ROC, 1994, 253 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-45405-7
The Alien, in Science-Fiction, has been a symbol for many things, most of them contradictory. It has gone, from story to story, from ultimate enemy (The War of the Worlds, ALIENS, ID4, The Forge of God) to benevolent friend (ET, Stranger in a Strange Land) while going through stages of Enigmas (Schismatrix), Caricatures of human traits (Star Trek), All-Powerful Guardians (The Ophiuchi Hotline) and everything in between, as needed by the authors. Most of the above-mentioned stories are tales of First Contact and it is in this tradition, more or less, that Wil McCarthy’s Aggressor Six belongs.
Technically, it’s not quite a “first contact” story, given that the first, first contact is vaguely described through flashback. But it’s certainly the account of the first meaningful exchange between humans and Waisters.
But Aggressor Six is also a war novel and it begins as humanity is going down for the count. Human colonies have been implacably destroyed by the Waisters, who are now heading for the solar system. Meanwhile, a team of human experts on Waisters is put together to try to emulate the alien thought processes and find a way to beat the invasion.
It is a miracle that Nietzche’s advice on fighting evil doesn’t figure on the first page of the book, because Aggressor Six is all about Becoming the Alien. That the process is intended by the characters doesn’t make it any easier: The protagonist’s superiors and colleagues are unsettled when he truly begins thinking like the Waisters.
This was Wil McCarthy’s first published novel and it has a few regrettable deficiencies that we can blame on inexperience. For a 250-pages story, it has considerable lengths. Most of the middle section, for instance, is spent in internal monologues and not enough in external action. In his willingness to represent the strangeness of the aliens, McCarthy initially goes too far, eliciting confusion instead of comprehension. This confusion eventually abates, and the conclusion of the novel is well-handled. The aliens might be strange, but they have internal coherence.
The end result is a novel that’s moderately satisfying, though perhaps more worthwhile for a hint of the author’s latter works than the actual narrative. The action scenes are well-done, and McCarthy manages to inject interesting ideas in his First Contact story. The Machine Intelligence sequences are particularly chilling, even though not exactly ground-breaking. Aggressor Six is a cut above the usual ROC material.
Personal Trivia: I happen to remember Aggressor Six as the first novel I’ve seen promoted on the Internet by the author itself. It was, as I recall, in 1994 on rec.arts.sf.written. It took five years, but the promotion effort did pay off!