‘Damocles’ by S. G. Redling

I found myself eager to get back to ‘Damocles’ each time that I put it down, not so much because it’s a page-turner thriller (although there are some very tense moments) but because I was delighted by the way the story was told and I wanted to know more about the people and how they would work things out between them.

The basic premise is that, on a future Earth where space travel has been established for generations, evidence is discovered that extraterrestrials may have seeded human DNA throughout the universe. This leads to Damocles and its six-person crew being sent on a one-way expedition into deep space to uncover the truth. The crew encounter their first humanoid race when Damocles arrives at Didet, a planet bathed in the near-eternal daylight of seven suns.

This is a First Contact novel with a twist. Instead of watching how the people of Earth respond when an alien spacecraft appears, ‘Damocles’ looks at what happens when people from Earth arrive, unannounced, on a planet the inhabitants haven’t made it out the gravity well and where even the idea of life on other planets is ridiculed. The tension is ratcheted up when a problem with Damocles forces the crew to land on Didet before they’ve had time to learn any of the local languages.

The story is told from two alternating points of view: Meg the Damocles linguist who has to bridge the gap between the crew and the people of Didet and Loul, a young Didet male who, seven years earlier, had presented a career-ending paper on how to prepare for aliens arriving on the planet, finds himself thrust into the centre of history-making events.

The dual-preselective story-telling worked very well. I particularly liked seeing Meg through Loul’s eyes. He becomes fascinated by how different she and the other Earthers are both physically and culturally and in the process, lets the reader see humans as others might see us: as strange, wonderful and hard to understand.

My favourite parts of the book were when Loul and Meg are working together to try to build a common language. The process is both plausible and exciting. It made me think about how language works and how much communication between different language groups is powered by a hunger to know and enabled by patience, mental flexibility and a willingness to make mistakes.

‘Damocles’ is a people-centric book. It covers some of the big cultural, linguistic and technological topics but its focus is always on the personal, whether the person comes from Earth or Didet.

There are enough plot twists and challenges to sustain a level of tension throughout the book and to create some moments of high drama and personal trauma.

I ended the book knowing that I’d found a new author that I needed to read more of. S. G. Redling didn’t write any more Science Fiction so my next book will be ‘Flowertown’ one of her thrillers. 

When Feno Chemical spilled an experimental pesticide in rural Iowa, scores of people died. Those who survived contamination were herded into a US Army medically maintained quarantine and cut off from the world. Dosed with powerful drugs to combat the poison, their bodies give off a sickly sweet smell and the containment zone becomes known simply as Flowertown. 

Seven years later, the infrastructure is crumbling, supplies are dwindling, and nobody is getting clean. Ellie Cauley doesn’t care anymore. Despite her paranoid best friend’s insistence that conspiracies abound, she focuses on three things: staying high, hooking up with the Army sergeant she’s not supposed to be fraternizing with and, most importantly, trying to ignore her ever-simmering rage. But when a series of deadly events rocks the compound, Ellie suspects her friend is right—something dangerous is going down in Flowertown and all signs point to a twisted plan of greed and abuse. She and the other residents of Flowertown have been betrayed by someone with a deadly agenda and their plan is just getting started. Time is running out. With nobody to trust and nowhere to go, Ellie decides to fight with the last weapon she has—her rage.

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