Review by: Linda Workman-Crider
If you are seeking mainstream Sci-Fi, this is not it. This is more along the lines of Literary Sci-Fi. If you are not sure of this difference, Octavia Butler’s short story, Speech Sounds, is an award-winning example of Literary Sci-fi and can be found as a free read online. To me, the main difference is the focus on the human condition, along with fancier word choices and sentence structures. For the gist of An Alien’s Guide to World Domination by Elizabeth Fountain, imagine the movie Men in Black, but rewritten so that the aliens remain in their human form for most of the movie (One of the characters in this book is named Thomas Lee Jones, a nod by the author which may lend some credence to my statement).
A boy and an old man, Uncle, secretly stow the boy’s sister and Uncle’s wife aboard their pod as they are being exiled from their planet. They randomly land on Earth at the Teton Dam just as it is filling for the first time. The automatic self-destruct timing of their pod causes the Dam to collapse and flings their wispy alien bodies in two separate directions, with the boy and Uncle landing together in Selah, Washington and the girls flung off in the opposite direction. They all eventually take over dead bodies as their new skins. The boy takes the name Jack Smith and goes off to find his sister. He eventually gives up searching and moves to Prague trying to forget her. Our main alien protagonists, Jack Smith and Louise Armstrong Holliday find themselves working for the same company, PPP3, and smack in the middle of an alien plot to turn all humans into cyborgs. It’s up to them to save us from our fate. Will they decide we’re worth the effort?
While the plot reads science-fictiony enough, the getting through to the alien plot points requires trudging through vast amounts of mundane corporate deals and the unappreciated lives of office workers; some of which is relevant to the story-line, but most of which is commentary on the human condition. I think it was while reading an entire page and a half of an email, sent to Jack from Louie, with the subject line: “Re: My theory about middle aged white men” that I realized this was a literary plot-line and that the guidelines for the mainstream sci-fi review were no longer relevant. My review is now biased due to my, shall we say, lack of enthusiasm for literary fiction. If I use a literary standard that requires some difficulty to, or more than mainstream standard of intricacy for the literary plot, I would label this, in my best professional voice as, “meh.” Some portion of this score is based on a lack of, in literary terms, verisimilitude (believability), on how we get from one plot point to another sometimes by miraculous means (If someone challenges me on this due to literary sci-fi not being based on predictability, but instead on description, I will concede the point. Literary works are often prized for breaking the rules, which makes none of the rules really matter anyway).
While we are given glimpses of most of our alien characters in their natural form, we spend what feels like ninety percent of our time with them in their human forms. Their alien-ness becomes more like an afterthought even as they fight to save our world from galactic invasion. Since the main function of literary fiction is to be a commentary on the human condition, it makes sense for the characters to be written in a way that focuses on their human qualities. Moreover, there is not even a need for our characters to be rounded. They are merely props to propel the statement of the literary work. In this case, “In the event of almost certain galactic doom, humans might not be worth saving.” Love, kindness, and compassion are presented as alien conditions unique to the protagonist characters of our story, especially in our main characters, Jack and Louie.
I would not trust my own review regarding the level of closeness developed with the characters by the reader. My bias against literary works in general would hinder the building of these relationships. However, I can say in fairness that Fountain’s characters all had unique traits and styles that set them apart from one another. Each character was interesting in some way, and with many given their own chapter of background, the architectural foundation for closeness, at the very least, has been laid.
Fountain’s world-building is where she lost me as a reader the most. She wrote the individual settings well and I could even accept alien junk dealers traveling the galaxy to sell pfootahns. I had a hard time accepting an inconsistent ability of “knowing” things that should not be known, of wispy aliens—that could just pop into a dead human body— developing (or needing) zippers to leave the human form, of the perfect dead bodies to match the alien character profile of old man or young woman to be so conveniently available, or of one alien changing into what could be called a fairy godmother and causing fairy-tale types of events to occur. These things push past the sci-fi genre limits, push past the fantasy genre limits, and land within the genre of fabulism. The reader is thus left never really understanding what type of world the story is taking place in.
My overall impression is that An Alien’s Guide to World Domination lacks a focus of genre that will alienate all readers with preferences to specific forms, but most closely matches the label of Literary Science Fiction. Unfortunately, I think a literary reader would find the word choice and sentence structure too mainstream for their liking. It’s quite possible that this book should more aptly labeled as Experimental Fiction and that this issue of mislabeling is the largest actual issue in terms of understanding and recommendation of this book. I believe my issue of bias has been solved. While I would not recommend this book to Sci-fi fans, I can recommend this book under the guise of experimental fiction to those who read literary fiction mainly for the commentary on the human condition.