Williams, Liz (2002). Empire of Bones New York: Bantam Spectra.

Reviewed 15 July 2002

Williams, Empire of Bones (cover) Too much science fiction bases itself on the United States, and in the alternative on Northwestern Europe. Perhaps the economic and technological challenges in the rest of the world justify this (but what about Japan?). Occasionally, someone will acknowledge that there is talent and potential in the rest of the world, particularly as horizons extend (see, for example, L. Sprague de Camp's The Hostage of Zir (3 stars), in which Brazil has become the dominant nation on Earth). However, this ethnocentrism makes little, if any, sense when First Contact is an alien civilization contacting us. Whether measured by surface area or population, it is far more likely that such contact would occur in Africa, or South America, or East Asia, or even Australia. Or, as in this case, the greatest concentration of people on Earth: India.

Empire of Bones posits a resurgence of India's caste system. Jaya, the human protagonist, is an Untouchable. She is also a former revolutionary who has been stricken with an illness resulting in accelerated aging that seems to harm only Untouchables. As it turns out, India's caste system is only a derivative mirror of that of the aliens; aliens who seeded Earth with humaniform life. Jaya, as it turns out, is the first human to become capable of communicating with the aliens' ship.

One of the best features of Empire of Bones is the careful and consistent attention given to the difficulties of communicating between species. Even an alien observer who has been observing Earth for a long time—perhaps centuries—cannot completely decipher human behavior. Part of the difficulty is simple drift; more central is that vocalization is not the language basis of the Rasasatran culture, and particularly not of the alien administrator called in by the observer when Jaya develops her communication ability. Several of the "misunderstandings" are particularly amusing, such as the observer referring to herself as raksasa—a word uncomfortably close to (and prescient of) the Hindu rakshasa (ordinary transliteration with which I'm familiar), a class of demons that attracts victims by appearing to be someone familiar to the victim. This multilayered bit of foreshadowing is one example of Williams's attention to detail.

Unfortunately, the author's attention to detail did not serve her as well in looking at some of the larger issues. The major difficulty in the environment is the illogic of the aliens' particular caste system. The observer and administrator (the functions of Ir Yth and Sirru respectively, although they are termed otherwise in the story) clearly think of political and economic development as a major issue on Earth, but the implied "higher path" in politics and economics is not consistent with the apparent politics and economics back on Rasasatra. This is a serious difficulty that, unfortunately, shapes the narrative in a manner that thoroughly undermines the denouement and even the climax.

Characterization is actually better for the aliens and secondary characters than for the protagonist. The aliens in particular seem quite constrained by their own cultural conditioning (which, as noted in the previous paragraph, does have some negative effects). Several of the secondary human characters are quite striking, particularly Anand and Tokai. Williams's prose is fairly invisible, which is a good thing. At times one wishes for a little bit more flowery language in describing Rasasatra (I know that's a really bad pun; live with it).

Overall rating: 3 stars
Good.
Williams has successfully reached outside the normal NATO orientation of speculative fiction into a horribly underused and undervalued culture. This is, in a sense, a second alien culture here on Earth for those of us in the West. That it turns out to be far closer to that of our alien "ancestors" is a rather interesting twist. Like so many other promising novels of late, however, the ultimate execution does not live up to the potential of the initial situation. The execution is not abominable, by any means, but is rather a bit of a disappointment in something that began so well.

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