Book review: Relic by Alan Dean Foster

The most recent novel by Alan Dean Foster is quite a surprise. It reads like pastoral science fiction of old, while maintaining its own modern character. It’s slow and ponderous, with minimal action, yet endearing and insightful. It will please only a subset of readers who appreciate the slower, almost hypnotic pace, and those who like to break away from serious conflict. If it wasn’t for the final twist, mildly annoying in its grandiosity, I would consider Relic to be one of the best books of the last five years.

Ruslan is the last human in the universe. After mankind wiped itself out with an artificially created plague, Ruslan was found wandering around his homeworld by the alien race that calls themselves Myssari. The Myssari are a society that places its highest value on politeness, but even without it they would care for Ruslan as a relic of the past, but also as a subject of study and a helper in their exploration of human artifacts. However, the ultimate goal of the Myssari is to resurrect the human race, by cloning Ruslan and adding the genetic material of the few well-preserved human corpses they have found. Ruslan is very reluctant to give his consent to this endeavor, believing that the human race lost its right to exist.

One day, the Myssari approach Ruslan with an offer he can’t refuse: to name his own price for cooperation. He finally agrees, if the Myssari help him locate Earth and have him travel there. All records of the human homeworld have been wiped from the databases that were recovered so far, but Ruslan is hoping to find clues on former colonies.

The first colony does not yield any results, but he is discovered by a scout of the far less polite alien race of Vrizan. They try to convince Ruslan to come over to them, and when he refuses, they try to abduct him, but fail. Ruslan is invited to travel to the next planet, where an automated probe found something vaguely humanoid. Here, Ruslan makes a momentous discovery: he finds a pre-teen human girl Cherpa, and a teenage boy Pahksen. The Vrizan, who claimed the planet and all human artifacts on it, show up to claim the girl, but all three humans manage to escape to Myssar.

A few years pass. Cherpa matures into a young woman, and the Myssari hope for a natural procreation between her and Pahksen, which is not happening. One day, Pahksen confronts Ruslan and accuses him of coveting Cherpa and turning her against him. Ruslan, who is decades older, considers this to be such a ridiculous accusation that he doesn’t even know how to refute it, which provokes Pahksen into trying to kill him. Cherpa shows up in the nick of time and accidentally kills Pahksen.

The surviving humans, in their guilt, finally agree to have their genetic material harvested and let the Myssari create their children in artificial wombs. After the first batch of children is born, the Myssari surprise Ruslan when they finally discover Earth. They all travel there together, with the idea of potentially repopulating the planet with their offspring. Once on the planet, they run into the Vrizan once again. Ruslan vows to challenge their claim on Earth, but his chances look very weak, until an unexpected discovery changes their future.

The plot summary doesn’t do the book justice. It sounds like a string of conflicts between two alien species, with the lone human stuck in the middle. This is far from the truth, however. It is a rumination about the self-destructive nature of humanity, contrasted with the civilized behavior of the aliens.

The aliens may have their own value systems, but one of the overreaching values that everyone can agree on is civilization. The worst insult one could cause them is to call them uncivilized. Even at the height of the confrontation, the Myssari and Vrizan act with politeness towards each other, employ non-lethal weaponry and go to great lengths as to not inconvenience each other. They stick to the letter of the rules, and they freely admit when they are in the wrong. Internally, they may be different, with the Myssari being infallibly polite while the Vrizan are secret warmongers, but when interacting with each other, they act annoyingly gentlemanly. I believe that this was Foster’s way to create believable races that are homogenous, and to explain why they didn’t succumb to infighting. A very common reader complaint is that while humans have a myriad of factions on Earth and are willing to kill each other over their beliefs or a piece of land, alien space empires may span numerous star system and still appear homogenous with little or no internal strife. The solution to this lies in survivorship bias: only societies that place top value on being polite and civilized remain in existence for long enough to build space empires.

Contrast this with humans. As soon as they created the first doomsday weapon, mutually assured destruction became the only way to prevent an all-out war. In this book, that didn’t help, and a deadly virus wiped everyone out. Ruslan, an older man with unremarkable past, is the perfect person to opine that humanity should not be given a second chance. He believes that the universe would be an even better place once he is gone. It is only the discovery of Cherpa, which awakens protective feelings towards her, which give him the will to live.

The protective feelings are mutual, as Cherpa is willing to shoot to kill to rescue Ruslan at one point. Still, this event is overshadowed by Pahksen’s jealousy and willingness to murder, to get what he wants. Both sentiments, the defensive and aggressive, illustrate the destructive nature of humanity, and as Ruslan puts it, they may be genetically encoded in the species. In this sense, the book, despite its leisure pace, and wonderful descriptions and set pieces, feels depressing. The author set the reader a mirror, to see humanity juxtaposed against the completely different value system of the alien races.

The subject matter doesn’t inspire much excitement, but Foster’s engaging and highly polished writing style helps towards a well-paced narrative, which makes Relic an engaging book throughout its entire length. It may feel longer than its mere 300+ pages, but never boring or drawn-out. The end result is that the narrative reads like pastoral fiction of old, in particular Clifford Simak’s Way Station. Both books share more similarities: a single, lonesome protagonist, peaceful and civilized aliens, and bare hints at advanced technology that is never properly explained. The main difference is that Foster’s ending takes a sharp turn from the narrative and feels completely out of place. In addition, it closes many of the possibilities the reader may imagine after finishing the novel. I prefer if I did not read the final exchange in the book.

Despite the awkward ending, I really enjoyed Relic. It is not a happy reading, but it is very comfortable and insightful. The slow but even pacing, near absence of conflict and personal risks, and the intriguing exploration of alien races and their mentality (one may call it maturity) makes this a wonderful and highly recommended book for long, lonely evenings. Unless you are a glutton for action, you can’t go wrong with Alan Dean Foster’s Relic.

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