Well-Intentioned Scientists Running Amok
Book Review by Jack A. Urquhart ©2012
Lorinda J. Taylor’s imaginative and entertaining science-fiction novella, Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder, reminded this reader of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996). Both works are first-contact stories that turn on what happens when human beings, acting with best intentions, behave in ways that cause catastrophic damage. Doria Russell and Taylor both explore the nature of good and evil, cultural difference, and prejudice, and both choose to tell their stories, for the most part, in framed flashbacks.
Taylor’s epistolary Monster…, set in the year 3001, relies on official reports and journals/recordings kept by the major characters to tell the story of a first scientific expedition to the Planet Kal-fa. The story gets off to a quick start when a group of human xenoanthropologists encounters the Kal, a peaceful, telepathic, and spiritually evolved civilization of ‘teratoids’.
The expedition leader is Professor Kaitrin Oliva, a scientist so enamored of life’s infinite variety that she fails to heed early signs that her expedition is heading toward disaster. The mission seems to be proceeding splendidly; however, two of the human scientists are gradually running amok, one of them via an egregious ethical lapse that, in turn, triggers long-repressed psychological and moral defects in the other—defects exacerbated by exposure to the teratoidal Kal. Speaking of the Kal, to reveal more here of their physical appearance and characteristics would be to ruin the credulity-straining surprise of why Taylor has used the term ‘teratoid’—i.e., monster-like—to describe them; suffice to say, no scientific expedition is likely to encounter a more ‘detached’ group of beings.
Taylor does a fine job building to the violence that ends the expedition. Likewise, she deftly handles the official ‘inquisition’ in the wake of the mission’s failure, as well as the novella’s surprising, if somewhat unsettling parting shot (apparently humans aren’t the only species to suffer from cultural myopia). It is also commendable that, like Doria Russell, Taylor pays attention to anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and religion in her novella—a welcome change from the traditional hard-science emphasis that pervades so much science fiction.
It seems appropriate to offer a few words about Taylor’s narrative stance. The epistolary form has its pros and cons. It can be employed to reveal a character’s most private, intimate thoughts, and is especially powerful when used to reveal the innermost longings and conflicts of characters operating in actual and/or emotional isolation (think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Conversely, the epistolary stance can distance the reader—and not always in good ways—from the action of the story. That is to say, if the reader is too often reminded that what she is reading has already happened, then any more visceral, immediate connection to the characters and their various dilemmas is likely to be reduced. In such cases, it is almost as if the epistolary character/narrator is telegraphing the reader: “Don’t worry! Obviously, I’ve survived this episode–otherwise, how could I be recounting it?” Perhaps that is why this reader found the longest journal and report entries in Taylor’s Monster to be the most engaging; when the story was allowed to run on to six or eight pages, it was easier to forget that the action wasn’t taking place now (suspension of disbelief). On the other hand, the shorter journal/report entries featured in Taylor’s work tended to interrupt and flatten the story. But that is perhaps a purely subjective reaction, and, in any case, a minor flaw in an often engaging and thought-provoking story.