There’s a moment late in Julie Czerneda’s In the Company of Others when an otherwise stoic character erupts with frustration over the inscrutability of the alien life he and his crew members have stumbled upon.
“All I ever wanted was to someday find a civilization,” he laments. “A civilization with people in it I could recognize, talk to … Take out for a beer.”
Such life forms are all too recognizable in science fiction. Whether bipedal, animal-shaped, or invisible behind planet-busting armadas, many extraterrestrials in fiction remain comfortably familiar. Even when hostile, their motives are clear and comprehensible. They’re humans in disguise.
Czerneda, author of A Thousand Words for Stranger and Beholder’s Eye and a former biologist, doesn’t tackle alien life so lightly. The “Quill” in her 2002 Aurora Award-winning novel are, in the true sense of the word, alien. The terraformers who first discover them don’t even recognize what they’ve found. They treat them as decorative jewellery (with benefits) while getting on with their work paving the way for human habitation. Their oversight proves calamitous.
By the time the hapless humans have realized their mistake, the Quill have proven to be deadly, infesting all of Earth’s newly terraformed planets and thereby stalling humanity’s migration to the stars. Their lethal nature is dubbed the “Quill Effect,” but autopsies on those affected fail to determine any cause of death — just one of many mysteries surrounding the Quill.
The Quill seem a simple idea at first but grow more slippery as the novel progresses. At times, they appear to be an extraterrestrial equivalent of the observer effect in action. With the Quill, Czerneda is exploring a problem much of science fiction chooses to gloss over — the near impossibility of meaningful communication with life that would invariably be different from our own in almost every way. She accomplishes this in part by demonstrating how hopeless human beings can be just trying to talk to each other. (The “others” in the title could refer to people as much as it does the Quill.)
The novel opens on Thromberg Station, a massive space station once intended as a waypoint for immigrants travelling from Earth to one of many newly terraformed worlds. Because of the Quill, all emigration plans and space travel in general were abruptly halted. This drastic action left would-be immigrants stranded in stations like Thromberg, described by one character as little better than “glorified bus stops.” The over-crowded conditions and careful rationing of resources soon made life on Thromberg rigid and dismal, prone to intrigues and riots.
Aaron Pardell is one of the many immigrants (or “immies”) who have literally grown up on Thromberg, never having walked on grass or under a sky. Tensions between the immies and the station’s original crew (“stationers”) run high and all of them view Earthers with suspicion. To further complicate his place there, Aaron is an outsider, one of many among the station’s populace who only gained access to the station after literally crashing their vessels into its hull out of desperation once the travel ban came into effect. Raised by a foster father, now dead, Aaron has managed to eke out a place on Thromberg despite being deeply sensitive to personal contact — a serious handicap for someone living in an overpopulated space station.
Due to the chaotic circumstances of his birth, Aaron represents a key for understanding — and possibly eliminating — the Quill. As such, he’s initially coveted by Dr. Gail Smith and the other Earthers who come marching, almost imperiously, onto Thromberg.
The story’s action eventually shifts to the Earthers’ exploratory vessel. Although far more modern and comfortable than the battered old station, both settings prove to be equally oppressive and complement Czerneda’s theme perfectly. The Earthers and stationers don’t get along, yet both groups are also riven with factions plotting against each other. Meanwhile, for all of them, the Quill remain a potent source of confusion and fear.
There’s a lot going on and it’s presented to the reader through three rotating points of view: Aaron, Gail and Hugh Malley, a close friend of Aaron’s who also grew up on Thromberg. Big, strong, whip smart and fiercely loyal to Aaron, Malley also suffers from a fear of outer space so acute, he can’t bear to look out a porthole (again, quite a brutal handicap considering the precarious nature of his surroundings).
Aaron’s role is oddly passive. He’s the youngest character and the key to much of the mystery, though he doesn’t actually have any answers of his own. Initially, he’s perceived as little more than evidence for Gail’s theories about the Quill, though her feelings toward him change significantly. It’s Gail who drives the story. Her motives are clear, if often conflicted, and her somewhat tenuous position as leader of the mission creates interesting problems.
At times, Czerneda seems to be trying to establish a triangle among the three but it never quite comes off. The three perspectives start to feel like one too many. The need for the narrative to touch base with each slows the story, especially after the action leaves Thromberg.
Despite this, In the Company of Others is a rewarding read that manages to take a topic that would seem to have been almost exhausted by science fiction literature — extraterrestrial life — and examine it from a genuinely new angle. It also serves as a perhaps much-needed reminder of how strange alien life really ought to be.