I picked up Sarah Zettel’s The Quiet Invasion last summer on the recommendation of Janny Wurts. And with under 200 ratings on Goodreads, it may be the most obscure traditionally-published book I’ve read since getting back into sci-fi and fantasy these last few years. It’s also absolutely tremendous, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys first contact stories. Sadly, I didn’t have a blog last summer, but I did write up a post on Reddit at the time. And because I think this book deserves more love, I’ll be diving into the non-existent archives and reworking that Reddit post into a full review.
The Quiet Invasion features several different points-of-view across two races. First, there is humanity, where scientists in the skies above Venus seek new avenues of funding for their failing research base, lest they be forced to return to a society known to discriminate against anyone without Earth-based citizenship. Second, there are The People, a winged alien species whose home world is dying. The most promising plan to save their race? Relocating to a distant planet with appropriate environmental conditions. And yeah, it’s Venus. So when human researchers discover an object of clearly intelligent origin on the surface of the planet, it’s not only a lifeline for their research funding, it’s also the first step to the inevitable clash between peoples.
In order to do a first contact well, a story needs the aliens to be interesting. But that can take many forms, from cultural clash to military conflict to the many steps in between, depending on what sort of story is being told. The Quiet Invasion chooses to zoom in on The People, with three different perspective characters—led by T’sha, one of my favorite characters of last year—and real care in presenting their world, their culture, and their concerns. The result is one of the best-drawn non-human societies I’ve come across in fiction, one that makes it very easy not to fall into sympathizing primarily with the humans.
Further, building such a rich alien culture allows The Quiet Invasion to approach the first contact from an interestingly oblique angle. The humans on Venus are primarily concerned with navigating the political waters back on Earth to ensure continued funding that would enable them to maintain their life on the research base. And The People are aware from the get-go that there’s other life in the upper atmosphere, but a significant faction sees it as a secondary concern next to the environmental conditions that make Venus such a suitable habitat. The result is a story where both parties are so wrapped up in their own political squabbles that first contact with intelligent alien life feels a sideshow—of interest but not of primary importance. This in turn leaves us with two groups of people that feel real in their own right and not just defined with contrasts, as well as two independently interesting plots that will not be easily pushed aside during the inevitable collision.
When dealing with twenty year-old sci-fi, there will often be aspects of worldbuilding that jar modern readers, and this is no different, with a naive optimism about the free distribution of information via the Internet that has in fact thoroughly crumbled in the rise of social media, along with some slang terms that hearken to a more wired world. Fortunately, these aspects remain background and are easy to ignore in focus on the main arc. And as far as the main arc goes, there’s very little to criticize—the number of human perspective characters makes it a little bit tougher to get to know the human characters individually, especially in contrast with The People’s smaller main cast. But that’s a relatively minor critique, easily outweighed by the combination of mystery, intrigue, and cultural clash that makes The Quiet Invasion such a fantastic novel.
Recommended if you like: first contact, political intrigue, non-human perspective.
Can I use it for Bingo? Well, it’s a great fit for First Contact, as well as Backlist and Book Club.
Overall rating: 18 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.