When considering the possibility of alien contact, I worry how humanity will behave. As a species, we have frequently proven to be intolerant or hostile when confronted with difference (of race, gender, culture, nationality etc.). Sf has frequently used the alien as a metaphor for the other, exposing and critiquing modes of prejudice and oppression. Less socially conscious tales often reveal our assumptions about the other; consider the stereotype of aliens kidnapping humans for experiments or how many sf stories are about violent alien invaders, portraying other intelligent species as our enemies.
Twin-Bred by Karen A. Wyle is a case of humans behaving badly towards an alien whose motives and culture they do not understand because they can’t or won’t speak to them. It’s an almost embarrassing portrayal of close-minded people encountering a race of technologically inferior beings who might turn hostile.
In the novel, a human colony has been living on the planet Tofarn for 70 years. They share the world with the indigenous Tofa, a race of inscrutable four-armed aliens who don’t have any facial features except a blank pair of eyes. The humans do not know how to communicate with the Tofa, and after seven decades of co-habitation the two races still don’t understand each other. So far, this hasn’t been too problematic and the Tofa didn’t seem accepting of the human presence on their planet. But every now and then a conflict arises: the Tofa pack up and leave a village for reasons the humans cannot discern; they complain that humans are shaking hands in public or wearing the colour blue; they make a noise to prevent the humans sleeping at night.
Mara, an ambitious but emotionally dysfunctional young scientist, comes up with a solution: breeding human and Tofa twins. They will not have any genetic relationship; instead, a host mother (human or Tofa) will be implanted with both a human and a Tofa foetus. Mara believes that sharing a womb will forge a unique bond between the twins, finally enabling the two species to communicate. The humans will be able to learn about the Tofa, and the twins will be trained to resolve inter-species conflicts.
Mara’s idea is the result of her bond with Levi, her own twin who died in utero. Mara has secretly kept him alive in her mind as an entity who is also her only friend and confidant. Mara even names her twin project after him: the Long-Term Emissary Viviparous Initiative or L.E.V.I.
The Project gets government backing, probably because the government officials all have their own agendas, hoping to use the twins and their abilities to gain power and influence. Even the Tofa seem to be plotting something, not that any of the humans have the means of finding out what they’re up to.
Now that you have the gist of the plot, I’ll return to the start and begin unpacking all the ludicrously implausible aspects of this story. Humans lived for 70 YEARS on Tofarn without talking to the Tofa. SEVENTY YEARS. There are actually villages and towns where the two species live together, but still, nothing. Granted, the Tofa are not what you’d call sociable, but the overwhelming impression I got is that humans didn’t even try. It seemed like they took one look at the Tofa’s featureless faces, and gave up any hope of conversation. A couple of them might have tried speaking loudly in English.
But guess what: the Tofa have mouths and they can speak. A little girl named Laura learns this when she befriends a young Tofa who tells her his name. Her father tells her that Tofa mouths are just hidden by membranes. She tells her friend Veda this and introduces her to the Tofa. They play together until the Tofa’s father comes and breaks up the friendship. Laura, her father, and Veda never mention this groundbreaking information to anybody, and no one reports a similar experience.
So humanity plods along in total ignorance. Apparently they left Earth without realising they might encounter beings who aren’t exactly like humans. Many of them are outright racist and a couple behave like rednecks whose ideal social gathering would be a lynch mob. It’s been seventy years and the sight or close proximity of the Tofa still disgusts and disturbs them. The Tofa basically allowed them to set up a very comfortable colony on their planet, and all the humans can do is complain about how weird and icky the aliens are.
Enter Mara with L.E.V.I. Because when people don’t even want to look at the Tofa you can try implanting human women with their foetuses. Humanity goes from making virtually no effort at communication to setting up an extremely complex, long-term, expensive Project based on an “uncertain and speculative” hypothesis from a scientist with serious mental problems.There are so many holes in this Project it’s easier for me to put a few in point form:
- Humans know NOTHING about Tofa biology. They haven’t even realised that the Tofa have mouths. They don’t know how Tofa reproduce. How could anyone possibly conceive of a Project that involves implanting Tofa and human mothers with embryos of both species?
- Most humans seem disgusted or at least disturbed by the Tofa, so why is it so easy to get host mothers who are willing to carry an alien foetus?
- The humans can’t speak Tofa and the Tofa can’t speak English so they have to explain the Project using drawings with stick figures. WTF?
- If the humans can explain something as complex as the Project using stick figures, then why didn’t they try this before or after?
- The Tofa are technologically inferior to the humans, so how are they able to harvest and store embryos for the human scientists to use?
But whatever. The Project continues as (badly) planned, with a few hiccups like foetuses dying or human mothers freaking out when they see alien babies inside them during the ultrasounds (were they not briefed?). Nevertheless, a bunch of healthy human-Tofa twins are born.
The Tofa children are taught to speak English, which they do as easily as the human children. And to everyone’s shock, the Tofa mothers learn to speak English too, picking it up while living in the Project compound. If communicating was so simple why have none of the Tofa done it before?! Yes, they aren’t generally in favour of speaking to humans, but if the mothers are so willing to do it, I find it impossible that they were the first. The ending reveals additional reasons for the Tofa remaining aloof, but it’s unconvincing and just leaves you with another slew of questions.
It’s impossible for the humans to truly learn the Tofa language, because it has a telepathic component, so humans are conveniently exempt from having to bother. But you’d think that the human scientists would spend every waking moment learning everything they can about Tofa biology and culture. They don’t. Or at least they don’t seem to. Every revelation happens by chance, usually when the twins are playing together and one of the adults notices something unusual and asks for an explanation. It’s perhaps not surprising when you consider what some of the staff members are like – even after years spent working on the Project they still squirm at the sight of human and Tofa children sitting together, or seeing a Tofa come up to speak to them. Considering the resources that must have gone into the Project, it seems almost fruitless.
Even more so when the twin-bred are actually sent out on their first assignments. Up to this point, the Project remained top secret (highly unlikely, given their sloppy security measures). You can imagine what happens when the the results of a human/alien breeding program are introduced as surprise communication specialists to a world full of people who don’t like aliens. FAIL.
There are loads of other plot issues, but there’s not much point getting into them; you get the picture. I’ll move on to the writing, characters and worldbuilding.
The writing is fine and seems to have been properly edited, but the style or structure is very strange – Wyle tells the entire story in brief sections with more POVs than I could possibly remember. Most of these are only a few paragraphs long; the longest scenes are maybe 2 or 3 pages. The result is that the story moves very quickly because each little section is like a report on an issue or development in the plot, which covers 30-40 years. You could argue that this very perfunctory narration suits the pseudo-scientific plot, but it’s also completely… um, alienating. It struck me as a means of writing a novel if you were focussing on the plot but weren’t in the mood for things like character development or worldbuilding.
There are far too many characters, quite possibly more than I’ve encountered in any novel. Many of them make such minuscule contributions to the plot that it doesn’t matter if you instantly forget who they are. Sometimes Wyle randomly throws in a new character with a name, job title and a cup of coffee just so they can make a minor point about something. There’s almost no characterisation except to distinguish Tofa children from their human twins and to emphasise how socially inept Mara is. She’s actually the only character with a personality, but at the same time I found her thoroughly unlikeable.
The worldbuilding is equally flat. Tofarn is the most un-alien alien planet I’ve ever come across. It’s like a human society on Earth with a scattering of aliens thrown in. We hear very little or absolutely nothing about the flora, fauna, climate, geography, etc. of Tofarn. Whatever is mentioned has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. The humans are still in the process of reproducing what they had on Earth (they don’t have the resources to farm cows yet, for example), but most of the time you could forget that they were on another planet. Their society is almost identical to an affluent American town. They eat chocolate and muffins, wear leather, keeps cats as pets. The only major differences are the technological advancements like hover cars and the tablets everyone carries around in lieu of cellphones. It makes perfect sense that they brought the necessary plant seeds, animal DNA and tech from Earth, but how is it that everything works perfectly on Tofa? Did they not have to make any adjustments? How do the humans even know that the planet is called Tofa?
Even though I didn’t like the way the humans behaved or how mysterious the Tofa are as an alien race, I can accept that as the tough situation within which the characters must struggle. One of the more interesting aspects of the plot was the way some people viewed the Project as a means of customising the Tofa, making them more acceptable to humans. Clearly the novel is meant to function as a critique of intolerance, which is good, although it ends up being quite defeatist about the issue. But I can accept that too – we can’t always have he endings we want. What I can’t ignore are all those other flaws. It’s just so deficient in the speculative part inherent in speculative fiction.