Alien Clay – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Alien Clay by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tchaikovsky’s creativity and ideas are on full display

On the future Earth of Alien Clay, society is in the grip of a bunch of ideological zealots that would give the Spanish Inquisition a run for their money. The ‘Mandate’ insists on a scientific orthodoxy that stifles true scientific thinking and enforces its worldview with a jackbooted fervour that tolerates no alternatives. Those who dare to dabble in ‘free thinking’ are captured, interrogated and squeezed until they give up their comrades before being exiled to a prison colony on some far-off world.

Such is the fate of Anton Daghdev, xeno-ecologist and political dissident, who finds himself cast out to the Earthlike-only-within-the vaguest-meaning-of-that-word planet of Kiln, there to be brutishly inducted into the prison colony and scientific research station maintained there by the Mandate.

Yes, not content with banishing identified Public Enemies to die on alien worlds, the Mandate forces its transportees to toil among the often-inimical alien lifeforms to develop scientific theories that bolster the orthodoxy they cling too, and real facts and science be damned. Daghdev finds himself sequestered with other political dissidents – some he knows, others he simply knows of – all of them suspicious of each other as potentially being the one that fingered them to the authorities.

And then there’s the bounteous alien life on Kiln, which does its level best to infect the Earthlings that venture out into Kiln’s biosphere, all of it searching for the genetic key that will unlock the biome of these newcomers so they can become part of the rich tapestry of Kiln life. After each sojourn, the poor dissidents find themselves subjected to scouring decontaminations that are almost worse than sprouting alien flora and fauna in their stomach linings and elsewhere.

On first viewing, Alien Clay is familiar ground for Tchaikovsky. He’s written about prison life in Cage of Souls, in which the poor prisoners suffer many similar privations, and the actions of alien life on unsuspecting humans is a rich seam he’s explored in the Children series, so I was a little worried this book might not be sufficiently different to be truly original. In addition, it’s told in first person through the eyes of Anton Daghdev, which can make for a very restricted form of storytelling with an emphasis on ‘telling’ rather than ‘experiencing’. However, Tchaikovsky has used first person to great effect before in Walking to Aldebaran and in this case there is a solid plot-driven reason to stay in first person, and the story opens out once Daghdev and his comrades find themselves adrift in the alien landscape.

The point of view and the setting also play into a beautiful exposition, subversion and reimagining of what it is to be a dissident and revolutionary and how the systems of power created to grind down opposition can be rendered useless with a shift in perspective. As with Children of Memory, Tchaikovsky has a point to make and he does so – powerfully – through the narrative and most powerfully of all in the uplifting and chilling ending.

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