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Book Review: SPECIES IMPERATIVE by Julie Czerneda

Julie Czerneda has been churning out Hard Science Fiction novels for the better part of the last decade-and-a-half for DAW books. One thing I’ve always thought and said about DAW books is how fine a job they do to ensure a writer’s books remain available for readers, especially through issuance of omnibus editions. These two points bring me to Species Imperative, an omnibus of Czerneda’s trilogy of the same name comprising Survival, Migration, and Regeneration. Two of the books in this series/omnibus made the final ballot for the Prix Aurora Award. Set a few hundred (?) years into the future, Czerneda places humanity as part of an interstellar organization where many alien civilizations coexist. Our point person over the course of the three novels is Mac, a biologist initially only interested in life on our planet.

The first novel in the omnibus, Survival, introduces readers to biologist Dr. Mackenzie Connor, Mac while studying salmon at a dedicated salmon research facility. Mac’s only real difficulty at this stage of her career is dealing with Charles Mudge, whom she nicknames Oversight for he is the Oversight Committee responsible for approving any funding Mac requests for her research facility. Mudge is the only character not to refer to Mac as Mac; he calls her Norcoast for the facility where she works. That minor challenge is soon eclipsed when Mac’s work is interrupted by a Drynn, a large seven-limbed alien visiting earth as an ambassador to his species. What marks this as so momentous is that the Dhryn – named Brymn – have yet to visit earth, and intermingle with other species very rarely. Despite this, Mac sees his visit as an inconvenience rather than the special thing it is. Before long; however, she is drawn away from her salmon research into the grander picture of the Interstellar society of which humanity is a member. Her friend, Emily, attempts to coax Mac out of her introverted shell and to let the blinders slip away so she can see and experience more than the salmon she’s been studying for years. Mac finds a begrudging alliance with Nikolai (Nik) Trojanowski, an agent of the Extra-Sol Affairs; basically a type of political liaison between humanity and alien species.

The Dhryn is large, has seven limbs and is blue. Luis Royo provides an excellent depiction of Brymn on the cover for Survival. Though Mac thinks her background as a salmon biologist might not suit the needs of the Interspecies Union in partnering with Brymn as they learn more about the Chasm. It is as daunting as it sounds; the Chasm is a rift in space, lifeless, desolate and rife with planets whose civilizations have been destroyed. The species thought to be responsible, the Ro, chase Brymn and Mac away from her facility before Brymn can settle into his surroundings. This is far from a coincidence, as the Dhryn and Ro are special enemies. Moreover, the Ro are intent on subsuming all life they encounter.

When Mac is whisked away from Earth, she becomes the first human (and one of the first non-Drhyn) to visit the Drhyn homeworld of Haven. There she discovers the diversity of the Drhyn species, including the gigantic Protector who is superficially like a Hive Queen of an insect colony. Mac also learns about the customs of Drhyn society.

Survival is a thoroughly engaging novel and I immediately felt drawn to Mac, her plight and Brymn as an enigma. Czerneda, a biologist herself, unsurprisingly creates populates her universe with fascinating aliens. The first novel ends rather spectacularly and while it brings Brymn’s story to a rather messy close, only raises more questions to explore.

Migration picks up the story shortly after Mac’s return to Earth with Mac doing her best (and perhaps her only instance of failure) at trying to return a sense of normality to her life, and using the prosthetic arm she received as a result of events in Survival. As she often implores other characters, she’s just a salmon researcher. Fortunately for us, Mac expands upon her relationship with Nix, the Interspecies Union’s representative who is assigned as Mac’s point of contact. We, along with Mac, also learn more about Emily and her true relationship with the Ro. It seems Emily was not all she appeared to be and had a much greater depth of knowledge than Mac could have guessed. And oh yeah, her friend Brymn is no longer around and the Dhryn are no considered the Interspecies Union’s greatest enemies as a result of the revelations in Survival. The Ro, who were initially thought to be enemies, are perhaps not the enemies the Dhryn made them out to be.

Mac has an opportunity to ponder these varied and conflicting thoughts where her Salmon Research Facility is shut down for an indeterminate time. After chatting with her father, she decides to head to his old secluded cabin. Though a couple of people know her, this retreat is ideal for seclusion. That is of course until the alien tourists Fourteen and Kay arrive, who provide both comic relief and perspective beyond the aliens to whom we’ve already been introduced. She is then brought back into the conflict which is the focus of the Interspecies Union.

The natural tendency is to squash things that invade; for simplicity’s real world sake, look at the many pest services whose main goal is to rid your home of insects and small furry creatures who gain entrance to your home. Such is the initial goal of the Interspecies Union; they want to destroy the threat that is the Dhryn. Mac and the team she assembles takes a different approach in the long run even if initially trying to understand the enemy helps to ultimately defeat the enemy. Throughout Migration, the Dhryn are made out to be such a threat to all life, but Mac cannot buy into such a line of thinking especially after her close relationship with Brymn. Something is missing from the equation whose (seeming) answer is for the Interspecies Union to destroy the Dhryn and Mac feels, by the end of Migration, she and her team have the answer nobody wishes to hear.

In Regeneration, Mac learns arriving at a viable solution doesn’t always permit one to enact the solution, especially when Interspecies politics come into play. Against the grand, interstellar, multi-species backdrop, Czerneda provides character challenges for Mac with which to cope. In parts of Survival and Migration, Mac is coping with the potential loss of who she thought was her best friend, Emily. Through parts of Migration and much of Regeneration Mac is dealing with her separation from her romantic interest, Nik. One of the more interesting character turns in the final volume is Mac being partnered with Charles Mudge, the bureaucratic supervisor with whom Mac had a contentious relationship in Survival. In essence, Mudge provided financial checks and balances for Mac’s research facility. Whereas the banter between Fourteen and Kay in Migration was an enjoyable humorous aspect of that novel, there’s a similar humorous vein in the exchanges between Mudge and Mac here in Regeneration. I also thought it one of the best depicted relationships between male and female professional rivals I’ve seen in SF. The two had a begrudging respect initially that grew into something touching on admiration by the end of the trilogy and Regeneration.

Meanwhile, Emily’s experience with the Ro has not gone quite as well as Mac’s experience with the Dhryn. Emily had a similar, though much more deep, role with the Ro, but she is now a shell of herself. Despite the Interstellar Union’s insistence, Mac continues to believe the Ro are the true enemy. With that, Regeneration comes to a close, with it, the Species Imperative trilogy forms a strong circle of a story which began in Survival.

The trilogy does have romantic elements to it, specifically the relationship between Mac and Nik. While Mac is playing the role of scientist, she realizes her feelings for Nik are growing in ways she can’t predict. She likes him a great deal and it becomes more than that. The man is an enigma wrapped in a mystery from the start; he has a great deal of knowledge but doesn’t always share it with Mac. He even warns her that she shouldn’t get too close to anybody. Too bad he was unable to provide such a warning before Mac met Emily.

The star of the trilogy, of course, is Mac. She is one of the most plausible and believable scientist protagonists I’ve come across in Hard Science Fiction. Make no mistake about Species Imperative being Hard SF, just because it features Biology rather than Quantum Physics or the science behind space travel as its feature science, Czerneda applies no less a rigorous approach to the science/biology in the novel through Mac. Her deductive reasoning, how Mac infers things about the Dhyrn’s homeworld, her conclusions about the relationship between the Dhryn and the Ro are all logical scientific reasonings. Most importantly because these are novels, Czerneda makes for great dramatic tension and narrative pull with Mac.

There’s a tradition of Science Fiction wherein the scientist is hero, gallantly (and often flawlessly) solving the problems raised by a story or novel’s plot. That tradition also tends to gender-default to male characters. Czerneda goes the other direction and gives readers a flawed well-rounded character at the height of her chosen vocation who is a woman. In Mac, she’s given readers one of the more engaging scientist-heroes in the genre, and just an admirable character as a whole.

As a whole, Species Imperative is a powerful and wonderful story of scientific discovery, wonderfully diverse aliens, human emotion and a great story of our place in the universe. Each novel; however, did have some uneven aspects. I felt that at times, Czerneda focused a bit too much on the minutia of some details forsaking the drive of the plot. Those instances were more blips than the norm, fortunately. Be warned; however, that this omnibus is enormous; over 1,000 pages with very small typeface. It is worth the proverbial trip.

I must commend the fine folks at DAW for their continued efforts to keep their authors books in print and on the shelf for readers through omnibus editions like this 10th Anniversary edition of Czerneda’s trilogy.

About Rob H. Bedford (62 Articles)
Rob H. Bedford writes The Completeist Column and curates Mind Melds here at SF Signal. Elsewhere, he is the Lead Book reviewer for SFFWorld, where he is also a Moderator in their discussion forums. In addition to over a decade’s worth of reviews at SFFWorld, his reviews and articles have also appeared at Tor.com and in the San Francisco/Sacramento Book.

3 Comments on Book Review: SPECIES IMPERATIVE by Julie Czerneda

  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // December 18, 2014 at 2:34 pm //

    Czerneda does like the crunchy bits, I’ve noticed, in my own reading of her fiction. It’s sometimes a bug, but usually a strong feature of her worlds

  2. This 3 book series has about 10 books worth of plot, so great job with your plot summary! you got all the important bits in there, without spoiling anything.

    I loved that this series focused on biology. Nothing against astrophysics, it’s just that it was nice to read a hard scifi series with a different focus. I also really appreciated that Mac is always a true scientist: she and her team want to know why things are happening, and if those things make sense. So many other authors would have just sent space marines to blast the pesky alien species out of the sky.

  3. Thanks Andrea..yes, a lot to summarize and balance with a reaction, glad a fellow fan of these books thinks I’ve captured them well.

    This is indeed one of the more “science-y” SF series I’ve read and it is much stronger because of it and Czerneda’s ability to blend that with good storytelling.

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