My readers know that I don’t read much in the way of speculative fiction, but I bought the eBook version of this one on impulse when I met the author Lyn C at the Indigenous Language Intensive workshop. I was curious… and at $4.31 AUD for the Kindle edition it was cheap enough to experiment with an unfamiliar genre. I started reading it over breakfast at QV Square before the workshop… and soon found myself totally hooked by the story.
Nil by Mouth is what I recognise as classic SciFi. It has aliens who invade earth and they have various capabilities which enable them to exert control over the humans, but they have a fundamental flaw which enables the situation to be resolved. However, what makes this an interesting and satisfying book to read is the character development so I was not surprised to learn that it was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award Best Science Fiction Book in 2014.
The portrayal of an Earth defeated in war reminded me of other occupation novels I have read. The central character comes to be known as Ale, a shorthand version of Alien-lover, and he is scorned as a collaborator because his pub on the outskirts of Melbourne is taken over as a base by the Aliens. His point-of-view narration reveals a sense of resignation and despair:
Like I said, no-one likes a collaborator, and as I walked down the street people looked darkly at me, and, on occasion, someone would spit on the pavement as I passed, but they didn’t dare touch me. They got to me in other ways like calling me ‘Alien lover’ or ‘Ale’ to my face, and doubling the price when they saw me coming. A month ago, these had been my friends and neighbours. I kept my mouth shut, my eyes lowered, and paid what I was asked to pay.
For Ale, collaboration is a matter of bowing to the inevitable while also having an opportunity to surreptitiously help the hundreds of refugees streaming out of Melbourne. But while of course his initial reaction to events is justifiable fear of the pain the aliens can inflict and the slaughter he has witnessed, he comes to form an alliance with Dranders against the General and his soldiers, and eventually realises that the three types of aliens are in conflict with each other.
The conflict arises because of the means that the General’s apparently genderless ‘people’ use to reproduce, and at the insistence of Drander Ale becomes a covert saboteur. Much to his own surprise he feels a sense of guilt about extinguishing life, even though it is the life of the enemy. He also finds himself challenged by his recognition that the horrific reprisals – for which he feels responsible – are a kind of patriotism too:
“… what could I do? I could hardly stop what was happening. Us humans were conducting a guerrilla war against the invaders, and it was their job to stop us. How did what the [General] was doing differ from what I had done when I had annihilated a thousand hatchlings?
(BTW the use of square parentheses is a clever way of denoting the words that Ale is translating from the language that the aliens speak).
The sci-fi elements of this novella are ratcheted up a bit when Ale himself is used as an incubator, and the Ship People also have a novel way of conveniently curing wounds. But the world created is credible enough, and I liked the notion that aliens might be much like humans with a potential for both great brutality and for compassion, honesty and love.
You can find out more about Lyn C at her website, and also read the launch speech by popular YA author George Ivanoff (one of whose books I reviewed at LisaHillSchoolStuff)
Author: Lyn C
Title: Nil by Mouth
Publisher: Satalyte, 2014
ISBN: 9780992460129/ ASIN B00JECXESA
Purchased from Amazon for the Kindle.
Visit Lyn’s website for details of availability.