‘The Serene Invasion’ is the latest space opera to come from the pen of prolific British Science Fiction author Eric Brown. Quite how prolific he is becomes clear when you turn to page three of this volume, where the list of his previous books has had to be printed in a smaller font than the rest of the text in order to fit all the titles on a single page.
The story starts on Earth in 2025. Sally Walsh is an idealistic British doctor who has spent the last five years working at a medical centre in Uganda. When she and a fellow doctor, Ben Odinga, are kidnapped by terrorists and taken to an abandoned shack whose only furniture is a chopping block, a scimitar and a video camera, Sally assumes that her life is about to conclude in one of the most horrific ways imaginable. However, when the swordsman finds himself unable to swing his weapon to decapitate Odinga and then the terrorists with guns cannot fire them, Sally and her compatriot manage to escape. It quickly becomes apparent that the happy conclusion to Sally’s near-death experience is far from unique. Across Uganda and the rest of the world, people no longer seem able to harm one another.
Within a few days, the reason becomes clear. A highly advanced alien race known as the Serene have come to Earth to rescue humanity from its self-destructive tendencies. Their technological capabilities are so far beyond our own that they are able, by modifying reality at the sub-quark level, to prevent any human from unleashing violence upon another. Although some psychologists worry about the long-term impacts that this could have on the species, most people seem happy. The Serene do not stop there though. Through the application of their engineering skills, the Earth is quickly transformed into a world of bountiful renewable energy and full employment, while poverty and squalor are virtually banished.
A decade on, ninety-nine per cent of the world’s population are better off. The other one per cent, however, are a rainbow coalition of previously powerful politicians, industry moguls and libertarians who bemoan the loss of their ‘survival of the fittest’ ethos and spend their time and money seeking a way to return to the ‘old ways’. When it turns out that the Serene are opposed by another advanced species called the Obterek, who truly are red in tooth and claw, the disgruntled see their opportunity. Can they take it?
There’s a lot of dystopian SF out at the moment. SF with a broadly upbeat theme is harder to find. Brown has done us all a service by producing a novel that is unashamedly utopian in its premise. His thought experiment is an interesting one and he pursues it with great vigour. However, although he does show the potential benefits of this brave new world in great detail, he doesn’t shy away from illustrating the disadvantages, too. The descent of his antagonist, former billionaire arms dealer James Morwell, from member of the global elite to suicidal non-entity is played with a sufficiently straight but that by the end of it you actually feel pity for the man, no matter how repulsive he was at the beginning of the book.
The story is played out on a broad stage, with Africa, India, the United States and Britain being the four principal backdrops in the first half of the novel. Each is delineated with telling details that made me feel like a true globetrotter.
At the heart of the book, though, are the relationships between the characters. The love between Sally Walsh and her partner and photojournalist, Geoff Allen, is clear enough to see, but Brown also shows us hatred, hope, despair and joy emanating from a large cast that repeatedly demonstrate what the Serene’s planet-changing ideas mean for individuals and those they care about.
The obvious disadvantage of creating a story based around a highly advanced race of aliens is that if they can do pretty much anything they want to, then where’s the tension? Brown deals with this in two ways. First, the Serene are pacifists, so they don’t destroy or even imprison those humans opposed to their plans, who are therefore able to keep on plotting. Second, the appearance of the Obterek creates a genuine threat to the future imagined for humanity by the Serene, delivering real conflict and a genuine sense of uncertainty about the outcome.
I was captivated by this story from start to finish. If you’ve ever wondered what might happen if violence was abolished from the world, here’s a novel that will help you to imagine one possible answer whilst being entertained throughout. Highly recommended.
(pub: Abaddon Books/HarperCollins. 352 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78108-091-7)