isn’t there any speculation about the future in this book? Well, yes and no. Even though it takes place a century or two in the future, the general level of technology isn’t much greater than today. There have been multiple wars for one thing. Setbacks on the road to progress. Many of the contemporary cities are built atop or within the ruins of the cities of our era. The ocean level has risen. Much has been destroyed. The climate is much less pleasant, that’s for sure.
More than physical infrastructure is gone. Cultural situational awareness has been shattered and fragmented. China is no longer China. The United States of America is forgotten. The powerful nation states of the future have names like Arethusa (Military-Industrial Complex), Gayatri Pradesh (Constitutional Oligarchy), Chan’gren (Technocracy), and Éostray (Constitutional Monarchy). Fiercely ideological, and compromised by new religious organizations of various sorts pursuing their own agendas, these nations are armed to the teeth and constantly striving to achieve world dominance, in fact dominance of the Solar System for that matter. There are mines on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, colonies under domes on Mars, and ten billion people inhabiting the decaying ecosphere of Earth. None of the population have any nostalgia for our era, for hardly any knowledge about us survives. Social culture and conventions are relatively recent inventions, spawned out of the abyss of total war perhaps, yet in a case of parallel evolution hauntingly familiar.
All this gives the author the opportunity to satirize and condemn current political and social trends without leaving himself open to accusations of chauvinism and/or cultural criticism. Rather clever use of the nature of speculative fiction, that. Being a philosopher, he is concerned with larger issues and not historical ephemera like national identities or religious principles. Over time, everything changes. He has imagined a future in which everything has changed, except for the basic flaws inherent in human nature. Granted, the level of change is probably impossible in so short a period of time, but that’s part of the premise the reader is expected and asked to accept.
Another way of looking at the purpose of this novel is to consider our current state of affairs. Carl Sagan’s prediction of a massive increase in the cult of ignorance has come true, global warming is increasing, economic and political inequality is becoming the fad of the moment, society appears to be plunging into self-destructive mode, insane levels of nationalism are on the increase, and war, death, doom, and destruction appear inevitable, except to those who argue that all of the above is fake news and a biggish hoax. So far, all humanity seems to do in the face of our current problems is belittle and criticize each other. Instead of coming up with solutions we seem hellbent on coming up with yet more reasons to hate, loath and despise each other. This is total B.S. from a genuine philosopher’s point of view.
What Brendan Mayer has done is describe a world where many of the current nightmares have come true. It is a world where there is literally one last chance to get our act together or perish. On this world he has superimposed all the arguments and rationale and narcissistic selfishness of our current behaviours and demonstrated their idiocy one by one. An honest to god final warning, when you think about it. And he wants you to think about it.
Personally, I found much of it hilarious. That’s the nature of intelligent and subtle satire, it slips its lectures in with the sugar-coating of high entertainment value.
At first I had doubts about this book. The only thing apparent at the beginning was the discovery of the alien probe, and it didn’t seem properly set up, seemed presented in a superficial manner. I feared the rest of the book would be as bland.
What I soon discovered, on persevering, is that the alien probe is merely the excuse to set off on a quest to illustrate every conceivable negative and idiotic reaction to the implications of its discovery. You can rely on the human race to bugger things up. No question about it.
Brendan Myers offers a solution to the consequences of our fundamental nature. I’m not sure it’s achievable except on the occasional individual basis. But I tell you, I thoroughly enjoyed the fast-paced cascade of our faults and flaws. Flight of the Siren is a masterpiece of its kind. An amusing satire well worth reading. Recommended.
Check it out at: < Flight of the Siren >