It’s easy to say violence is everywhere today. Easy to assert that its effects can be felt in the real world and those we lose ourselves in alike. That its prevalence is evidenced in the video games we play as much as the news we watch, by way of the books we read no more or less than the things each of us experience.
We could also talk, for a time, about the climate of fear and the war economy it contributes to. We might additionally consider the stigma attached to sex versus our acceptance of violence in every sphere of society. But let’s leave all that for someone smarter than I. I’m here to review a book, in any event... albeit a book which addresses, in a sense, many of the aforementioned questions.
The Serene Invasion’s premise is simple yet suggestive, plain yet potentially progressive. In 2025, aliens invade. But strangely, they don’t wage war on the world. Instead, the Serene park their ships in the skies and unilaterally impose peace. By manipulating the strings of existence or some such thing, they make it impossible on the quantum level for any human being to hurt another. Every sort of violence imaginable simply ceases.
Lucky for some.
At the time of the Serene’s arrival, Sally Walsh—an English aid worker volunteering in a clinic in Uganda—was about to be executed by terrorists, live on internet television. In New York, James Morwell, CEO of a Murdoch-esque evil empire, was poised to put his personal assistant in his place with a baseball bat to the face, whilst Howrah station rat Ana Devi was mere moments away from being raped.
But one of the first people to sense the presence of the Serene is Sally’s partner Geoff Allen, a freelance photo-journalist. Flying out to Africa to cover a story, time seems to stand still for him. He imagines that he’s abducted by aliens—and, par for the course, probed. Initially, he writes the experience off as a plane food-induced hallucination, but when he finally hears what has happened to the world—sees the Serene’s monolithic ships with his own eyes—he understands it must have been more than that.
For once, it was. Indeed, Geoff and Ana Devi are soon inducted as representatives of the Serene, meeting with their amicable new overlords each month to help pave the way for the world to change in step with the new order imposed by the invading aliens. Not everyone is over the moon that they’re been robbed of their right to wrong, after all. Take the director of Morwell Enterprises, practically all-powerful before the Serene’s arrival, now cruelly neutered:
He genuinely believed that when the Serene had imposed—without consent—their charea on the people of Earth, humanity had been robbed of something fundamental. Not for nothing had mankind evolved, by tooth and claw, over hundreds of thousands of years. We became, he reasoned, the pre-eminent species on the planet through the very means that the Serene were no denying us. It was his opinion, and that of many eminent social thinkers and philosophers, that the human race had reached the peak of its evolution and was now on an effete downward slope, little more than the pack-animals of arrogant alien masters.
Violence was a natural state. Violence was good. Violence winnowed the fittest, the strongest, from the weak. The only way forward was through the overthrow of the Serene and the subversion of the unnatural state of charea.
Eric Brown spends the larger part of The Serene Invasion illustrating how humanity reacts to the charea via the perspectives aforementioned. A wise decision, I think; there’s a touch of tension towards the end—a perfunctory plot against the Serene’s secret go-betweens, instigated by the monstrous Mr. Morwell, obviously—but otherwise the author is evidently aware that the conflict animating this standalone narrative must be internal rather than external.
An intimidating task, and alas, the cast of characters who must shoulder this bothersome burden above and beyond their usual duties aren’t... fantastic. In point of fact, they’re rather bland. Geoff Allen and Sally Walsh rarely feel like real people, and instead of developing them, Brown takes to skipping ahead a decade—and another and another—to showcase new and apparently improved versions of his heroes.
His villain is equally underdone: James Morwell is just a bad dude through and through, with no redeeming qualities at all. He counts among his hobbies semi-regular sado-masochism and the systematic abuse of everyone around him in the intervening periods. He takes his frustrations out on a rubber effigy of his father and rules his evil empire with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
That said, Morwell still betrays more of a personality than the previous pair put together. Only Ana Devi is legitimately interesting, especially as regards her relationship with her runaway brother Lal—and she too is short-changed by the lacklustre last act, when it all gets a bit Gandhi.
So don’t come for the characters. And though the narrative has more to recommend it—the pitch is particularly powerful—The Serene Invasion’s story is slow, and brought low by transparent protagonists and an inherent lack of drama. Significant issues, but this isn’t a bad book by any stretch. I enjoyed the diversity of its ever-shifting settings, and as ever, the author exhibits an accomplished sense of wonder, describing the more extraordinary moments of the entire affair with flair.
On balance, the best thing about Brown’s ambitious new novel is how thoroughly he investigates his premise. The societal changes brought about by the charea are elaborate, and firmly in the fascinating camp. Take drug and drink dependency: “Largely, a class and income linked phenomenon. Cure poverty, joblessness, give people a reason to live, and the need for an opiate is correspondingly reduced.” I was never especially invested in Geoff and Sally and their quest for a happily ever after, meanwhile Morwell’s machinations seemed like so much meaningless reaching from the first, but I read on anyway, because humanity’s reaction to the Serene’s blanket denial of violence is as strange as it proves true.
Eric Brown has to be one of the hardest working genre authors in the industry, releasing at least two books each year for as long as I can recall. This is certainly not his best effort in recent memory—without question, The Kings of Eternity is—but for all its problems, The Serene Invasion is more than merely interesting. As a thought experiment it’s unequivocally gripping, and Brown’s got the follow-through to do it justice too.
The Serene Invasion is published by Solaris Books. It is available April 30.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet about books, too.