Fiction Reviews

For the First Time, Again

(2023) Sylvain Neuvel, Michael Joseph, £18.99, hrdbk, 307pp, ISBN978-0-241-44562-4


I remember my school English teacher explaining why the first sentence of a story is so important: get it right and the reader is hooked, get it wrong and the book goes back, unsold, on the shelf - and the same applies to first chapters! From the very outset, both the writing style and the style of story telling (much of it from the viewpoint of a truculent child) left me somewhat confused, at least until I could figure out what was happening in any given chapter, and sometimes finding I had to reread the chapter several times. That feeling of vague confusion stayed with me throughout; indeed, there were several occasions when I was not sure that I had ever eventually understood what was in the writer’s mind when he wrote those words. The matter was aggravated by the author not using quotation marks for speech; instead, he starts each spoken line with a long dash, though quotation marks do get used mid-paragraph if speech is then being quoted within the text. I found that this made reading the story feel cumbersome and that I had to keep checking whether I was reading speech, a character’s first-person thoughts, or actual storyline - all very tiring!

The story is told mainly in the first person, though by different people, and parts of the story are told in flashbacks. Both these techniques can be good when used well but this story is told in short, choppy chapters which means that every four or five pages I had to figure out who was talking now (if, that is, I had already met the character), where it was happening, and when it was happening. Once I had figured this out, I would have to go back to the beginning of the chapter and start it again. This was also tiring! Furthermore, the two main characters are personally ‘growing’ (Aster is a child and Samael is trying to become a better man) and thus there is much introspection, sometimes to the point where a chapter contained nothing else. All this slowed the story down and made it rather jerky; indeed, take out the introspection and the need to keep setting scenes and the story would be a lot shorter and make more sense.

The story itself runs to 267 pages. It is followed by another forty pages of information, consisting of ‘Further Reading’, which covers facts of science and the space programme and shows how the story integrated real events and so on, ‘Kibsu By The Numbers’ (we will come across the Kibsu later), ‘The Playlist’ (a list of music tracks, each of which is the name of a chapter - the author recommends that you might like to listen to the tracks whilst reading the book), ‘Acknowledgements’, and, to finish with, a second ‘Epilogue’.

Adding what I learnt in the ‘extras’ to the story itself, along with rereading quite a number of scenes, here is an outline of the plot, or at least as I understand it. Something over three thousand of our years ago, the inhabitants of a planet eighteen of their years away (how ever far that is - neither the speed of travel nor the distance are mentioned) realised that their days were numbered - their sun would soon go supernova. Being space-faring folk they had a simple idea for survival: find a more suitable planet or planets and move there. And so they sent out single-person scout ships on one-way missions to possible planets; if the scout found the planet acceptable then they would activate a beacon. Two such scout ships were sent to Earth; one contained Sereh, a volunteer trying to save her family, and the other Kaas-ma, who was being punished for killing a superior officer. Why two such scouts is never explained - redundancy? Because the storyline required adversaries?

During the first part of their journey, the scouts were subjected to huge discomfort as their DNA was rewritten so as to make them look more like humans and allow them to pass unnoticed; their second cardiovascular system disappeared and they lost several feet in height. Firstly, this implies that the dominant life form on every planet must look about the same, i.e. human-ish. Secondly, the aliens knew all about there being humans on Earth. This begs the question: if they knew that the Earth was populated by humans, who were like short versions of themselves, they must have known quite a lot about the planet - so why send scouts to find out what they already know? Surely they already knew whether or not Earth would make a suitable new home? Even Sereh thought that to herself. At that point I began to despair of the logic in the concepts behind the story.

Both ships crashed somewhere in the Middle East. When she made her way to a town, Sereh, utterly confused and damaged by both the crash and the DNA modifications, and unable to speak any known language, was taken for a dullard. Fortunately somebody took her in, she eventually married a local, and recovered some of her wits but not her memory. Then a great surprise - her daughter, Kish, was her clone. It transpired that her DNA was totally dominant and so she started a line of mother-daughter clones (the Kibsu) that lasted to the present day. Meanwhile, Kaas-ma had landed without injury and eventually tracked down his fellow scout. Failing to realise that Sereh was injured or damaged and for reasons that do not make too much sense, Kaas-ma attacked and nearly killed her then ran away, taking Kish with him as his ‘adopted’ daughter. We learn that, although very strong and intelligent, these aliens have a predisposition to combative thoughts and pugilistic planning and so readily resort to violence; indeed, their motto might be ‘why negotiate when you can simply kill someone?’. During her time with Kaas-ma, Kish learned of her alien background. She also learned that Kaas-ma was likely to butcher everyone in any village they arrived at, just because he wanted to. She escaped and returned to her mother for a while, then went permanently on the run. Her line of descendents would forever be on the run, hiding from Kaas-ma’s descendents (who they call the Trackers), who for some unknown reason think they must kill the Kibsu and wipe out Sereh’s line.

A few years ago, Samael, the latest of the Trackers, found and killed Lola. Only then did he come to realise that his family had been wrong all the time, that they should in fact have been protecting the Kibsu. He turned on his family and killed them all, but this would not be enough to protect Aster, Lola’s daughter. Before he had realised his error he had found and activated one of the beacons and now their violent race would be heading to Earth!

In December 1999, as the current part of the story opens, three aliens have arrived and are hunting Aster. Samael kills their leader and takes Aster (who knows nothing of him, nor indeed that she is even unusual in any way) and they go on the run. Later he kills a second of the group. Before he can kill the final member, a girl called Saa, Aster figures that she might not be an enemy but actually the last of a group that are also on the run (or maybe not - like much in this story, it is vague and ill-defined). Now there are three of them fearing that potential alien invasion. But Aster, though she is even now only in her early teens, has a plan. She will find a way of putting the beacon on a space mission and sending it, eventually (2005 it turns out), out of the Solar System. That way, if the aliens receive its signal they will see it is not on a planet but still travelling, presumably faulty, and therefore ignore it. It is the adventures of Aster and Samael to bring this about that form the main storyline of this book.

As well as often finding the text confusing, or at least puzzling, I was not happy with the way the story ended. Whilst I thought that the story was wrapped up neatly enough, it reached its successful end only because of unknown things that Aster had done. For much of the book, I was subjected to her endless, childish descriptions of her feelings, thoughts, and actions as she journeyed through the plot, so therefore I ought to know what she had been doing throughout. But at the very end it turned out that she had also been doing certain other, very important things that would bring about the successful end of the story - whilst keeping them completely hidden from the reader. If you are telling a story in the first person, this is tantamount to lying to the reader. It left me very disappointed that the author had resorted to such a technique.

I read this book as a stand-alone novel as that it how it appears from the outside. Only when I opened it to the title page did I discover it was Take Them To The Stars, Book 3. The other parts are A History Of What Comes Next (set during the Second World War) and Until The Last Of Me (set in the 1960s to '80s), which allowed the three books to be written as essentially stand-alone novels telling specific parts of a long story arc. The latter volume was reviewed by Mark Yon. Having finished reading this volume, I read Mark’s review and discovered that the earlier volumes tell you more about the Kibsu and the Trackers, though details are noticeably different. I conclude from this that either Mark was as confused by the writing as I found myself to be or that the author has done a poor job of recounting that which went before - from what I read, I strongly suspect the latter.

This is the author’s sixth book and by now I would have expected him to write better, to express his plot thoughts and the story’s actions more clearly. Instead, he seems to have settled into a sort of vagueness, a ‘that’ll do’ approach. I presume he knows what he means but it does not come across as clearly as many (if not most) other published writers would have achieved. I was never convinced he had done his maths or timelines properly. How far away was the aliens’ planet? How old was Sereh? How long had she been in the desert or even survived it given the state she was in? How come Samael could see a building explode in his rear-view mirror as he drove away from it yet in the next chapter we learn that the explosion did not happen until an hour later? (No, it was not a time-distort thing, just an inconsistency between chapters.) Far too often I thought ‘er?’, reread a chapter or two, and still thought ‘er?’.

Mark quite liked what he read and wanted to read more. I felt I have read enough by this author; I did not like his style of writing (neither the story nor his extras) and I have no desire to read anything else of his.

Peter Tyers


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