A science fiction book about a clash between human and alien cultures, and an attempt to understand the aliens. The author kindly gave me a review copy.

Publication year: 2011
Format: ebook, .pdf
Page count: 343

Humans have spread to other planets, namely Tofarn, and encountered the Tofa, somewhat humanoid aliens who don’t have faces, as such, and have four arms. Humans and Tofa have had a lot of difficulties understanding each other, but fortunately, the Tofa have been peaceful, so far. Doctor Mara Cadell has thought up an ingenious solution to the communication problem. In the womb, Mara had a fraternal twin Levi but unfortunately he didn’t survive. However, Mara has been able to keep Levi alive as a presence in her mind. Mara’s suggestion is to breed sets of twins: one human and one Tofa who would hopefully understand each other, and by extension the other species, better. When the twins would be old enough, they could be sent out to act as diplomats between the species. And of course while the grew, the humans would hopefully find out a lot about the Tofa through the twins.

Mara was able to convince the planet’s ruling Council to agree to the Project. It would be a monumental task that will take a lot of funding and time. The Project needs a place where it can be kept a secret and it also needs both human and Tofa host mothers and other staff. They would also need a way to communicate to Tofa the need for embryos and the mothers. However, to everyone’s surprise, the last bit happens easily enough and the Project acquires Tofa embryos, host mothers, and a handful of nurses. Mara is suspicious about how easily Tofa seemed to now understand the request but can’t turn them down. Getting the human host mothers is a more arduous process and because it takes time, some of the initial host mothers have a change of heart. A few political leaders pressure their family members into being host mothers.

The book spans several years and is divided into three parts. It’s written in short scenes which feel a bit fragmented at the start. It’s definitely idea science fiction instead of adventure and I was fascinated with the concept. The fragments at the start tell us about the relations between humans and the Tofa through the eyes of people we won’t see again.

Mara is the main character. Her experience with Levi has shaped her whole life; at the start of the book she doesn’t have any friends and she doesn’t seek human contact both because she feels that her connection with Levi is enough and also because she’s afraid that someone will find out about Levi which would destroy her scientific career. However, she cares very much for the people she leads and for the future of Tofarn. She’ also curious about the Tofa and wants very much to understand them better.

The book has a large cast and we get to know only a few of them well. Laura and Veda are two of the host mothers. They knew each other when they were kids but have grown apart since then. Now, they have a chance to renew their friendship although both have reservations about the other. Laura is the daughter of a Councilman who is hoping that Laura’s involvement in the Project will give him a political edge. In addition to the host mothers, the Project seems to have a large staff of scientists and later, nurses and various teachers. However, they are glimpsed at only briefly when the plot requires them.

Not all of the humans are happy with the Project. One Councilman has a couple of spies in the Project and he hopes to use the Project for his own nefarious aims.

The Tofa are quite alien. Of course, at first we don’t know much about them. However, most of the time when things are revealed about them, they seem more alien rather than less. I really liked that. However, the Tofa twins in the Project don’t really seem alien at all which was a little disappointing. They are often calmer than their human brother or sister, and very protective of them which is quite a human trait. However, it’s remarked that the Tofa twins are quite different from the other Tofa, so they seem to be far more human-like than the other Tofa. The Tofa don’t have genders as such, but the humans working with them call individual Tofa either he or she, so the humans assign them arbitrary genders and no-one thinks that’s strange.

The Project is quite isolated from other humans, or Tofa. The people aren’t allowed to leave much and the family members outside the Project have very limited visiting possibilities. This is because of secrecy. I suspected that it could actually work against the future diplomats who wouldn’t have much experience about other humans or, indeed, large human societies or Tofa.

The characters drink hot chocolate and not coffee. Being a chocolate person myself, I rater appreciated that.

All in all, I found this a fascinating and enjoyable read.

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