Strange Because They Are Alien
By Cheryl Morgan
Nina Kiriki Hoffman is one of those writers whom I have seen a lot of at conventions but have never managed to read any of her work. She has always struck me as very thoughtful, so I was pleased when Tachyon sent me a proof of her latest book (and indeed her first ever SF book Ė the others all being fantasy). Catalyst is, as the subtitle clearly points out, "A Novel of Alien Contact". It is also a rather odd, often intriguing, book.
Letís start with the word "novel". Catalyst is around 170 pages long, with large print. Iím guessing that in Hugo terms it is actually a novella. The large print, and the fact that the central characters are teenagers, suggests that it is a YA book. Certainly Hoffman has written a lot of YA material. But if Catalyst is YA, why does it have so much sex in it? Well OK, modern teenagers donít need to be protected from sex scenes, although the book doubtless risks being banned from school libraries in Texas. The book also reads very simply Ė no flowery style here Ė which also suggests a YA target, but Tachyon is apparently selling it to an adult market and it certainly has enough in it to make readers think.
So, what about the plot? Our hero, Kaslin, and his family are amongst the poorer inhabitants of a frontier planet. They apparently ended up there because Kaslinís father has too many convictions for petty crimes. At school Kaslin is tormented by Histly, a pretty rich girl with sadistic tendencies. Fleeing from her one day, he falls into a cave complex and discovers that the planet is home to another species of intelligent life.
This is not one of those first contact novels that examines the process carefully and tries to work out how two alien species might come to communicate with each other. Rather it is one of those books in which the aliens are impenetrably strange and we, as readers, struggle along with the characters to work out what is happening. Apart from the sex, of course. One thing that is very clear is that the aliens find human sexual responses fascinating. The aliens also seem to like Kaslin, perhaps as much because heís naïve and pliable as because he is friendly. They donít like Histly, with good reason: where Kaslin sees interesting aliens, she sees commercial opportunity.
Things move on a bit. Adults get involved and behave in typically greedy and/or hysterical human fashion. The aliens prove well capable of dealing with them, and then the book stops.
Iím not sure why. It doesnít feel like Hoffman got bored. But at the same time there are some interesting subplots that she has set up that she never bothers to exploit. Thankfully the book was interesting enough as far as it went to make it worth reading. It is also a pleasure to have a short book to read every now and then. But Catalyst promised much, and for the most part didnít deliver because it didnít follow through. Like I said, odd.