Recent Reading: Wergen: The Alien Love War by Mercurio D. Rivera

Rivera's novel is one of several wildcard nominees on this year's Clarke Award shortlist, though in my non-representative sampling it is the one that has garnered the most commentary—perhaps because people got a glimpse of its appalling cover design, which is bad even by the standards of its publisher, NewCon Press, and felt compelled to react. But to me what truly makes Wergen unusual—in ways both good and bad—is how old school it is. It's such a throwback to the science fiction of the 60s and 70s that it ends up feeling fresh and different. And yet at the same time there are aspects of it that are decidedly old-fashioned, and which end up undercutting its effect.

Wergen is a fix-up, with several stories having been published independently in various short fiction venues (and one as a standalone novella) over the course of more than a decade. Here we already have the first tick on the old school checklist—I can't remember the last time I read a fix-up novel, and even linked story cycles are fairly uncommon these days. But despite the novel's origin, Rivera is very good at tying the disparate stories together, for example through characters who recur and end up having complicated throughlines. Whether he re-edited the previously published stories while compiling the novel (and writing several original pieces), or had the overarching plan of the story in mind when he started publishing them, Wergen ends up feeling entirely of a single piece.

The Wergen of the title are an alien species who, at the end of the 25th century, contact humanity—at that point still laboriously colonizing the solar system—and immediately begin supplying us with technology that not only makes life on other planets in our system a cinch, but opens up exploration of other systems, where humans and Wergens found joint colonies. The reason for the Wergens' generosity is that they are uncontrollably fascinated and enamored by humans, a reaction they describe as love. The trade-off for the Wergens' gifts is gratifying their desire to be near humans. This can take a coldly contractual form—new colonies establish ratios of Wergens to humans, assigning each human the Wergens who are permitted to bask in their presence and dictating how close they're allowed to get. But it also expresses itself in more ad-hoc, individual arrangements, such as humans who agree to let Wergens shadow them for months in exchange for a trip on their spaceships, or who take advantage of the aliens' helpless desire to be "of service".

Here, again, we have a way in which the novel bucks current trends in the genre. Just to start with, aliens aren't that common anymore, even in space-set fiction. And when they do appear, they tend to be very human-like. A lot of modern space operas, in fact, seem to take the Banksian approach of implying or even outright stating that their society's definition of "human" has expanded to include a wide genetic and morphological range, which is grouped under a single rubric because of a similar baseline psychology. In Wergen, that similarity exists—for one thing, humans and Wergens have similar, if not fully overlapping, definitions of love—but is overpowered by one species' compulsion to serve the other.

In other words, Wergen is a novel in which biology is destiny, which is another way in which it feels like a throwback—I'm far from the only person to draw a connection between its premise and the work of James Tiptree Jr., and especially the story "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side". But the Wergens' infatuation with humans is not the only way in which their fate is determined by genetics. Wergen mating, we quickly learn, involves the subsuming—at first mentally, and finally physically—of one partner into the other, who is then left pregnant, a process that humans regard with horror but which to Wergens seems both normal and desirable, even to the partner whose genes designate them as passive and thus doomed to be devoured. Late in the novel it's revealed that the form humans encountered Wergen in isn't even their original one—their species alters itself on a genetic level when encountering aliens, a process that has occurred several times throughout their history.

Humans' biological imperatives may not take such concrete, observable forms, but the novel quickly makes it clear that meeting the Wergens has had no less profound an effect on us, and far from a positive one. Early chapters focus on humans who have grown up around Wergens in the joint colonies, and who consider the aliens their friends. They nevertheless struggle to cope with the Wergens' overwhelming affection, and with disentangling compulsion from genuine friendship and love. Most human-Wergen relationships, however, are nowhere near this equitable. In a chapter told from the perspective of a Wergen colonist on Mars, for example, we learn that he and several others of his species work as field hands on the farm of a human colonist in exchange for the chance to be near her and her family, and fight between themselves for the honor of working in the main house—a blatant reference that also reverses the import of the thing it's referring to, since the Wergens want to be indoors not because it's easier work, but because it permits them closer and more intimate access to their masters.

Running through the novel is the idea that much of what we think of as conscious, rational choice is actually the product of chemical processes that we have no control over. Late in the story, for example, it's revealed that most humans feel an uncontrollable aversion to Wergens (partly, it's suggested, because their odor is revolting to us—I can't think of another science fiction story that has considered this extremely plausible barrier to inter-species relations) that makes it impossible to treat their adoration of us with anything resembling kindness or understanding. Very soon after encountering the Wergens, human scientists unlock the secrets of their chemical attraction to us, and use it to create substances that create the same effect in humans—first what is essentially a love drug, and later creating an elite of politicians and business leaders known as Charismatics, whom the population follows slavishly. When some Wergens develop a substance that interrupts their love for humans, they immediately try to take revenge on their abusers. But the form that revenge sometimes takes is experiments intended to arouse in their prisoners the same love they once felt for them.

Which brings us to my main problem with the book, the fact that its characters are one-note and thoughtless, with simplistic motivations and relationships. What's more, it's usually the Wergens who, despite being under a compulsion, seem to have thought more deeply about the nuances of their relationships with humans, and about the effect that encountering humans has had on their society and their relationships with one another. Humans, meanwhile, not only lack compassion towards Wergens, often dismissing them as weak-willed and pathetic, but rarely seem to consider what effect it has had on them to be around this slavish devotion.

To be clear, this is both deliberate and plausible—slaves will think more deeply about their masters than the other way around. There are in the novel some very clever illustrations of the way humans, while claiming to despise Wergen affection, have come to rely on it, such as decrying Wergens who take the emotion suppressor drug as "junkies", even though it's surely the ones who continue to love humans who are in the grips of an addiction. But the uniformity of this reaction rankles and eventually comes to seem unbelievable. It isn't actually possible that no human, over the course of the century-plus that the two species are in contact, ever stops to consider the morality of accepting Wergen help, or the effect that having a slave race around will have on human society.

What Rivera seems to be arguing is that human emotions, too, are a matter of irrational compulsion. That human relationships are governed by uncontrollable love and the things it makes us do. Examples of such behavior abound in the novel. A gay man who has been in love with his straight best friend since childhood follows the other man for years, into the military and on a potentially suicidal mission, instead of trying to find someone he can have a real relationship with. A woman who raised two Wergen children ends up enabling her daughter's violent overthrow of a human colony—because, she reasons, as a mother she can do nothing else. She's aided in this by a man who is in love with her, who knows that she doesn't reciprocate his feelings, but nevertheless agrees to break the law for her.

Instead of being a meaningful commentary, however, this ends up feeling like another way in which the book is old-fashioned, a throwback to the way that mid-20th-century science fiction prioritized ideas over psychological complexity, with characters whose motivations and feelings were often extremely simplistic. It gets to the point where it's almost a relief when a human character in Wergen says something as obvious as "sometimes I think being around Wergens wasn't good for us".

Even with this flaw, Wergen is gripping, though it often seems to work despite its human characters rather than because of them. It's the Wergens themselves who make up for that weakness, their weirdness, their difference from us, their doomed efforts to make us love them. In a chapter near the end of the book, a Wergen plaintively asks a human with a pet dog how she can reciprocate the animal's affection but reject his, even though the dog hasn't done nearly as much for her as he has. There are concrete answers to this question—for one thing, humans and dogs are both mammals, with significant overlap in body language and emotional triggers—but what it really betrays is a fundamental disconnect in the two characters' (or perhaps the two species') definition of love. Later in the story, the Wergen assumes that the human will not carry out her plan to get away from him, because doing so will cause her dog to die. Of course she does, and though we don't get to see the Wergen's reaction to this, one assumes that it is yet more bafflement, at the idea that love can be real, but not all-consuming—an idea that is otherwise absent from the novel.

Fix-up structure notwithstanding, Wergen has a strong throughline, following the "love war" of the title as first only a handful of Wergens rebel against human abuses, then a much larger group—who rightly fear that humans will seek the Wergen homeworld in order to enslave them en masse—launch a preemptive strike, and on into the far future in which both Wergens and humans have been irretrievably altered by their contact with one another. Once again, this is a boldly old-fashioned turn of plot—if I compare it to a more modern work like A Desolation Called Peace, which also ends with humans being altered by aliens, it's clear that what Rivera has written is wilder, weirder, and a great deal more discomforting. (Which is why, for all its flaws, I'd prefer to see Wergen win the Clarke.) And, perhaps because he goes deeper than that novel's rather sanitized version of what being altered by an alien would look like, Rivera is freer to conclude that there is no future for humans and Wergens together. Sometimes the only solution to a bad relationship is a breakup. The result isn't—and, it is strongly implied, could never be—full freedom from the demands that our brain chemistry makes on us. But there are ways of reaching an accommodation with such demands, and both humans and Wergens end up finding them.

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