There are many people in the world who seem to agree that the correct reaction to impediments, setbacks, and personal affronts is a firm, unambiguous response. After all, how are people to understand that “its” and “it’s” are two different words if their homeworld is not immediately reduced to a lifeless cinder? But there are enough of us who prefer kinder, gentler responses that we form an audience for writers who give us protagonists who are kind… and still manage to prosper. Could the power of niceness possibly prevail in the real world? Perhaps not, but niceness makes for comforting reading.
Cycle of Fire by Hal Clement (1957)
Marooned on a vast lava field, Dar Lang Ahn encounters a curious figure, human Nils Kruger. Nils too is a castaway, left for dead by his crewmates on alien Abyormen. This is the first time human and Abyormenite have ever met. Clearly the thing to do is to whip out their ray blasters to establish just who owns Abyormen! Except…this is a Hal Clement novel, and Clement believed the universe was enemy enough.
Rather than turning on each other, Abyormenite and human conclude that alone, both would perish. If they team up, they might survive the lava field and the challenges that lay beyond its borders. Thus, amicable relations between the two very different species are established. Which is all for the good, as Dar Lang Ahn’s people have some unexpected characteristics that could well provoke easily alarmed humanity into attacking them, had this diplomatic bridge not first been established.
“The Apprentice” (1960) by James White (from Monsters and Medics)
Arthur Nicholson is Coop’s Department Store’s long-suffering Personnel Manager. Extraterrestrial Harnrigg is one of the store’s latest hires. Young and enthusiastic, the centauroid’s exuberance outweighs his common sense. Many Personnel Managers in Nicholson’s place would simply fire Harnrigg the third or forth time Harnrigg landed in Nicholson’s office.
However, Harnrigg is not only Coop’s very first ET employee. Harnrigg is the very first alien visitor who is not a high-ranking functionary or brilliant academic. Well-meaning Harnrigg is an entirely unremarkable example of his kind…which means his employment at Coop’s is an experiment on which a disturbing number of eyes are focused. Can working-class aliens mix with working-class humans? Or must the two follow some policy of apartness? It is up to Nicholson to find some rewarding, productive niche for which Harnrigg is suited—peaceful galactic relations may depend on the insights of one middle manager.
Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (2015)
Demons are bad news. Sure, their magical gifts are powerful. Housed in the right brain, a demon is a useful tool. But ensconced in a weak-willed host, servant will become master. A seemingly human body could well have something infernal looking out of its eye sockets. Given the choice, it is best to steer clear of demons.
Amiable Penric has no choice in the matter. Stopping to assist an ailing old woman, he could only witness her death from natural causes, at which point the demon she hosted preserved itself by leaping into Penric’s body. There are many ways a human can try to bring a demon to heel to prevent the intruder from wearing Penric like an Edgar suit. Penric does the unthinkable: treating the entity sharing his body like a person with whom one can reason.
Kakuriyo: Bed & Breakfast for Spirits by Midori Yūma (2015)
Despite his more-than-dubious reputation, Aoi Tsubaki’s grandfather Shiro was her savior, rescuing the abandoned child after Aoi’s mother cast her aside. Aoi and Shira shared more than just blood. Both had the rare gift of being able to see the supernatural beings known as Ayakashi. It’s only once Shiro is dead and beyond rebuke that Aoi discovers that Shiro saw her as something even more precious than an adopted daughter. Shiro saw Aoi as collateral.
Kind-hearted Aoi offers a hungry Ayakashi food. Her reward? She’s kidnapped, carried off to the Ayakashi realm, and told that she has to pay off her grandfather’s hundred million yen debt to the Ayakashi lord Ōdanna. Ōdanna suggests that the debt could be discharged if Aoi were to marry him. Although this offer is better than the likely alternative—Ayakashi are rumoured to find human flesh quite delectable—Aoi proposes that she work off Shiro’s debt. But how can a human trapped in the Ayakashi world possibly earn a hundred million yen? No prudent Ayakashi would cross Ōdanna by hiring Aoi. The only solution: entrepreneurship and food even Ayakashi cannot refuse.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (2014)
Obviously, no list of this sort could fail to mention Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. After all, its protagonist, newly minted emperor Maia Drazhar, who—having been subject to comprehensive abuse in the days when it was clear to all only the most unlikely of flukes would eliminate the emperor and all other heirs between Maia and the throne—refused to give in to the temptation to dole out comprehensive retribution when the most unlikely of flukes actually occurred.
Since The Goblin Emperor has appeared in various previous essays I’ve written, we don’t really need to cover it again here. Instead, a happy note for all the fans of the novel: in three short months, the sequel, The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison (2021), will appear. It focuses on Witness for the Dead Thara Celehar. One’s hopes that it will live up to the lofty standard of the original are greatly improved by the fact words such as “decency” and “fundamentally honest” figure prominently in the book’s description.
No doubt you read the above with increasing astonishment that I failed to mention some obvious candidate. Feel free to remind me of them in the comments below.
Originally published March 2021.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF(where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.