Cadwell Turnbull’s novel The Lesson is a solid entry in the reliable genre of novels telling the story of humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrials. What helps to make it stand out even more is its intense humanism: Turnbull’s characters fervently debate religion and philosophy even before the aliens show up, and there’s a generosity that he extends to nearly all of his characters that help accentuate his themes of community. Turnbull also benefits from the specificity of this narrative: there aren’t a whole lot of science fiction novels set in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but Turnbull uses the setting to his advantage, furthering his chosen themes as this novel’s plot deepens.
Much of the novel takes place five years after an alien civilization, the Ynaa, arrive on Earth. That they hail from a mostly aquatic planet helps explain why they would be drawn to the Caribbean; the fact that they have made their primary point of contact with the world this particular territory leads to a number of ruminations on the relationship between the United States and the Virgin Islands. The Ynaa themselves adopt human-like guises to walk among the population. Since their arrival, they’ve shared medical and technological advances with the people of Earth, including a cure for cancer and advanced solar technology. But while the Ynaa are overtly peaceful, they don’t respond well to challenges: several humans who mistreated or challenged them have met horrific fates over the years. For most of humanity, it’s a cost of doing business — but the resentment that it’s engendered among those who have witnessed these acts of violence is very real.
A notable exception: Mera, the Ynaa’s ambassador to humanity, whose empathy for Earth and its inhabitants is greater than many of her peers. Derrick, a young man, works in her office in Charlotte Amalie, and finds himself drawn to her. Elsewhere, Jackson, a retired teacher, searches historical archives for evidence of a Ynaa presence on Earth prior to the official first contact. And elsewhere, we’re given glimpses of other characters’ responses to the Ynaa, from moving far from home to refusing medical treatment involving Ynaa technology for religious reasons.
The blend of first contact narrative with realistic political consequences falls into an impressive tradition — Patricia Anthony’s 1995 novel Brother Termite comes to mind, and the two would make for an excellent double bill. But Turnbull’s humanistic impulses ultimately push this work in a subtly different direction, including some interesting structural choices. One key scene is revisited from a number of different perspectives, each one providing insight as to an escalating conflict between humans and Ynaa on the island. Turnbull also begins the novel with a long prologue set in the days before the Ynaa’s arrival, showing the reader each of his main characters at a point before their lives were changed. It’s a bold decision, but one that pays off: those glimpses of the characters’ quotidian lives helps put their restlessness, or their fascination with the Ynaa, in sharp relief.
Turnbull’s ensemble approach has a few drawbacks, however. Certain characters stay out of the spotlight for longer than expected: Jackson in particular seems to be set up for a larger role in the novel than what he eventually has. And with the exception of Mera, we don’t get much of a sense of the other Ynaa — though there are reasons for that. The Ynaa themselves are a fascinating culture: neither wholly benevolent nor secretly monstrous, they’re capable of acts of warm generosity and shocking violence. In other words, they may well be the aliens we deserve. Turnbull’s debut novel hits a few bumpy patches, but the overall impression is that of a thought-provoking work that blends empathy with high concepts. It’s a fine place for a thoughtful career to begin.
by Cadwell Turnbull
Blackstone Publishing; 286 p.