It’s hard to read Jeapes’s third novel without your mind drifting to current events around the world. The year is 2153, and humans have united with a subservient race of quadrupeds called Rusties, to form an intergalactic Commonwealth and explore space together. Joel Gilmore works on a space station that has been secretly spying on a planet of seemingly warlike creatures for decades. These creatures are called Xenocides, or XCs for short, a name earned when they wiped out all life on their neighbouring planet a century earlier. Having spotted the station, the Xenocides attack without mercy, taking Joel and his Rustie mate prisoner. Full-scale war appears inevitable, as the station contains technology that would threaten the Commonwealth’s position as rulers of the universe, should the Xenocides work out how to use it.
Although aimed at a teenage market, there’s enough action, well-rounded characters and tech-speak here to keep older, more jaded readers entertained. Some of the dialogue may be a bit clunky, but the use of multiple viewpoints works well, providing a timely reminder that pointless wars can be triggered by nothing more than arrogance, paranoia and misinformation. Just like the real world.
In Ben Jeapes’s first novel, His Majesty’s Starship, the post-modern nations of Earth competed to become the overlords of an alien race desperate for someone to give it orders. I held my breath unable to believe that anyone could posit such imperialist clap-trap in this day and age, and was deeply relieved when Jeapes undercut the game of Diplomacy with a lesson on the idiocy of biological determinancy, the extent to which expectation conditions response, and the degrees to which we all believe what we are told about our abilities in the face of all evidence to the contrary. At the end of the first novel Jeapes took his First Breed into a new Commonwealth with the people of Earth, as equal partners if a little hesitant about exerting their equality.
In this new novel Jeapes plays similar games. The new XTs are predators, just piscine enough that we won’t make the mistake of seeing them as cuddly, and they have invaded the new bi-species space station set to spy on them, wiping out almost everyone one board. They are also known to have wiped out the neighbouring planet. They are, therefore, cowardly and dishonourable killers and Earth should wipe them out before they can find us.
His Majesty’s Starship and The Xenocide Mission are both sold as Young Adult novels (although they are as adult as anything Feintuch, Weber or Asimov ever wrote) so the relative unsubtlety of the moral unpacking is perhaps justified. It makes sense that the most vociferous advocate of genocide should come from the Confederation that nuked a city out of spite. As Captain Gilmore pointed out in the first novel, one projects onto others what one believes one would do oneself. It makes sense also that the initial “invasion” should turn out to have been a planned occupation of an empty rock, and that much of what guides the reactions of the UK Navy is in part about politics between and among the humans and the First Breed. And this is where this novel is extremely successful. His Majesty’s Starship was a first contact novel, and Jeapes carefully avoided providing too much information; much of the time we were never told what was in the information pack Captain Gilmore and his crew received. In The Xenocide Mission Jeapes uses another old sf plot to expand on our XT understanding: lock some characters up together in a prison/life boat/on an alien planet, and let them get to know each other. This time it’s Captain Gilmore’s son, Joel, who draws the short straw, finding himself in close confinement first with the First Breed Boon Round, and then with the XT Oomoing. All three are brilliantly realised: Joel’s tendency to be patronising, the late shift to Boon Round’s point of view; Jeapes’s refusal to allow sign language to progress beyond more than the most rudimentary, enable him to keep his characters on their toes. Perhaps the book might have been tenser had we, the reader, not been allowed to understand Oomoing, but that would have been at the expense of generating empathy for her and her people – and as Orson Scott Card pointed out in Xenocide, we aren’t very good at empathising where we can’t communicate.
The book is, unfortunately, timely. It neatly and unpatronisingly points to the double standards we apply in politics: we are exploring, you are invading; we are ignorant, you are stupid; we recognise authority, you are slavish and therefore suitable to be enslaved; and it goes beyond this.
By the end of the book there are new questions to be asked about the First Breed, and other new questions about the universe. As Jeapes couldn’t resist a tasteful romance for Joel Gilmore I am sure we will be getting a third generation of this promising sequence.
Vector, Reviewed by Farah Mendlesohn
“Joel Gilmore and his ‘Rustie’ companion Boon Round find themselves survivors of an attack upon an observation station by the aliens known as the XCs or Xenocides, who have wiped out the inhabitants of their neighbouring world. In this self-contained sequel to His Majesty’s Starship, in which the first contact between humans the Rusties, or First Breed, is described, we learn more about the ethical questions involved in contact with an alien race and of Ben Jeapes’s ‘Commonwealth’ universe. Not only do we see much of the action through the eyes of the XCs (to whom, of course, both Joel and Boon Round are strange and unknown alien beings), Joel discovers towards the end of the novel yet another viewpoint which presents him with an ethical dilemma.
Ben Jeapes gives us an imaginative and well worked-out depiction of aliens and, as in much science fiction, his imagination is at the service of a set of very real questions about how groups get on with each other. The sub-plot, as Joel’s father and girlfriend work together to prevent an ultimate weapon from being used against the XCs, is exciting adventure and again focuses upon the basic set of questions. Can we assume that the human-centred viewpoint is the true and right one? Both strands lead to a solution of the set of complex misunderstandings which created the conflicts and a new discovery about the nature of this universe, which both offer room for a possible sequel and a satisfactory reason for the necessity of the continued existence of the Commonwealth.
This is good science fiction, offering imagination and ideas in equal measure, and gives us Ben Jeapes as one of the shamefully few writers who can create original SF for a teenage readership. Offer this to good readers who have yet to be convinced that there is life beyond Star Trek/Star Wars spin-offs.”
The School Librarian
Jeapes rockets into the YA hardcover sci-fi market with an attack by aliens on an observation base located far in space and staffed by humans and an extraterrestrial species, the First Breed. Twenty-one days later, the large cast of characters has negotiated a complex first-contact experience. In the 2140s, humans inherited interstellar travel technology and leadership of the First Breed (more commonly called Rusties) from an advanced, alien civilisation. Humans and Rusties continued their predecessors’ policy of hidden observation of the Xenocides, who were seen methodically exterminating the population of a nearby planet. This series of rapid changes in the knowledge and ascendancy of humans caused political changes in Earth’s government configurations and power structures. However, humans haven’t changed — especially in their drive for power and their delight in subterfuge, manipulation and double-dealing. News of the attack on the observation station precipitates a crisis among the Earth’s various coalitions and alliances. They all insist on sending observers on the military mission, creating a recipe for disaster. Jeapes maintains suspense at a high level by his skilful use of narrative techniques; the Byzantine plot is filled with cultural misunderstandings and double-crosses right up to the end. Told from the point of view of many characters and moving among the personalities, species and power groups, it allows details — historical, personal and cultural — to emerge as the plot unfolds. The structure is unusually complex, moving back and forth in time as the point of view changes from character to character. As with many plot-driven works, characterisation is occasionally wooden, but it certainly doesn’t interrupt the flow of the narrative. Incorporating the best qualities of YA SF, this is a space opera that employs sociological examination and world building of a very high order — who could ask for anything more? A rip-roaring read.
Finally, a foray into realms remote in both time and space, by Ben Jeapes, another Briton. A sequel to Jeapes’s well-received The Ark (2000), The Xenocide Mission does what The Sight [previous book reviewed earlier in the same column] fails to do, although it spins a comparably convoluted yarn: It succeeds in imagining an order of beings that is genuinely nonhuman. Where Clement-Davies’s wolves and Carter’s submarine cats are just ourselves in hair and fur, Jeapes’s XCs and even his quaint, R2D2-like “Rusties” really do feel alien, unpredictable. This puts The Xenocide Mission among the better works of science fiction to explore the old chestnut, “What if humans were to encounter extraterrestrials?”
It happens like this: In the year 2153, brash young Lt Joel Gilmore, son of The Ark’s heroic Capt. Michael Gilmore and a representative of the human-Rustie Commonwealth alliance, is helping to man a spy base in a far-off solar system when it is attacked by XCs, the very aliens under surveillance. A rescue is launched, but in the meantime some highly unsettling secrets are discovered.
Deftly switching between viewpoints and time frames, Jeapes tells a story of interspecies and interworld rivalries that moves at the speed of a space launch. No one has a lock on virtue or even decency, not to mention brains; in this arena, but one thing is clear: A unilateral human victory is neither guaranteed nor necessarily desirable. All kinds of assumptions are shaken up.
The Xenocide Mission has its weaknesses — Joel is a bit of a stiff to be honest, and his love scenes are hilariously bad. (“They drew apart and the universe consisted entirely of Joel Gilmore and Donna McCallum, gazing with adoration into each other’s eyes.”) But the inventiveness and intelligence that inform the rest of the story more than save the day.
The Washington Post Book World
At mid twenty-second century, Earth has established an alliance with technologically advanced species of furry quadrupeds (First Breed), who have been genetically engineered to require outside leadership and who, although officially regarded as political equals, now depend on humans for guidance. An unprovoked attack on a manned spy satellite by a warrior species (dubbed XCs, for a previous xenocidal attack on Dead World) tests the strength of the Commonwealth alliance as captured XC prisoners and newfound survivors on Dead World slowly shed light on the reason for the attacks, and a host of interested parties manipulate the conflict to promote their own political agendas. Jeapes winds surefootedly through his labyrinth of plot points and viewpoints. A strong measure of humor, slyly directed at the next century’s British Navy, spices the action, and as plotting never quite upstages character development, even such stock devices as interspecies sidekicks and multi-limbed foes are surprisingly fresh. Teens scanning the galaxy for summer sci-fi fare will want to tuck this titles in with their beach gear.
In this overstuffed but unusually promising debut, Jeapes delivers a space opera worthy of David Brin or early C.J. Cherryh, replete with complex politics; ingeniously different aliens; brutal fire fights; cliff-hangers; and tough, likeable characters. When a supposedly secret orbiting surveillance station is attacked by the Kin, a ferocious species that had nuked civilization on their own neighboring planet into oblivion, junior officer Joel Gilmore and his horselike “Rustie” associate Boon Round flee to that “Dead Planet”, where several surprises await. Meanwhile Joel’s father, Michael, a recently retired Commodore, and the young man’s heartthrob, seasoned Marine Lieutenant Donna McCallum, join a rescue expedition only to wind up falling toward the local sun in a disabled spacecraft with a Doomsday Device aboard. The author had a few kinks to iron out. Joel and Michael wrestle for the role of protagonist, and the human/Rustie backstory is developed in such lovingly complicated detail that it actually takes over the plot. However, by the time Jeapes’s principal characters are together and he’s sprung one final, stunning revelation, SF/action/adventure fans who also enjoy peering into alien minds will know they’re in good hands. Look for this memorable cast to appear in further exploits.
School Library Journal
Set in the year 2153, this action-packed military sf novel involves humans teamed up with a race of quadruped servants, the First Breed, who have been genetically altered by an advanced race that has pretty much wiped itself out. Lieutenant Joel Gilmore and Boon Round, a First Breed, are doing maintenance work on surveillance equipment orbiting the SkySpy asteroid when they witness a devastating attack on the asteroid by the very aliens being watched. From there, increasingly savage events unfold from human, First Breed and alien points of view, providing an intriguing picture of completely different mindsets and cultures. There are some awkward transitions, and readers might wish for a bit more background, but the action is convincing and so fast paced that the result is a thriller of a story.
Writers continue to be attracted to certain perennial themes of science fiction, and it is testimony to the unending fascination of those themes that good books (though rarely outstanding ones) can still be written about them. From David Fickling Books — a British publishing imprint now operating as part of Random House — comes The Xenocide Mission, which is about alien contact and the inevitable clash of values it brings. In Ben Jeapes’ novel, humans are already working with one alien race, which is helping them study the Xenocides, a race that systematically and cold-bloodedly wiped out the civilisation on a neighbouring planet. Predictably. The book involves discovering the Xenocides’ plausible reasons for an apparently unjustifiable attack, while also learning of the duplicity and backstabbing among humans themselves (what else is new?) and their alien partners, the First Breed. This is a well-plotted and fast-paced space opera, but its structure is odd: the first 120 pages tell one story, after which we switch extremely abruptly to another story altogether (though the two turn out, of course, to be closely connected).
Some writing is odd, too: for instance, the Xenocides call humans ‘extraterrestrials’, which would make sense only if they called their own world Terra, which they do not. Still, the book hums along.
Joel Gilmore’s mission is to save his race and its allies from the Xenocides. Can he do it by negotiation, or is mutual annihilation the only resolution? A series of literal and ideological battles is fought out in this text: in a fictional context redolent of a console game, issues of race, gender hierarchy and intergenerational relationship are fought out ruthlessly in a seamless blend of action and reflection.
The action of this book is non-stop, and huge demands are made on the reader both in terms of visualisation and imagination. Most demanding of all is the bold engagement with defamiliarisation: this is a book about racial (interspecies) conflict, and the breadth of imagination is awesome. The ethics of war are revisited again and again as codes of behaviour among different species are intelligently interrogated. Communication too is a central theme: where there is no common language, what stretch of sympathy, what breadth of sophisticated interspecies knowledge is needed to interpret body language accurately? This is an exciting, demanding but hugely rewarding exercise in science fiction writing.