Eric Brown – The Serene Invasion

ericbrown-thesereneinvasionIn 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, photo-journalist, 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…

My first encounter with Eric Brown’s work was his wonderful Kéthani, which I adored. It  was followed last year by The Devil’s Nebula, the first in Abaddon’s Weird Space series, which I also enjoyed immensely. And I’ve had his Kings of Eternity on my shelves since it came out and keep meaning to read it as Brown’s SF seems to click for me. So when Solaris sent me an eARC for the book I immediately added it to my reading queue to be read around publication date. Two and half months later, here we are, and I finally got to confirm for myself that Eric Brown really does seem to tickle my science fiction bone, because I really enjoyed The Serene Invasion.

Twelve years from now, in 2025, the world is different, but still quite recognisably ours and the conflicts and global problems are largely the same as they are today. We first encounter Dr Sally Walsh as she comes off shift at a Red Cross hospital in Kallani, Uganda. She and her co-worker are kidnapped by fundamentalists and about to be executed when something prevents it. Something happens … and Sally and her friend are able to escape with their lives. But their experience isn’t the only one. Everywhere on the globe acts of violence have become impossible. No murders, muggings, beatings, rape; anyone who tries to perpetrate violence freezes or spasms as it becomes known until he gives up trying to harm another. It’s the first inkling humanity has of the arrival of the Serene, a race of aliens bent on protecting Earth and saving humanity from itself. After Sally’s miraculous escape we’re quickly introduced to the other main players in the book: Geoff Allen, Sally’s husband-to-be, James Morwell Jr, multi-billionaire and ruthless business man, and Ana Devi, a young street girl from Kolkata. All of them will be greatly affected by the coming of the Serene, like the rest of humanity, but they are the prisms through which the reader witnesses the events unfold. While we do get some glimpses of their backgrounds, mostly we focus on their present and their reactions to the coming of the Serene. Reactions range far and wide, but our quartet seems divided unevenly, with Morwell being dead set against what he sees as an unwanted intrusion on humanity’s right to free evolution through violence – unsurprising as much of his fortune comes from weapon manufacture and trade – and Sally, Geoff, and Ana embracing the Serene’s coming and their attendant philosophies. After witnessing the first flurry of monumental change, the story quickly jumps forward ten years.

In 2035, life has settled down under the Serene’s guidance. Society has changed unrecognisably; with the banishment of violence by the imposition of the charea, the Serene’s way of ensuring non-violence, and the creation by the Serene of large, fertile tracts of land in what used to be deserts all over the world, poverty, hunger, and disease have been almost eradicated. Our various protagonists have settled into productive lives. Sally as a country doctor, Geoff as a photographer and Ana as a manager of a large farm in India. The latter two are also active as representatives of the Serene, which means that they spent two days a month in the employ of the Serene, without being aware what they are doing. The only one who hasn’t accepted the new world order is Morwell. A man of violent tastes, his life has collapsed around him and he secretly tries to overthrow the Serene and get life to return to the way it was. While following around our protagonists and seeing what would happen if a scenario like the Serene’s arrival were to happen, was fascinating, at this point I started wondering where the plot to the book was. What would be the thing that created tension? Morwell’s anti-Serene movement could have been such, but is mostly dismissed by the Serene themselves as outliers and of small consequence. Enter the Obterek, the hereditary enemies of the Serene. If the Serene stand for a world structured through peace and non-violence, the Obterek embody the idea of Survival of the Fittest or the Natural Way, as they call it. With their appearance tensions enters the narrative and conflict is introduced. But with the action also comes a distancing of the characters; they are still the prisms through which we witness the narrative, but they feel far less intimate than before. It’s like we zoom out to observe a large scope of action and as such lose the close connection to the main characters.

Fast-forward another ten years. In 2045 all the tensions and struggles come to a head in a rather muted violent crescendo, which actually fits perfectly with the Serene’s philosophy of non-violence and the way the big scene is written. I won’t go into the events described in this section further, so as not to ruin the plot. In this last main part of the narrative, the book becomes even more thoughtful and thought-provoking. The narrative raises a lot of questions. For example, humanity doesn’t have a meat farming industry anymore, as they can’t kill the animals to eat them. So no more meat for humans, but what about the carnivores; what do they eat? Do lions, tigers, and bears just starve? Do they change into scavengers? Since we meet animals of prey, it seems at least some of them survive, but the how is never answered. If we go back to humanity and their evolution: is violence part of human nature or an aberration? Does the Serene inhibition of these primal instincts change humanity or damage humans psychologically? Another question that’s left open, mostly to allow the reader to draw her own conclusions, I think. As the questions and dilemma’s become less immediate and more profound, the book continues to draw away from the protagonists’ deeper emotions to focus more on this process of human change and adaptation to their new circumstances, both those changed by the charea and by humanity’s diaspora throughout our solar system.

The Serene Invasion ends in 2055. Thirty years after the coming of the Serene, humanity, Earth and our Solar system have been irrevocably changed; for the better, one would hope. While The Serene Invasion remains very much a work social science fiction, the scope is far larger and, in the end, less personal than it was in Kéthani, for example, but it remained just as interesting and thought-provoking. The Serene Invasion isn’t an action-packed space drama, but as I’m discovering seems to be Brown’s signature, explores humanity’s reactions to a change in society, clad in an SFnal jacket. It’s a quiet, but powerful, narrative and one that will have you ponder its questions beyond the book.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.