A Review of “A Thousand Words for Stranger”

A Thousand Words for Stranger (Trade Pact Universe, #1)A Thousand Words for Stranger by Julie E. Czerneda

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first time that I read A Thousand Words for Stranger, I was about middle school age. I was pulled in by the title, as I recall, and I loved the book! This was space opera before I knew what space opera was called, and all that I knew was that I loved it. The world of competing cultures and fantastical alien races gripped me thoroughly. I don’t think that I finished the book, which is extremely rare for me (I can count on one hand the number of books that I’ve began but not finished in my life), but, on this recent second reading of the novel, I found that I eventually crossed a point beyond which I remembered nothing.

I also found that the book read quite differently over twenty years later.

I’ll say up front, this is Czerneda’s debut novel, and debut novels seldom carry the strengths of an author’s later works. That disclaimer out of the way, what she does so strongly in this book is to create such a wildly imaginative world (that will be the basis for a series, the rest of which I own but have never gotten around to reading). In these pages you will find creative new aliens, worlds, and cultures, which are painted with prose that, while perhaps not literary genius, certainly has its flashes of brilliance. I had no difficulty soaking in the scenes that were being painted for me here, and, were I to identify a single strength of the author, this would be it.

The alien race with which we become most familiar is the Clan, a race that looks Human, but is a race of reclusive, arrogant, and very powerful telepaths, who consider themselves far above races without telepathic abilities. They look down on the use of technology, seeing it as a tool that inferior races use to place themselves onto somewhat equal footing with more advanced races. This is an interesting theme to develop in a science-fiction novel, that of technology being viewed as inferior to natural, organic abilities. Certainly, it’s been done before, but Czerneda explores it well here.

The theme that she is exploring more than any other, though, is the power of choice, the fight to master one’s own fate. Sira, our protagonist, wakes on a planet with no recollection of who she is, what she is doing…or of what she is capable. When she discovers the truth, finally won as she fights through webs of deception, she discovers that she has become someone entirely new during the journey, someone that she likes better. Will she be able to push back on the powers that seek to set her destiny for her and choose her own? Well, I’ll avoid spoilers, but that should tempt you a bit.

The problem that glared at me reading this as an adult is how Czerneda flirts with a romantic sub-plot (pardon the pun). More than the simple issue that romance is not at all a genre that I read, is the issue that she introduces romantic elements, but never brings them to fruition. Romance is a key conflict for storytelling, but it must be permitted to run it’s course once it has been introduced. Czerneda feels timid in writing this element, seeming to toy with the idea and then retreat, all while leaving us with about one hundred too many references to Morgan’s blue eyes. Perhaps this was a plot point that she was coerced to emphasize beyond what she wished by an editor? In any case, it feels forced, and was distracting enough to pull me away from the story on many occasions.

When I initially placed this book on my Goodreads shelf, I rated it with five stars based entirely on my childhood recollection. Now, with much maturity between readings, that rating falls by two stars. I think that, if you’re interested in reading a story with a very spectacular world, then you should give this a try. I think that the rest of the series will get better, and I hope to make time to read it soon.

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A Theology of Potential

I’ve never been a great lover of tradition. That’s not really breaking news to anyone who’s visited this space for very long. This fact, though, makes me a bit of a contradiction at times. One of the ways in which I push back on tradition is the way in which I feel compelled to practice my faith. This has actually caused a bit of tension at times, because Karen gravitates toward more traditional, liturgical settings, which tend to leave me dead in the proverbial water. We’re still sort of working on reconciling that.

What makes this contradictory for me is that I view a great deal of life, including my faith practices, through the lens of theatre. Theatre was the first art form in which I found a natural fit. My experiences designing, directing, and acting in different shows molded the perspective that I have on a great deal of life. I can’t separate my philosophical or theological views from that lens. Theatre is, in true Burkian fashion, the way in which I understand every other discipline that I’ve practiced.

How is that contradictory? The very liturgical practice that I find so numbing is actually quite theatrical. It is the kinesthetic acting out of different aspects of my faith during a worship service. The presentational aspects (humorously referred to as “smells and bells” by some), the orally interpretive performance of the script, the choreographed actions, all are quite theatrical at their core. So, why am I not drawn to them?

What’s interesting is that I am quite drawn to theatrical presentations in a worship setting. I spent years directing, acting, writing, and even teaching acting methods in the context of a faith community. That time taught me so much about myself and about my faith. That particular faith community presented very theatrically during a worship service, but in a different way. Sets were constructed. Lighting was designed. When the performance began, the house lights went down and the stage lights up. Every component of the morning was carefully rehearsed. I can honestly say that I had never felt so at home in a worship service prior to experiencing that.

Karen is quick to point out that the architecture in a more traditional setting…that is, a more liturgical setting…is just as theatrical, just as full of meaning. I don’t contradict that at all…it is all exploding with meaning when you learn what to look for. What bothers her about the type of setting I’ve just described as being so comfortable to me, though, is the absence of light. She thrives in the brightness of the artistry of stained glass windows, permitting the natural light from outside to bathe the congregants during the course of the worship service. The darkness of the more theatrical setting that I found so welcoming bothered her a great deal, and she pointed out that the symbolic nature of the congregants entering darkness was sort of opposed to the faith they were there to express and explore. She makes a valid point. For me, though, it was a performance venue that was, quite simply, what I knew. The darkness for the audience didn’t bother me at all.

Several weeks ago, though, I had an interesting experience. I attended a worship service at the invitation of some family members. The building was quite traditional. The windows in the sanctuary were tall and ornate, yet had been curtained off to make the sanctuary darker and assist in setting the stage for a more theatrical presentation of music and media. I was bothered by this, and actually found it to be quite a downer. This made no sense to me. A dark setting had never bothered me before. Why should it do so now?

The only conclusion to which I can arrive is that I was bothered by the absence of potential light. There was light that should have naturally been pouring through those windows, but that had been stifled. This held the same theological and symbolic trouble for me that having the audience in darkness as the house lights went down held for Karen. I’ve never been bothered by a sanctuary designed like a performance venue because I know what to expect.  There is no potential light except for what has been designed as part of the performance. The potential and the actual experience are the same. The potential of the curtained windows, though, had been cut off and never realized. I felt as though something important had been taken away, even if it took me days to determine what that had been.

Funny that I now understand experientially exactly what Karen has expressed for years since we’ve been married…even if it took a completely different experience for me to get there.

Number Five is Alive?

Robotics is one of those fields that always sort of interested me, but only in a passing way. I thought, during my bachelor days, that it would be fun that have a little cybernetic dog that greeted me at the door when I arrived home in the evening. Vacuums that took care of the floor on their own have always seemed an ingenious idea to me. So, occasionally, when I stumble across news stories about advancements in the field, I read them with interest, but then go about my life.

This one, however, was an exception, when I read about how the testing of the robot took place. One specific reference was how attempts were made to knock the robot over while it was walking or climbing. Perhaps it’s because I had only recently read of a robot guiding children on museum tours, but I found myself thinking for a moment, “That’s just mean to try to knock over the poor robot. He’s just doing the job that you told him to do.”
It’s interesting how we alter our perception of something that we’ve built when we build in the shape of something organic. When my phone was doused in liquid a few months ago, I had no such reaction, I simply went to the Apple Store to get a replacement phone. When I noticed a scratch on my car a few weeks ago, I shrugged and went on with life. Those things are just tools. And, so is a robot built in human form, but with one notable difference. The latter is made in its creator’s image.
I doubt that I’m the only person who has this sort of reaction to this, but I also think that those of us who do may well be in the minority. I suspect that there are many of a more engineering mindset who recognize robots as the machines that they are, regardless of whether or not they mimic the shape of bipedal humanoid. I don’t think that makes them cold, calculating individuals. They’re just more realistic than I am.
Except I wonder if that realism becomes something more cold and calculating. That is, I wonder that, when we have no issue with abusing our own creations in the (legitimate) name of testing, if it becomes  easier to have a more detached regard for fellow human beings. Certainly, we see a level of detachment begin to manifest in individuals who practice certain professions (some types of medicine, for example, or law enforcement) simply as a coping skill as they are faced with enormous amounts of tragedy so frequently. Perhaps knocking around the robot that you spent years of your life developing could have the same result.
Part of the launching point of a theology of technology is that we are creators, and that we ultimately will attempt to create in our own image. Robotics is currently, I think, the most obvious way in which this appears. If so, then the way in which we treat our creation says a great deal about us, especially as more sophisticated ways are explored to make these creations artificially intelligent. Where does the line between testing to diagnose a problem and outright calloused experimentation lie? How would feel differently if the robot could think independently at any level? This is the philosophical foundation for good science fiction…the kind that often becomes fact.

Photo Attribution: epSos.de under Creative Commons

More Publishing Details!

I had promised some more availability details for my short story, “Diaspora,” which was recently published in eSciFi Magazine. While previously available only at Barnes and Noble, the issue is now available at the magazine’s website in a variety of formats, including Kindle and Nook and even good old fashioned PDF. It’s also available directly from Amazon, as well. I’d love to hear what you think of the story!

Update in 2019: The magazine, sadly, is no longer in publication, so I’ve taken down the links.