Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, May 27, 2013

2013: The Serene Invasion (Brown, Eric)

Probing the human emotions of doubt and forgiveness (4/5)

Aside from Eric Brown, I can’t name any respectable modern authors who can push out two novels a year. John Brunner was prolific in the 1960s and 1970s, Greg Bear had two novels published in 1985, and Joe Haldeman had two novels publish in 1983. But since this time, I can’t point to any respectable author which has a consistent turnout of two novels per year. If you disregard the adjective “respectable”, one could include Kevin J. Anderson in this affair, but his inclusion is any list besides “Authors I Avoid” is a dubious distinction (averaging 3.54 novels per year since 2000). 

Eric Brown, however, has produced two novels in one year on four occasions: Penumbra and Walkabout (1999), New York Dreams and Bengal Station (2004), Xenopath and Necropath (2009), and The Devil’s Nebula and Helix Wars (2012).
Here in 2013, Eric Brown is again publishing two new novels; on May ninth he released a stand-alone featured here, The Serene Invasion, and on July thirtieth he’ll release Satan’s Reach, a sequel to The Devil’s Nebula. While he matches the quantitative definition of success, Brown has been letting me down on the qualitative side. He is a cauldron of ideas akin to Brian Aldiss or John Brunner, but his books tend to be more longer yet more mediocre. But with the drought of decent new novels published every year (eons of pain waiting for Banks, Reynolds, and Hamilton, mainly), I look to Eric Brown for a spritz of modern sci-fi. Thankfully, The Serene Invasion delivers, albeit after a bumpy ride.

Rear cover synopsis:
“In 2025, the Serene arrive from Delta Pavonis V, and change mankind’s destiny forever. The gentle aliens bring peace to an ailing world—a world riven by war, terrorism and poverty, by rising conflicts over natural resources—and offer an end to need and violence. But not everyone supports the seemingly benign invasion. There are those who benefit from conflict, who cherish chaos, and they will stop at nothing to bring back the old days.

When Sally Walsh is kidnapped by terrorists and threatened with death, it seems that only a miracle can save her life. Geoff Allen, photojournalist, is contacted by the Serene and offered the opportunity to work with the aliens in their mission. For Sally, Geoff, and billions of other citizens of Earth, nothing will ever be the same again…”


In northern desert plains of Uganda, Sally Walsh is a doctor on a humanitarian mission healing the ill of the impoverished region, but much of her disheartening work is caring for the dead rather than the recovering. Contemplating an early retirement after five years, Sally is kidnapped with her colleague by extremists from the Sudanese border. If she and Ben can survive the ordeal through common sense, Sally is assured of her retirement, but the radical ideas of the extremists have one mission: the beheading of the infidels. Ben’s head is literally on the chopping block and a gun is pointed at Sally, but the impulse to kill either is vanquished by, what seems at the time to be, a miracle.

Geoff Allen is aboard a flight from London to Entebbe to see Sally while on a photojournalism jaunt to capture images of elephants in the wild. He’s abruptly stricken with a sense of time lag, followed by a hallucination of being laid out, examined, implanted with a device in his skull, and told “Do not be afraid” (53). Surfacing from his torpid state, Geoff realizes that he alone experienced  the time lag, yet far below the plane on the African desert are enigmatic domes. Common sense suggests blaming the Chinese.

All around the world, the urge to commit acts of violence with met with a sudden lapse in muscle control; wars cease, hate crimes halt, and even suicides stutter to an unfulfilled desire. Suddenly at 11:31 GMT, Eight starships appear in the skies of earth, silent in their spectacle and mysterious in their silence. Their point of convergence seems to be an isolated region on the deserts of Mali; ground zero is an arid wasteland with no significance to the human race. The ships join in a massive snowflake-shaped ensemble and send an intense beam downwards to the desert, from which springs an oasis of flora and fauna unknown since the myth of Eden.

Soon, Geoff Allen and 9,999 others like him congregate at the request of the peaceful invaders. The aliens from Delta Pavonis V, representatives of a scare but benevolent race called the S’rene, have a message for the selected few of earth, chosen for their humanity and empathy:

We are intervening here on Earth because your race has, in the past few hundred years since what you term your industrial revolution, grown exponentially, a growth fuelled by a fatal combination of political greed and lack of foresight. What is even more tragic in your situation is that many of you—both on an individual level and on that of institutions—know very well what needs to be done in order to prevent a global catastrophe, but cannot enact change for the better because power and vested interest rest in the hands of the few ….No shame should accrue in light of these facts; no individual is really at fault. The process was vastly complex and incremental, a slow-motion, snowballing suicide impossible to stop. A hundred, thousand races across the face of the galaxy have perished in this way, before we had the wherewithal to step in and correct the aberrant ways of emerging races. (161-162)

“The galaxy teems with life, with civilizations, a concordance rich beyond your imagination” (139) yet not everyone on Earth is especially happy with the inescapable non-violence—mainly the makers of arms, the war machines, and, above all, James Morwell Jnr., owner the American corporate entity of Morwell Enterprises. In addition to the complete cessation of arms sales and the resulting dive in his company’s stock, James is also unable to partake in his form of pleasure: masochism. For this, he damns the passive aliens and establishes a digital community of directed distrust of the S’rene. Coddling James’ hatred for the Serene are the opponent alien species, the domineering Obterek, who contact James and supply him with five devices which enable them to “read” the minds of any human Serene representative they can find; however, the representatives are not easily tracked and the Serene are not easily defeated. The two races have been at odds for millennia and each knows the other’s weaknesses.

The representatives of the Serene describe themselves as “self-aware entities” and are “living, biological beings, self-aware, individual, conscious” (171) but grown and programmed with the interests of the Serene, their mentor race and benevolent saviors. The honor of meeting a living Serene is a rare occurrence as they are spread across the many light-years and none are found in Earth’s realm. Their projects for the human race include terraforming Mars and Venus, yet at the edge of the solar system, an aberration in the occlusion of some stars causes concern for astronomers and the pessimists.

By 2035, the people have Earth have grown use to the munificent offerings of the S’rene; kilometer tall towers of habitation spire above urban landscapes, oases of paradise dot the most desolate regions of terrain, and the aliens maintain they have “the best interests of the human race at heart” (475). The 10,000 or so human representatives, less now because serving the interests of the Serene is always an option, are subsumed for two days per month on mysterious duties related to the Serene Invasion. With no memory of their two-day duty, speculation of the Serene’s greater intentions is at the top of some representatives’ minds while others exalt the invader’s benevolence and ignore any doubts.

Eventually, the Obterek are able to penetrate the quantum-state of the Serene’s non-violence sphere around Earth, resulting in an outright assault by the neon blue bipedal figures of the Obterek and dozens of human victims. Yet, the golden hued translucent bodies of the “self-aware entities” to the scene, entomb the human victims within themselves, and heal them in the giant ebon obelisks which tower above every major city. At the same time, the Serene also penetrate the bodies of their militaristic opponents, stopping the carnage and saving every human life at the scene.

Even in 2045, with twenty years of serenity on Earth, the peacefulness has spread to the colonies of Mars, moons, and asteroids. Humanity expands and flourishes under matriarchal supervision, but the Obterek are not without their ploys to subvert the progress. Dreams of human utopia seem to be realized with nations dissolving, selfish interests waning, and self-righteous exfoliating from the human ego:

They worked together increasingly without the boundaries of nations to impede progress with concerns of petty national interest, freed from the malign influence of multinational business corporations. Religions had mellowed even the more radial sects of Christianity and Islam which in the past had threatened head-to-head conflict; millions still believed, but without the self-righteous fervor of old. New cults had sprung up, many with the Serene at their core. Of the old faiths, Buddhism was increasing in popularity, as citizens drew parallels between the ways of the Serene and the philosophy of Siddhartha Gautama. (459-460)

Still, the humans, and the 10,000-odd representatives among, question whether the Serene have any ulterior motives and whether the Obterek represent a legitimate opposition to the efforts of the Serene. Perhaps humanity isn’t destined to populate the galaxy, their local stars, or even their home system.


I was chary of the effectiveness of novel’s theme: aliens come to Earth and save humanity from their human nature. The caginess validated itself in the first 300-400 pages of the novel where various predictable elements manifested themselves: an unforeseen alien adversary (Obterek) and a skeptical human with the power to influence others (James). Surely, these two forces would join to attempt a disestablishment of the Serene presence, somehow parry the quantum-state non-violence enforcement, and ultimately allow for the Obterek to “supplant the Serene” (435).

Then the last 100 pages started to expand on the efforts of the Serene to establish humanity amid their solar system with colonization of numerous celestial bodies. The 20-30 years of serenity had failed to produce a single human-on-human act of violence; therefore, their initial intention of creating a non-violent humanity had been successful and who are the puny humans to question the “authority” of a non-violence which their own religions stipulate in their respective texts. Eventually, the habit of tranquility mutes any sensation of contempt or ungratefulness; allow the humans a period of adjustment and the consistency of habit and they’ll follow you anywhere. The Serene read the humans perfectly… after all, they had over a hundred years with which to observe us in situ.

But Serene Invasion isn’t about creating a human utopia or peopling the orbiting bodies of sol; Serene Invasion is about acceptance and forgiveness. Over time, Sally is able to forgive her captor; Ana, an Indian woman and part of the human representative body, is able to forgive her brother’s desertion; and again, Sally is able to forgive the subterfuge which her friend Kath has led her through for most of her life. These characters accept, forgive, progress, and succeed while adjusting to all scenarios. Then there’s James who doesn’t forgive his abusive father, doesn’t forgive the Serene for disallowing him to commit suicide, and doesn’t forgive his assistant for treachery and abandonment. Predictably yet suitably, his fate isn’t as glamorous or glorious as the those with peace of mind. While the aliens are able to enforce a physical peace in society’s eye, it’s up to the individual human to achieve peace of mind.

Serene’s blanket non-violence isn’t without its controversy, however. James takes it upon himself to somehow undermine the quantum-state aura of non-violence so that he may achieve a small victory against the Serene: violence against self, the death of self through suicide. The Serene deprive humanity of this last grip of self-control, the control of one’s fate at one’s own hand. James takes his idea to the extreme: isolating himself asea with no provisions, walking in the Amazon without heed to heat, thirst, hunger or danger, and free soloing a rock edifice with a gun in hand (this method abusing the Serene’s intervention of “spasming” when committing violence). But the omniscience of the serene invaders quash his attempts and fuel his commitment to their defeat.


Serene Invasion, regardless of its utopian aim and predictable elements of confrontation, comes out extolling positive human virtues and shining optimism in parallel to Alastair Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth (2012). The novel exhibits the common, yet typically suppressed, human emotions of forgiveness and virtue over those more flamboyant and cynical kneejerk reactions of pessimism, suspicion, and illogical obduracy. The Serene’s blanket issue of non-violence isn’t without flaw; while the Obterek orate the of the Serene using the humans to spread “their own unnatural edicts, their own perverted ideals” (435), humanity must take what it can get, take the lesser of two evils: possible self-destruction through mankind’s own during or guided like a child to an earthly utopian diaspora, albeit without control over one’s own life, suicide or not.

Serene Invasion doesn’t ooze as much emotion as The Fall of Tartarus (2005), but it does give the reader more room for reflection upon the standards by which we judge benevolence, generosity, self-directed volition of self and society, and, most importantly, of doubting the hand that feeds you:

There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills. --- Siddhartha Gautama

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