I took this particular book from the Wild Books shelf at the Oxford Story Museum (where, in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m currently interning), which, if you are interested, is a shelf full of books which you can take, for free, read, and leave somewhere public for someone else to enjoy. It’s like World Book Night but permanent. Also not sexist.
The Xenocide Mission looked good, and I’m trying not to buy too many new books because I have to carry them all back home on the train in two weeks. I should have realised from the ridiculously hyperbolic cover copy that, in fact, this wasn’t really worth reading:
From the first totally unexpected laser bolt, we know we are in the hands of a master storyteller. With heart stopping action sequences and unbelievably alien aliens, this amazing novel marks Ben Jeapes’ arrival as a super-nova talent in science fiction.
I can only imagine that whoever wrote this piece of sycophantic guff was being ironic, because even a cursory glance at any single page in this book will tell you that The Xenocide Mission is at best a relatively run-of-the-mill story of exploding plasma lasers and high-speed spaceship chases. Actually reading it will tell you that, while its concept and premise is initially promising and thought-provoking, it’s really a disappointing piece of unremarkable, characterless storytelling.
The set-up: a space station named SkySpy orbiting a planet inhabited by an alien race with apparently xenocidal tendencies (they’re called XCs by the humans, in a stunning display of originality) is attacked by said aliens, causing a panic back on Earth as the Powers that Are scramble to assemble a task force to pick up survivors and, more importantly, retrieve humanity’s FTL technology before the aliens use it to blow up the universe. Because they would do that, obviously. Meanwhile, two survivors of the attack, Joel Gilmore and his alien companion Boon Round, crash-land on the Dead Planet, a world allegedly destroyed by the XCs, only to uncover an interesting and potentially game-changing secret.
Okay, so, iffy logic aside, that doesn’t sound like such a bad set-up. And it isn’t. It’s a good starting place to explore a range of issues: racism, war and peace, humanity (in both senses of the word), politics, et cetera. To be completely fair, The Xenocide Mission makes gestures towards all of these themes. But it never really gets very far, since any serious engagement with anything at all is swiftly interrupted by the noise of gunfire and exploding spacesuits.
The characterisation is extremely weak: main characters are sketched in with all the finesse of the latest summer blockbuster, right down to their clunky and obvious psychological motivations, which are worse, in my opinion, than no motivations at all. Four hundred pages later, I’m none the wiser as to who Joel Gilmore is, or what he does in his spare time, or why his attention to duty fluctuates so conveniently. And while there is an attempt at making the aliens, well, alien, it feels like a desultory one: the humans and the XCs are able to communicate within a couple of hours of first contact, first via sign language, and then through the aid of a handy magic translator. Let’s remember that this isn’t the world of Doctor Who or Star Trek; the races in question are not part of an established Federation of aliens with an established protocol for dealing with first contact events, or a large database of alien languages. It’s just too easy for them to understand each other. Sometimes I think SF writers forget what space actually means, how vast and lonely and distant everything is out there.
I like to think of The Xenocide Mission as a sort-of literary equivalent of Guardians of the Galaxy. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s a disposable, obvious, fairly cliched SF story which is heavy on the gun battles and cool semi-futuristic technology wrapped in a light covering of morality so as not to upset the children. Unlike Guardians of the Galaxy, it has no pretty pictures, 3D visuals or whimsically-named space rocks. This is a shame, because then I might have had some slight compunction about leaving it behind for some unsuspecting tourist to enjoy. As it is, I couldn’t care less.