This is the first book in a trilogy, and Wilber’s first novel length effort (he has written many short stories).
As a First Contact novel it was pretty… whimsical.
It starts off very casually---YouTube has morphed into people instantly “sweeping” (streaming, I believe) their lives, as events happen by processors and other electronic elements that are hooked to their brains. People have computer AIs that they can ask to do anything, include drive the car. I am not real clear how the process works; do they need Wi-Fi? How is the material broadcast? Regardless, this element is crucial to the story.
We start the tale with Peter Holman, a second-string European league basketball star with a badly blown knee who is trying to maintain body and soul by filming and uploading events in his life, including a “faux” romance with an up and coming film/TV star, Chloe Cary. The two have constructed a fake romance and use it as an ongoing event like a TV show. They have thousands of followers…
Holman lives on the Florida coast facing the Gulf of Mexico. He has an older brother, Tom, who is a marine biologist with whom he has an uneasy relationship. His brother’s big project is saving Kemp’s ridleys, a sea turtle, from extinction. The two brothers go to a beach where they expect the sea turtles to come up and beach themselves for egg-laying; in hopefully bigger numbers than ever before…and suddenly, a dark shape appears in the water where Peter is standing doing his sweep and rises out of the sea.
He is an alien; from some ships Peter and Chloe had seen nights before off the beach when they were strolling romantically for their audience. The lights in the sky were not swamp gas or satellites or some unknown construction of the Chinese. They were alien ships. And they contain aquatic, bipedal, humanoid-ish aliens. Their planet is Shu’don (pronounced soo-don) and they are the Shu’donni - who speak sibilant English and are very friendly.
Well, of course this changes everything. The book proceeds to move in fits and starts.
We get great swathes of back story about Peter and Tom’s life (and their troubled younger sister, Kait), their over-achiever pediatrician father and their supportive mom. The back story is terrific, gives us a good foundation of who are Peter and Tom and what brought them to this point in their lives. But in use, so much of it is just an interruption because it is woven in awkwardly. At one point we get ten pages of Peter reminiscing about a girlfriend he met in Barcelona, Spain and a fascinating lecture on the painting Las Meninas by Velazquez. That really has nothing to do with the story.
This book repeatedly offers so many things that are simply not explained. How/why do the aliens speak English? How do they know so much about human culture? The alien we first meet tells Peter: “…We come and go all the time and you never know until now, right?” This is pretty much the only explanation we get.
Why don’t the world’s governments have more to do in this novel? They have a very muted presence in this story which I find hard to believe, even after the alien says that they decided that Peter would be their go-to guy because of his sweeping…but no real explanation on why Peter and not one of the many others who do sweeping.
Why isn’t Peter a lot more freaked out when he meets Twoclicks for the first time? An alien, fer gawds sake. And honestly---why isn’t he creeped out by his intimate relationship with Heather who works for Twoclicks. Why has no one been allowed/invited to visit their shipswhich sit in estuaries around the world (as the aliens like warm, shallow seas similar to their home world)? What part of the galaxy are these aliens from? What is their confederation of the Six (planets)? Who are the other members? (And have they visited?)
Why are there several scenes where Peter believes he’s seeing one thing---and then finds out it didn’t happen that way? The purpose of these events is never explained. Peter also goes through expensive brain surgery to have implanted a very high end “sweeping” and receiving apparatus in his head…that near the end of the book is rendered useless and will have to be replaced.
The aliens, of course can do a lot of amazing thingsthey have “screamships” that produce a painful high sound when they appear (which they can do instantly without human detection. They do several random things as the novel progresses, but they are just that, random…we don’t have a clear idea of their agenda towards the “Earthies” as they call them except that it involves trade.
We discover that the alien-instigated events around the world, some of them violent are basically the shenanigans of two royal brothers fighting for their father’s attention back on their home world and that their fundamental reason for coming to Earth is mercantile (which is a great idea). We don’t know what the aggressive Whistle actually wants from Earth---he just consistently harasses Twoclicks with mostly friendly efforts at trade. Because he can.
Twoclicks, whose adventures we follow, loves collecting art pieces and relics and is especially fond of high-end alcoholwhiskey and rum---even though alcohol has no obvious effect on their metabolism; he just likes the flavor. It might become a terrific export from Earth.
But why do the two royal brothers have names like Twoclicks and Whistle (because their language is sort of like dolphin, I think, and this is how their names translate)…but the Shu’donni that Peter interacts with the most is named Heather---we never find out what her Shu’donni name is (or actually, if she really IS female. We know very little of the aliens biology).
The ending, as a lead-in to the second novel, is confusing. We’ll just have to wait for the next book.
Seriously, the story here has a lot to recommend it. The scenes in County Tipperary are delightful (for the most part) ---Wilber leads a class every year in Ireland). I just wish the overall novel was tighter and that we knew a little bit more about what was going on. It is all well and good to just accept things and go with the flow. But for me, too many questions (as I’ve said in another review) become annoying and interrupt the flow of the story. I don’t expect the author to tell me everything, but when the questions really outnumber the information we get; I lose interest. And when we do get a kind of, sort of answer, it is generic and vague. We even get a couple of “ask me later” replies when Peter wants an answer. ~~ Sue Martin