V’Dan, by Jean Johnson
Publication: Ace, December 29, 2015
Genre: Science Fiction
Source: Free from publisher
The view was nice, but the food was bad
After I fell in love with The Terrans (see exactly how much in my review), I expected to adore V’Dan. Unfortunately, everything I ignored in The Terrans was emphasized in its sequel, and everything I loved so much took a back seat to the main elements (those things I ignored).
V’Dan continues the story of the interaction between two human civilizations: the Terrans, or the futuristic us, and the V’Dan, a civilization that grew up in a distant universe after they left Earth millennia ago in a time of disaster. This time, the group of mixed V’Dan and Terrans, the individuals who made first contact, have traveled from the Terran homeworld to the V’Dan homeworld, where they embark on diplomatic, political, and interpersonal ventures.
The first contact trope is one of my favorites – two cultures, two peoples, two individuals, all bringing their own worldviews, histories, and experiences to a situation where they have to expand their knowledge to include entirely different ontologies (that’s the fancy word for worldviews). They have to overcome barriers of communication – language and body language order to make the connection or achieve the mutual goal (in this case, war against the species that eats other sentient species alive, the Salik). They have to overcome political tensions, interpersonal tensions, and more.
Unfortunately, this book emphasized the little conflicts, instead of exploring the big ones. With all of the potential conflicts that could have erupted between two civilizations of the same species who have been separated for millennia, the only one that disrupts their interactions is a racial prejudice. The kind that encourages contempt and hatred for people who don’t look alike. The V’Dan fixate on the humans’ lack of jungen, or body tattoos that are only one marker of adulthood in V’Dan society, believing all the adult humans are juvenile. Throughout the entire book, the main character chastises, reprimands, and yells at people from all the different sentient species being preyed on by the Salik, who disrespect the Terrans. The first time, the second time, all right, I understand it could be upsetting, and diplomatic relations are delicate things. But really, this is the only source of conflict, and it is even the reason behind the struggle the main characters have to express their mental/emotional/romantic bond.
It got old and preachy. Fast.
Further, the diplomatic relations piece and the worldbuilding took too much away from any sort of action – romantic or violent. The majority of the book is spent navigating the choppy diplomatic waters with the main characters (and reading passage after passage about disrespect and the evils of racial prejudice). The descriptions are so detailed that they stopped having the effect they were supposed to have, and I started tuning them out instead of imagining them. Honestly, I got bored. The war with the Salik never really materializes, the differences in technologies are never explored, the romance is an afterthought.
I’m sorry to say that these two things ruined the book, and the series, for me.
Excellent military space opera science fiction lives in Elizabeth Moon’s series about a young cadet who ends up in more trouble and danger than she ever asked for when she gets expelled from school. The series is light on romance (there is some), but has really well-done worldbuilding, interstellar warfare, and adventure.
Foreigner is one of the most complex stories I’ve read about interspecies relationships and interactions. Dense, but very readable. The two species are inherently, biologically, different, which the main character deals with as liaison/ambassador.
Stardoc is about an Earth doctor with big problems who runs away to become doctor to alien species (plural) on the edge of the known universe. Lots of cultural tensions in this one, even though it’s not strictly first contact. There’s more romance in this one.
Have I told you about the Liadens yet? By far my FAVORITE space opera/interspecies relationships. Read Local Custom for more romance and an introduction to the series.