Title: The Silvers
Author: Jill Smith
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
From the Publisher:
B, captain of the first crewed mission to the Silver Planet, does not think of the planet’s native race as people. Silvers may look human, but their emotional spectrum is severely limited. B allows his team to capture, study, and even kill the creatures.
When B bonds with a Silver called Imms, everything changes. B’s not sure if Imms’s feelings are genuine or imitation, but B’s growing friendship with Imms becomes his anchor in a strange world. Following a shipboard fire that kills most of B’s team, B takes Imms back to Earth. He sanitizes the story of the fire—for which Imms bears some responsibility—so that Imms is recast as its hero rather than its cause.
Life on Earth threatens the fragile connection between the two men. As Imms seeks independence from a bureaucracy that treats him like a test subject, he begins to experience the gamut of emotions—including a love B is frightened to return. And as B and Imms’s story about the fire threatens to unravel, Imms must use all he’s learned about being human to protect B.
A Silver’s heart drifts through its body, bumping softly against walls and other organs. Sometimes it’s illuminated, and you can see it beneath the bruised skin, floating along like a lantern underwater.
I’m going to start this review by saying simply: you should read this book. As in the right the heck now. Go.
While technically queer SF rather than m/m romance, The Silvers is sci-fi in the speculative, rather than sciency sense. It’s a story about otherworlds that is actually about inner worlds, and an exploration of some very human ideas: love and freedom, and the compromises we make for them. While the “introduction of an alien to teach us about ourselves, ah d’you see” is a common enough sfnal premise, The Silvers does it exceptionally well.
It’s partially the writing, which possesses a stark and devastating poetry, partially the fundamental nature of the themes themselves and the book’s commitment to them, but also the unusual intimacy of its focus. For a story about the meeting of two alien cultures, it’s really only about one alien and one human, and they ways they change, ruin and save each other. It’s not in the conventional sense a romance, but it is a story about love (among other things). It’s also unflinchingly harsh and unflinchingly hopeful at the same time – my heart didn’t quite know what to do with itself while I was reading, though by the end I was simply celebrating that this book exists.
As the blurb suggests, the plot is very simple: humans land on the silver planet in search of water to replace our own dwindling supplies, interact with the native species – the Silvers – in various ways, with curiosity initially, then cruelty, because the Silvers – while intelligent and capable of some emotional responses – are Not Like Us. The ship’s captain, B, forms a relationship with an outcast Silver, Imms, and eventually brings him back to earth. But nothing else about this book is simple – not B, not Imms, not their relationship, or the choices they make.
In many ways, neither of them are particularly sympathetic characters. B spends the early part of the book denying any moral responsibility for the scientific study of Silvers and his love for Imms, while protective, is largely much driven by greed, fear of loneliness, and fear of failure.
Whatever B has done on this mission, and whatever he’s failed to do or protect or learn—he will make up for it by having Imms. He has done what they couldn’t do in Project HN. He has captured a Silver’s heart and studied it alive.
And while it is easy, perhaps even instinctive, to identify with Imms in his vulnerability and (no pun intended) alienation, he is – in his way – just as selfish and acquisitive as B. But, nevertheless, their love and their connection is undeniably there: muddled as it is with selfishness and sorrow, regret and failure, it is still love, still real, still meaningful and valuable. What’s interesting about The Silvers generally is both its unsentimentality and the inextricable entanglement of apparently noble and apparently destructive impulses, even in contexts – like love and family – we like to pretend are indisputably benign, hallmarks of our greatness, civilisation and inherent virtue as a species.
This dualism, the book seems to suggest, is one possible understanding of what it means to be human. It is the one that B represents, and Imms accepts. But it’s not offered without question. The Silvers’ inability to manifest negative emotions is, after, after all, what initially leads the research teams (and Imms for that matter, who is drawn aspires to, something else, something he sees – or has been led to see – as more) to categorise them as non-people.
There’s such a lot in The Silvers, I can’t really do it justice in a review. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I read it, and trying to get my friends to read it, so we can talk about it. It’s that kind of book. If forced to look for criticism, I could say that I found the final third of the novel lost something of the precision and intensity of the earlier sections, and that I found the final outcome – the decision Imms and B make about their future – a little muted. This might have been because I was anticipating a depth of betrayal that wasn’t actually there. But none of this detracted from the power, effectiveness or general awesome of the book as a whole, and is basically on the level of churlish nit-hunting.
I suppose, since this is queer SF I should throw in a line or two about the actual queerness, even though its largely, and quite self-consciously I think, undiscussed in the book itself. B is – we may assume – gay, since his previous partner is also a man, and Imms, similarly, doesn’t appear to have any sort of issue connecting emotionally and sexually with a human male. I generally like queerness as a non-topic in my genre fiction, but I’m not sure how that works if one of your protagonists is an alien with an entirely different understanding of reproduction and sexual behaviour. I wasn’t actively looking for kinky alien bonking but I kind of wanted to know how it worked down there. I mean, Imms has an organ, and somewhere for B’s to stick his, but while – on the one hand – I appreciated the powerfully abstracted sex scenes, my other hand sort of thought it was mighty convenient the way everything proceeded as per usual specifications. Given how interrogative the book is about everything else – the nature of the self, the nature of the self in society, the nature of love, the nature of language – it seemed unexpectedly cop-outy (yes that’s a technical term) to elide the nature of sex.
Furthermore, everyone they encounter basically takes the fact they’re a male human and a male Silver entirely for granted, but I confess I was less accepting. Not, I hasten to add, because they were both male, but because one of them was an alien. I mean, I guess if you’re going inter-species anyway, and one of those species only has a concept of sex-for-reproduction, gender may automatically become irrelevant. But while, on the one hand, it supports the assumption that homosexuality is just a thing that occurs naturally, it also kind of draws by implication a slightly awkward connecting line between same sex attraction, and, uh, fancying aliens. I mean, there’s a lot of people out there who already think it’s basically the equivalent anyway.
But, honestly, who cares. The Silvers is brilliant, beautifully written and thought-provoking. I give it all the stars.
I would like to thank the publisherfor providing me with the eARC of this title in exchange for my honest opinion.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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