I try to read science fiction that is not ‘mainstream’. Sometimes that works out, sometimes… well.
Last week I looked at review etiquette, and how we should look beyond our personal preference to technical quality. This week, I have put that idea to the test.
Adventures of a Xeno-Archaeologist is a five-book series by Jenny Schwartz and I just finished all five parts. I was… disappointed. But was that my personal preference, or technical short-comings? And, well, I finished the whole series, right? So, no, it’s not all bad. And I do have positive things to say, but I did find some structural problems with stakes, agency, and style.
What’s the story about?
Below are six plots, I challenge you to pick what this series is about:
- A woman helps an alien AI who has taken android form to find his way in human society.
- A female archaeologist travels to alien ruins to hunt for artifacts left by long-dead civilizations.
- A woman from the slums turns out to be a princess and must find her way in royal society.
- A scavenger and a navy captain run into an orphan, which sets them on a quest to solve a murder mystery.
- A husband and wife come into money and gradually set themselves up as a crime family.
- A colony of humans were separated from the rest of humanity, and after five centuries of isolation, their society is on the verge of collapse. Only one woman can save them.
And the answer is…. all of them, except the second one about the archaeologist. That’s right, this book series does all of these things and more, but archaeology barely plays a role in the story.
Adventures of a Xeno-Archaeologist is the story of Nora. She is trained as an archaeologist, and went on several digs, but when the story starts, she’s switched to being a deep-space scavenger. At the edge of civilized space, she runs into an alien AI, that puts itself in an android body to experience life among humans. Oh, and she’s secretly the daughter of one of the royal houses.
The second most important character is Liam. A navy captain who helped end an interstellar war, but because of the PR of the royal houses, they sent him to the edge of civilized space when the war ended.
The story is set in a far away sector of space, where seven colony ships were stranded, cut off from the rest of humanity. They found alien tech, which blocks the black hole home, but also gave a handful of people magical powers that they can use to destroy things with their mind. These people quickly realized the potential of this, and set themselves up as kings and queens. The story starts five centuries later, just after a war between two kings has ended.
And yes, Nora has such magical powers.
Okay, first problem. I can look past a lot of bad science in scifi books. I mean, part of it has to be made up. Mistakes in existing science grate, though. And sometimes it’s just too much. This series has a shocking disregard for basic physics. It starts with the way space works. On the one hand, traveling between worlds takes months, and requires special fuel. So far, so good. But space here works mostly as a kind of wild countryside. There are obstacles everywhere, storms and dust clouds, and Newton planes (whatever the fuck those are). Of course, in the real world, space is very, very empty.
But okay, willing to look past that. Then there’s the total misunderstanding of how energy works, how black holes work, how time travel works, and how scientific research works.
Ships that travel faster than light can apparently be upgraded to traverse black holes with some shield upgrades. Or really, not even that, you just need to update ‘the certification’. Which is weird, given that space has some gravity, but black holes are super-massive singularities that have so much gravity they suck in light. How you travel through a black holes is maybe not something to wave away as ‘some certification’.
Worse, Nora at one point wants to use her powers to create small black holes for communication purposes. Her companions tell her it’s a bad idea, but none of them mention that a tiny-but-stable black hole would suck in everything around it and destroy any planet it was created on. I don’t think the word ‘gravity’ is ever used in conjunction with black holes in all of the books. And even that I’ll accept, but if you then start spending page after page on discussions about completely bullshit science… Don’t even get me started on the time travel — which is both complete BS and completely irrelevant to the plot.
The bad science might come from the actual scientists in the books. After five centuries of research into the magical powers of the royal families, their scientific experiments are limited to asking the magic users how they felt while they magicked. In a questionnaire that is so woefully stupid it hurts. No radiation measurements or MRIs. No actually controlled experiments. Just ‘how did you feel when you magicked?’ It’s… Aaargh.
So, I already explained that this book has many plots. And the ones above barely scratch the surface. All of this is possible because the main character is a horrible Mary Sue. She’s a perfectly good, perfectly humble person, who happens to be the daughter of royalty but grew up in the slums. Not just the daughter of the king, though, also the most powerful magic user ever. And right at the start of the story a god-like AI comes to her and says ‘let me be your faithful servant’.
And, if the god-like AI, being a princess, and war-hero boyfriend are not enough, she also discovers a reserve of space fuel ore that makes her super-wealthy. Of course, she’s so cool that everybody she picks to help her magically turns out to be super-capable, and they start doing exactly what she wants without any personal agenda whatsoever.
Oh, and naturally, all the men are in love with her, and she ends up with Liam, the gruff super-hunky navy captain war hero. Who’s also friends with another king and single-handedly ended the war. Yeah, it’s that on-the-nose.
So, yeah, the moral of this story is ‘if you have a god-like AI servant, are super-rich, have magic powers, and everybody loves you while being super-capable and loyal, then you can achieve whatever you want.’ Which is pretty self-evident, I’d say.
So far, the problems are mostly funny. When you dig into the philosophical underpinnings of the story, it quickly becomes less funny.
As stated, the series has a backdrop of political problems. The human colonists have set up a feudal society that has problems. We don’t actually see all these problems. Political assassinations, poverty, slavery, and a slew of other problems happen off-screen. Nora lost her first husband to the war, and Liam lost crew, but that’s all in the past. An evil queen murders her way to more power, but that happens on a different planet and we are only told about that. So, the privileged view of world problems.
Instead of showing things, the main characters end up discussing these problems endlessly, and of course Nora the Mary Sue ‘solves’ all of them. Well, sort of. Her conclusion is that everything wrong with society stems from the fact that the colonists have lost contact with Earth. And she spends most of the five books re-establishing contact. So, I will now spoil the ending: they find Earth but the story ends before they actually make contact.
Was she right? Well, I guess we’ll never know–
Oh, wait, we do: it’s bullshit. Imagine that somebody would come up to you and say ‘you know, all the political problems in the United States could be solved if we just ask Europe for help’. Because five centuries ago is the time the US was invaded by Europeans (1492). After five centuries living as a self-sufficient multi-planet-spanning society, you cannot claim all your problems come from losing contact with Earth.
As far as I could tell the word ‘democracy’ is mentioned only once. The only time is when it turns out a group of corrupt corporate moguls has formed a secret society to promote democracy. Which is more a kind of wall-dressing, not a point that actually plays a role in the story . And, no, that’s not an exaggeration.
Nepotism and feminism
In the last book, Nora turns her extended family into a mob-like family (sorry, a clan) and leans hard into the benevolent dictator myth. She’s a nepotist elitist, whose only contribution to the good of mankind is to run to Earth for help. She could have used her vast wealth and political power to try to change society. But no, she makes house and goes on a trip to find Earth.
This only really works because whatever family member or friend she hands a job, they turn out to be capable and benevolent. Her antagonists miraculously turn into good guys when they meet her and join her side. And since everything she and her clan undertake works out ridiculously well, nobody ever has to make a difficult choice. They can do good without sacrifice. As it turns out, being able to have your cake and eat it, makes it really easy to be generous with your cake. The only problem, they can’t be bothered to do it.
I did find their complaints about other people’s nepotism and the royals refusing to change society funny. And by funny I mean painfully hypocritical.
But at least a female protagonist who has an education and a job as a scavenger sounds pretty progressive. Yeah, I was disappointed. Again. Nora has no problem stepping back and letting her husband and AI slave handle everything while she sits around meditating to improve her magic. She claims she wants to be independent, repeatedly, but all she does to achieve her goals is say ‘I want to do this’ and everybody else jumps to make it happen, while she sits around. It’s pretty terrible. The men run around protecting their women, and the women sit around making house.
Well, all of this makes for a pretty grim picture. Of course, it’s not that bad. A feel-good story with a Mary Sue protagonist can still work. And the series reads more as a cross between a fan fiction story and a soap opera. A kind of slice-of-life science fiction story with a Mary Sue. That can be fun. And as I said, I did finish it. The writing style is not horrible, but I want a character arc and plot.
And, ‘not horrible’ is where my praise ends. Even for a slice-of-life story, the writing drops the ball on stakes and tension. And I mean, drops the ball, let’s it roll into a hole, then pours cement in after. The first book sets up some conflicts and possible arcs for the future, but as the story progresses you start to see that it’s really just smoke and mirrors. There are no stakes, there are no arcs, and there is no actual tension. I recently wrote a blog post about that, which was partially inspired by the Adventures of a Xeno-Archaeologist series.
How does that work, you ask? Well, as I said, everything in the story works out automatically. On top of this, a lot of plot threads are set up, then abandoned. This is how the story manages to cram in so many plots. Every other chapter introduces a new plotline, and some of those just turn out to have worked out behind the scenes a few chapters later, while others simply vanish. And, to fill up the lack of any problems popping up, the characters endlessly discuss events and hypothetical problems those could cause. In actual fact, those problems never materialize.
An example: in one chapter, Nora is told that because she is the only person with certain super magic powers, she’s painting a target on her back. She could die! For two chapters she and her allies discuss this potential horror and who could kill her and how. Then, the third chapter opens with Nora having taught her powers to other people — in lesser form, of course. Hypothetical problem gone. Once you see this particular trick for what it is, you cannot unsee it. Every potential problem that pops up, and all the discussions about them become a boring slog through hypothetical futures that never materialize. There are very, very few actual problems.
Nora gets kidnapped at one point Then she’s freed a chapter later — she has a god-like AI to help, after all. And that’s really the most exciting part of all the five books.
A final example, a dangerous drug-addicted royal with nefarious plans comes in on a space ship! And after a chapter or two of hand-wringing, they’re booted right onto the first ship back home without ever coming in direct contact with the main cast, or appearing in a scene.
And on this shit goes, and on and on and on.
Adventures of a Xeno-Archaeologist is a Lord-of-the-Rings sized story, but far more boring. And I know some people already find the Lord of the RIngs unreadably dull.
But imagine the Lord of the Rings, but without Sauron having any armies. Frodo travels to Rivendell (which is a lot easier without the Nazgul), calls for the Giant Eagles, then messes around for two books with the elves. Without effort he becomes an Elven lord with an army. When the eagles finally arrive, he spends the last ten pages flying to Mordor and tossing the ring into the mountain. Then the story stops when the ring hits the lava, and we don’t even learn what that does to Sauron. Yeah, this story is that stupid.
So, I’m not a fan of Adventures of a Xeno-Archaeologist. And not just because it’s not my cup of tea. Even when viewed as a scifi slice-of-life romance, the technical execution is just bad. The only thing it really has going for it, is that the writing is pleasant on a stylistic level.
And, to be fair, that can be enough. I mean, I finished it. Although, that was mostly because I was halfway through and thought ‘this cannot possibly be so bad’, and wanted to know if it got better — I spent the last book shouting at the characters a lot. And then it was just over.
But, maybe you will enjoy it. That’s great. I can enjoy things I know are technically terrible. But, given the misleading title of the series, cover art, and blurb, be warned of what you’re really getting into.