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Review: In the beautiful gross-out sci-fi novel ‘Skyward Inn,’ we are all aliens

"Skyward Inn," by Aliya Whiteley
(From Aliya Whiteley/Solaris Books)

On the Shelf

Skyward Inn

By Aliya Whiteley
Solaris: 336 pages, $25

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H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” is the iconic and prototypical tale of alien invasion: “They” come for “us. It’s also, though, a story of “us” coming for “them.” Wells’ Martians, rampaging through the English countryside with heat rays, are explicitly compared to English colonialists rampaging through the colonies with guns. Wells mentions in particular the English genocidal conquest of Tasmania. Colonialism, in Wells’ vision and in the science fiction he inspired, is a trick mirror, a drama in which both parts are played by the same people — or if you prefer, by the same aliens. The trick, and the terror, is that when the spaceships lands, the things that crawl out are us—monsters with our faces who visit our own sins upon us.

Aliya Whiteley’s “Skyward Inn” is a strange, lyrically repulsive variation on Wells’ mirrored colonial vision. The novel is about a distant future in which humans discover a gate in space. Beyond it they find the planet Qita, which — in line with the English and the Martians — they immediately decide to conquer. When they land their warships, however, they discover the blue-skinned, humanoid Qitans all waiting for them, ready to peacefully surrender.

The bulk of the novel is set years later in the Protectorate, a small, mostly self-contained anti-technological enclave in what used to be Devon, England. Jem, a human woman, and Isley, a Qitan, are veterans of the nonwar. Together they run the Skyward Inn, a popular watering hole, which serves its customers Jarrowbrew, a potent alien drink and one of Qita’s main exports.

Jem is more than half in love with Isley, but he refuses to even touch her, for (deliberately) obscure reasons. She is also concerned about her broken relationship with her son, Fosse, whom she abandoned when she joined the military.

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“Skyward Inn” seems at first like a quiet story about people living in the shadow of great change, akin to Maureen F. McHugh’s “China Mountain Zhang.” At other moments, the novel gestures at the kind of anthropological dissection of alien life and culture found in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” or Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker for the Dead.” But these are merely brilliant feints on the way to an unexpected and surprisingly meditative apocalypse of Cronenbergian body horror, in which Qitan and human fuse not just metaphorically but via more corporeal osmosis as well.

Whiteley echoes narratives like John Carpenter’s “The Thing” or Jack Finney’s “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers”— Cold War stories in which aliens assimilate and impersonate humans, literalizing the Wellsian terror of being unable to tell yourself from the monster that has trespassed across your borders. Those films revel in slime, ichor and disgust.

When the spaceships lands, the things that crawl out are us—monsters with our faces who visit our own sins upon us.

But Whiteley’s vision of assimilation and merger is meant to make you question that loathing. Keeping yourself clean, apart and uninvaded, with no alien contact, as Isley does, also cuts you off from human contact, love, sex — it’s emotional stagnation. Building Trumpian walls to preserve a pure and never-changing homeland is boring and stifling — as Fosse, who hates being stuck in the Protectorate, can attest.

He can also attest to the ways xenophobia can lead to violence. Qitans in the Protectorate are rare, in part because their presence is illegal (Isley has a special government dispensation). But they’re also rare because humans sometimes murder Qitan people, just as humans have murdered humans who look different all the way back to Wells’ time and beyond.

Whiteley suggests an alternative to narratives of conquest, extermination, genocide and nausea. There can be a blending in which different peoples flow together and change one another until they’re neither conqueror nor conquered — a new birth, rising from the primordial soup of cross-cultural intercourse. As the Qitans (or is that the humans?) explain, “We get to become you, and you get to become us, and there is always change, and everything is the same.”

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Whiteley’s work has been compared to the new weird fiction of Jeff VanderMeer, and there are certainly parallels. “Skyward Inn,” though, seems thematically closer to Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis series. Those books are about the Oankali, a tentacled race of space-faring genetic manipulators who want to mix with humans and create a new hybrid people. Like the Oankali, the Qitans frame cultural contact not in terms of combat but in terms of trade. Instead of Wells’ war of the worlds, Butler and Whiteley imagine a market of the worlds.

This is neither a new idea nor a perfect one. A capitalist utopia of constant flux and exchange hasn’t always worked out so great for colonial people either. Butler was aware of that and so is Whiteley. The peaceful Qitans are not precisely peaceful, and the utopian future they offer humanity has a lot of dystopia floating around inside it. Jem is caught between a xenophobic community and intergalactic perverse body glorp. Purity or impurity; fascism or capitalism — as capitalists always do, Isley keeps telling Jem she has a choice. But it’s not a good choice.

That may make “Skyward Inn” sound bleak or sad, but it really isn’t. On the contrary, the novel is full of gleeful reversals, and you can hear the distant sound of infectious giggling echoing through the lovely prose. Rarely has a writer who is not Philip K. Dick had so much fun building a world only to take it apart.

In Wells’ work, the face of the other is more of a horror only because it’s us. But for Whiteley, seeing yourself is like the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage, in which the infant’s reflection leads it to a spurt of what Lacan calls “jubilant activity.” At one point, after discovering that the Qitans sometimes kill one another, Fosse is stunned. Qitans aren’t better than humans, he realizes. They’re just like humans. They share the same propensity for both peace and violence. That’s not terrifying for him but a source of wonder and pleasure: “He stopped walking. He put his hands up in the air and expressed joy.”

There is some comfort in knowing that what you find in “Skyward Inn” is simply what you bring there, the heady, quaffable brew of flesh and self that makes you alien and human, both at once. Whiteley spits in the mug, and you drink it down together.

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Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.


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