Literature / Alien in a Small Town

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Indira Fenstermacher & Paul Dwightson
A science fiction novel by Jim Cleaveland, creator of the webcomic The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob!

Some centuries in the future, Earth has entered into an alliance with a race of silicon-based nonhumanoid aliens called the Jan, and permitted them to establish a colony on Jupiter's moon Callisto, in exchange for helping humanity establish itself in the wider interstellar community.

And although they are perfectly aware of all this, it has had little effect on the everyday lives of the technology-shunning Mennonites of central Pennsylvania, who continue to live much as they have since the seventeenth century.

30-year old Indira Fenstermacher left her Mennonite community ten years ago, learned the ways of the outside world, got a job on a space station... but has now returned in the wake of a personal tragedy.

"Paul Dwightson," (his real name unpronounceable) is a Jan who has made the bizarre choice to live on Earth among humans (bizarre because, although the two races are on friendly terms, Jan physiology can barely tolerate Earth's environmental conditions) and learn as much about us as possible. When pressed, he claims his actions are part of a religious vow, the nature of which he is reluctant to discuss. After a chance encounter with Indira, he chooses to live, of all places, among the Mennonites. The friendship he forms with Indira, and the difficulties that come with it, form the backbone of the story.


This book contains examples of:

  • Alien Arts Are Appreciated: It turns out that the one thing that almost all alien races (at least the ones with a sense of hearing) agree that humans are genuinely good at is making music.
  • Androids Are People, Too: Sentient robots gained legal rights after the passage of the Velveteen Act. However, there is still lingering prejudice against them, and some governments still allow their enslavement.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Basically how Paul declares his love for Indira.
  • The Atoner: Indira to an extent, but for Paul, the need to atone is the driving force of his life.
  • Beast and Beauty: Partly inverted, in that Indira is by far the more emotionally volatile of the two. Paul insists he had a bad temper in his youth, though.
  • Bee People: Paul describes Jan culture this way.
  • Beneath the Earth: Or rather, beneath Mars or Callisto. The Jan are naturally subterranean, and navigate by sonar.
  • Big Creepy-Crawlies: The Arachne. As cyborgs, the Arachne can design any kind of body for themselves that they want, but they tend to favor multilegged ones for moving around easily in zero G.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The Jan's biochemistry incorporates both carbon and silicon. They're radially symmetrical burrowers who prefer to live in conditions too cold for humans to survive; Earth's temperate regions are uncomfortable, and our tropical regions would destroy them at a biochemical level. Water is poisonous to them if taken internally. They're very strong but very slow. They store oxygen in their bodies as a liquid, meaning that their insides are flammable. They have three sexes: the male Workers, who make up the majority of the population; the female Matriarchs, who grow into essentially sessile living mountains and are the leaders of their society, and whose bodies typically contain tunneled passages which are inhabited by other Jan; and the sterile Warriors, who have six arms ending in vicious hooks, huge fanged mouths, and are much much faster and stronger than their Worker counterparts.
  • Bizarre Alien Psychology: Mainly having to do with the Jan's compulsive honesty, but also with their peculiar senses and means of communication by "sonar images."
  • Bizarre Alien Senses: Apart from 360 degree vision and the ability to see colors we can't, the Jan also have a sonar sense, which forms the basis of their language. Apart from giving them a form of X-Ray Vision (they consider humans to be nice sturdy skeletons wrapped in slimy goo), this also means with practice a Jan can become a Living Lie Detector, because he can hear your heartbeat.
    • The Tesks, meanwhile, are effectively empaths because of their heightened sense of smell and awareness of body language.
  • The Blank: Indira has felt self-conscious and "stared at" all her life. She finds it enormously comforting that her alien friend is a good listener and literally does not have a face.
  • The Bridge: Most of Paul's Flash Back sequence is set on the bridge of a transport vessel he was reluctantly commanding.
  • Can't Have Sex, Ever: Well, at the very end, thanks to a Remote Body, they finally could. They just realize they don't want to, after all.
  • Cannot Tell a Lie: The Jan's most obvious hat. Being descended from hive-dwelling prey animals, cooperation was essential to their ancestors. They're terrible at lying and find the idea abhorrent. On one hand, they know that nobody else has a problem lying to them (fortunately, their sonar hearing lets them monitor a human's heartbeat, so with practice they can become living lie detectors). On the other, their reputation for trustworthiness has earned them a network of powerful allies, which they consider their greatest strength. All that being said, though — they're perfectly willing to keep secrets, as long as they don't have to lie outright to maintain them.
  • Casual Interplanetary Travel: A trip to Mars on a passenger ship takes weeks, and doesn't seem terribly expensive.
  • Crisis of Faith: Paul suffers from this after Indira's death.
  • Cryptic Background Reference: Many off-hand references to places and historical events that are never explained in detail, like the Genomic War, the Android Uprising, and "the legendary lost ship Ograe Nyha."
  • Death of the Hypotenuse: Tendai, decades later.
  • Decon-Recon Switch: For the Interspecies Romance trope. Paul couldn't be less interested in squicky human mating practices, nor Indira in the bizarre Jannite reproductive process, but they are none the less soul mates.
  • Distant Finale: Decades pass during in the final few chapters.
  • Fantastic Racism: With interactions between humans, aliens, robots, and genetically engineered beings taking center stage, old fashioned prejudices over mere human skin color appear to have died out.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Averted. Travel between stars takes many years, though the existence of relativistic-speed spacecraft mean humans can certainly do it, provided they understand they can't come home again (or rather, because of time dilation, they would return to a world where many more years had passed than they themselves had experienced). The Jan, meanwhile, are ideally suited for interstellar travel because their bodies can withstand the forces of acceleration and deceleration.
  • Fish out of Water: Both Paul and Indira, at different times.
  • Freak Out!: What happened to Indira on Felice Station.
  • The Future
  • Genius Loci: The Jan matriarchs, who are essentially living mountains.
  • Great Offscreen War: At least two - the Genomic War (which gave rise to genetically engineered Human Subspecies like the Tesks and the Elves) and the Android Uprising.
  • Human Subspecies: The Tesks, genetically engineered as soldiers, generations ago. It is mentioned that there are others, though only "Elves" are mentioned by name.
  • Kaiju: Hoons, enormous animals that prey on the Jan but hold a totemic significance for them. "Our great sacred nightmare."
  • Kill It with Fire: As Indira realizes at a critical moment, the fact that Jannite organisms store liquid oxygen in their bodies makes their insides very flammable.
  • Humans Are Ugly: To the stony Jan, we're "blob monsters."
    "Even after all this time on Earth, the little bipedal bloodbladders still all tended to look alike to him. The ground hummed for a moment as he took a sonograph of her, giving him a flash image of a delicate calcium/phosphorus understructure, wrapped in a flexible form-fitting sack of goo. It was truly miraculous that such an... object could be a conscious being. "
  • Living Toys: This is how the robot Barney Estragon started out. He was basically a rich kid's Teddy Ruxpin. And then he was abandoned in a world where he had less rights than vermin. By the time he got his legal rights, the experience had taken its toll on his mind.
  • Love Triangle: Paul, Indira, and Tendai — although Indira is slow to recognize it, and Tendai never does.
  • Ludd Was Right: The Mennonites, obviously, but also the Jan, who fear giving too much control of their lives over to machines. This gives them an obvious rivalry with the technology-loving Arachne.
  • Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness: Despite the storyline being very much a squishy psychological one, the science is remarkably solid. No Human Aliens or Faster-Than-Light Travel anywhere.
  • Multiethnic Name: Applies to at least half the human cast. Indira and Jawarhalal Fenstermacher, Aleksei Callahan, Adah Chan, Julius Xaioming, and on and on. In the case of the otherwise insular Mennonites, this is explained by their people having been displaced by invading soldiers generations earlier. When the Amish and Mennonites came home after the war, others who blamed technology for the war came with them.
  • No Transhumanism Allowed: It's coming back into fashion after everyone scorned it following "the Genomic War." Still, the war spawned at least two genetically engineered subraces of humanity: the tough but very perceptive Tesks, and there's brief mention of a long-lived race called Elves. Also, even if it wasn't done recently, almost everyone on Earth has a few genetically engineered ancestors.
    • The Jan reject heavy body modification while the Arachne embrace it.
  • The Outside World: The world beyond Dutch country, where technology and society have continued to progress. Indira refers to it jokingly as "the-World-with-a-capital-W," and has very mixed feelings about it.
  • Plant Person: There's a passing mention of an alien race called the Plandarites who seem to fit the bill.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: Nuada and the Warrior Jan. Also Thrym, although he has largely put it behind him.
  • Red Right Hand: Nuada's silver hand.
  • Religious and Mythological Theme Naming: A lot of it. Paul, Steven, Nuada, Heimdall, Ishtar, Thrym Scyllaschild, Ares, Persephone, and Valhalla. Notable that Valhalla Crater on Callisto exists in Real Life.
  • Religious Robot: Barney Estragon is a robot Old Order Mennonite. Yes.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Nuada.
  • Robo Sexual: Alexei and Kim. In Indira's estimation, the ethics of this depend entirely on whether Kim is actually sentient, and if she is, whether she has free will. Its implied that neither is the case.
  • Silicon-Based Life: The Jan and all other organisms from their world. Strictly speaking their biologies include both silicon and carbon.
  • Slice of Life: A rare science fiction example.
  • Sliding Scale of Robot Intelligence: There is a definite distinction between sentient machines and nonsentient ones, but...
    "It could be very hard to tell, even if she took the time to converse with it (the old Turing Test was a joke; the parser program ELIZA had done a fair job of making a mockery of it only sixteen years after the test was proposed, and modern “hollow” behavior simulators could ape human speech quite well while lacking even the self-awareness of a honeybee)."
  • Small Town Boredom: Indira's complaint about the town where she was raised.
  • Sonic Stunner: How hoons disable their prey.
  • Space Amish: Mennonites... IN THE FUTURE! To a much lesser extent, the Jan count, too.
  • Space Station: Felice Station, the most vital port city in the solar system.
  • Starfish Aliens: All aliens appear to be this.
  • Stepford Smiler: In the end Thrym becomes an Arachne and gets his brain reworked to be always happy.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Paul is surprised to learn that there is less prejudice against aliens than against robots, and then realizes that that's to be expected in a technology-shunning society. The Mennonites finally came to accept Barney because, after all, he didn't build himself.
  • Tsundere: Indira can be very understanding but has a terrible temper.
  • Wham Episode: Jawaharlal's death.
  • Wham Line: "I love you! I’ve always loved you! I can’t die without telling you. Christ, I love you so much! I’m so jealous of Tendai, it’s killing me!”
  • The World Is Just Awesome: Many descriptions of the beauty of rural Pennsylvania, as well as that of alien environments on Mars, Jupiter, and Callisto.
  • Zimbabwe: The location of Earth's capital city, as well as Tendai Tamsanga's birthplace. Apparently a pretty nice place in the future. Notably, they have monuments dedicated to the memory of all those who died during the AIDS plague, and also to "those who’d died under the vile 21st century tyrant Mugabe."
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