Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Review: For the First Time, Again by Sylvain Neuvel

The Take Them to the Stars trilogy concludes with a massive setup and a deflated resolution

The centuries-long saga that started in A History of What Comes Next and continued in Until the Last of Me is coming to an end with For the First Time, Again. Now author Sylvain Neuvel brings his superstrong, supersmart, human-looking aliens into the 21st century, and the pressing question that drives their cat-and-mouse game is: Does Earth stand any chance against the rest of the alien civilization that the antagonist succeeded in inviting at the end of the second novel?

Let's recap: the Kibsu are an alien species composed of two lineages, male and female. They can mate with humans, but the offspring is always an identical clone of the alien parent. Since the dawn of our history, the Kibsu women have been secretly nudging us toward developing advanced mathematics, metallurgy, and finally rocket science; for the same length of time, the Kibsu men have been hunting the Kibsu women, trying to avenge their ancient betrayal and get their hands on the machine that can signal their homeworld to let them know here's a whole world ripe for conquering.

The protagonists of this final showdown are Aster, the last daughter of the Kibsu, given up for adoption and raised with no knowledge of her cosmic mission; and Samael, the last son of the Kibsu, murderer of Aster's mother and now her remorseful rescuer. Once they meet each other, they start living on the run from Earth authorities, learning to tolerate each other's peculiarities and trying to prevent the disaster that will come if the rest of their species decides to visit us.

The narration style in this closing entry in the series improves noticeably compared to the previous two. Aster's inner monologue sounds genuinely like that of a Millennial kid who understands the world in the language of grunge rock albums and Bruce Willis movies. Her snark is sharp without crossing the line into annoying, and her gallows humor is exactly the right hue of believable given her absurd circumstances. The chapters told from her perspective are a head-spinningly quick read, but the author was wise enough to intercalate some chapters focused on Samael, whose pensive, calculating personality provides the necessary counterweight that keeps the novel's rhythm from entering chaotic meltdown.

The author is aware that the dynamic between Aster and Samael is so interesting that their world-saving mission can afford to take a backseat. On one hand, it was the right choice to foreground the interpersonal push-and-pull between a hunter and a prey forced to become allies. With a genius teenager and a psychopathic assassin as narrators, this novel had to give inner feelings the center stage. On the other hand, the incongruity in the scale of stakes hurts the ending's impact. The moment when our protagonists succeed in sending a decoy that will throw the enemy off Earth's location is written too matter-of-factly; it arrives without due gravitas and ends before the reader has had time to process the experience. The dramatic sacrifice of a hard-won helper is framed in a way that makes Aster look monstrously uncaring. The crucial consequence of all their effort, the event that should have been the climax of the book, is relegated to what is effectively a post-credits scene (I didn't know that was possible with the written word, and no, I don't welcome it).

As if to tie the final bow on the frustrating way this series proposes great ideas that it can only halfway develop, the believability issue that I pointed out in books 1 and 2 reaches critical mass in book 3. I'm talking about the characters' impossible talent to just board a plane whenever it's convenient to the plot. It gets worse in this book because it's set right after 9/11, when video surveillance metastasized to total state paranoia. These are the two most wanted fugitives on the planet, and somehow they routinely make it past several international security checkpoints without even an aside from the author that would at least do us the courtesy of handwaving how they haven't been arrested a dozen times before the novel's midpoint.

Scattered hints here and there give the impression that the author may be planning to continue this series and finally explain what drove the mysterious aliens to look for other worlds to settle in. While the ending we get here is final enough for the story's immediate purposes, it does leave an aftertaste of unsatisfaction with regard to larger questions. This series could serve as a case study for a discussion on when to place the start and the ending of a plot and which events in it are the ones most worth narrating. All three entries are set in the modern day, with interludes that give very short glimpses into the remote history of the Kibsu, and one can imagine a universe where the author chose differently, starting with an unbroken focus on the remote history (which in itself could have filled half a dozen novels) and building to a truly epic finale set entirely in our time. I have to concede that the fragmentary structure of these novels as they are reflects very appropriately the protagonists' incomplete knowledge of their own past, but that effect is achieved at the expense of punishing the reader's curiosity. As a whole, Take Them to the Stars was a potent idea that deserved a less rushed treatment.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Neuvel, Sylvain. For the First Time, Again [Tordotcom, 2023].