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The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes
By Albert Wendland
Raw Dog Screaming Press/Dog Star Books
Reviewed by Madeleine Maccar
Despite raising myself on The X-Files to what should be an embarrassing degree and unabashedly canceling social obligations to squeeze in another weekend marathon of Star Trek's multitudinous televised incarnations, I generally don't have much of a taste for reading science fiction that wasn't written by Douglas Adams. It is entirely a matter of personal preference and not at all the elitist scorn I know it sounds like: I recognize the merit in the genre, especially its capacity for serving up some biting social commentary (which I otherwise adore), but it's just not the kind of stuff that usually tickles my literary fancy.
And that's why I'm grateful whenever I discover authors like Albert Wendland. Wendland channeled his palpable enthusiasm for a genre that might not be taken as seriously as it deserves into his upcoming novel The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, which looks inaccessibly otherworldly but is decidedly relatable, compelling and thoroughly human at its core. It has a treasure hunt through space and a straight-up detective yarn moving its plot along but the human element, ranging from the pursuit of glory to the pursuit of love, is the beating heart of the story.
The main character, Mykol Ranglen, is a writer, romantic and paranoid loner who had discovered one of a select few excavated Clips (or Carrier-Locked Integrated Program), a small device left behind by an ancient alien race. The Clip, among other things, contained blueprints for the construction of Annulus, a ring-shaped world now inhabited by humans. Ranglen's discovery allowed him to maintain his preferred distance and detachment from the human race, in terms of both the financial and political freedoms to roam as he pleases. Ranglen is a man who has acquaintances rather than friends tethering him to humankind, though it is a vestigial affection for his ex-girlfriend Mileen that coaxes him into the nebula of mysteries surrounding a mission that she, her recently murdered fiancé and the rest of their dead or disappearing crewmates and comrades had undertaken.
One of the most pleasant surprises within this book's pages was its thorough annihilation of any misguided preconceptions I can't seem to shake about science fiction being both mired in pages of incoherent technobabble and wholly divorced from humanity. Wendland's interstellar worlds, advanced technologies and extraterrestrial beings are lovingly rendered in lush descriptions, but it's all for the sake of bringing unfamiliar entities to roaring life in the reader's mind rather than bogging down the narrative with details just for the sake of it. Any exhaustive verbal illustrations of strange sights serve to either paint a complete image of unfamiliar entities for a reader whose imagination might not be on par with Wendland's or tickle those minds that are as free-roaming and besotted with whatever lays beyond the naked eye as the author's clearly is. The joy of losing oneself in vivid, unearthly imagery aside, the effort Wendland put into making his exotic realms more perceptually accessible has the unexpected upshot of contrasting our familiar human world with the novelty of things unseen while comparing our very familiar impulses with those of life forms whose motivations eerily echo our own.
What kills me about my general disinclination toward sci-fi is The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes's confirmation that I am missing out on some crucially damning (but not at all harshly critical) outside-looking-in cautionary tales about the myriad ways much of human society has its priorities all fouled up and its collective head on backward. Using metaphorical stand-ins to demonstrate the extent of the damage we're doing to ourselves and our place in the universe is a powerful vehicle for objective, retrospective commentary that Wendland employs to a largely successful (and, at times, ominously creepy) effect. The feud between the two most prominently examined alien races, the Moyocks and the Airafane, was carried on for so long and to such devastating results that it's spoken of well beyond the two species' existence, illustrating just how ruinous longstanding and extensively fostered aggressions can be. Characters' discussions throughout the book reveal just how little its users of modern technology understand their gadgets' inner workings beyond relying on them to achieve a specific end, which is not an unusual scenario in our era of whittling away hours on digital narcissism using devices that would dazzle our ten-years-ago selves, not to mention depending almost entirely on specialized laborers to keep everything from our electronics to our homes in working order; the dangers of our devices using us--or, worse, the possibility that they're really the instruments of a more sinister power used to keep us distracted--is a terrifying implication that's always lurking just below the surface of the novel's primary focus.
But the most worrisome theme here is that, in a time when it's finally accepted as fact that humans are not alone in the universe, base human emotions are still the scariest enemy and the most destructive threat to our happiness and survival on both a micro- and macrocosmic scale. The crew that comprises most of the supporting cast are ostensibly treasure-hunters and adventurers, though some have allowed their almost admirable pursuit of satisfying a natural curiosity to become warped by greed and ego unabated. Ranglen is the perfect foil for such easy emotional traps, what with his reluctance to broadcast his own findings and his aversion to the spotlight underscoring his devotion to the pure ecstasy of discovering ancient relics and far-off worlds for his own sense of isolated adventure, making a character who could easily devolve into a paranoid nutter, by contrast, the true voice of reason in terms of focusing on what matters in the long-term and sidestepping the temptation of short-term payoff.
By adeptly situating some very human dramas in some rather hostile environments to prove that they can play out anywhere, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes is sci-fi for people who aren't exactly wild about sci-fi, making it a very inviting first step into a genre that deserves a more thorough examination.
Out of 10: 8.8