In Alan Dean Foster’s Humanx Commonwealth series of science fiction novels, a unique union between humans and the insectoid Thranx race becomes a major power in the galaxy. Two species that are so different in appearance and mentality seem destined to mistrust and fear one another - so how could they overcome these differences?
Originally published in 1982, Nor Crystal Tears is the third standalone entry in Foster’s series, and begins to answer exactly that question. Set earlier in his fictional chronology than any other story, the novel focuses on the very first contact between humans and Thranx. Unusually for a story of this type, it explores not the human perspective, but instead the alien one. The protagonist is Ryozenzuzex, a Thranx agricultural expert living on the peripheral world of Willow-Wane. While he initially seems an unlikely hero, Nor Crystal Tears explores how Ryo’s actions change the course of history.
The first two standalone entries in the series are Midworld (1975) and Cachalot (1980). In these books, Foster only briefly alludes to the Humanx Commonwealth - its worlds, institutions, and constituent species. We know all about humans, of course, but the Thranx are largely a mystery. We are told that they are insect-like, and that they would enjoy the hot and humid jungle of Midworld but would be frightened of the vast expanses of water on Cachalot. Neither novel has any Thranx characters at all, and Nor Crystal Tears redresses this. It represents a deep immersion into the biology, psychology, and culture of humanity’s future partners.
The book begins with a striking illustration of how different the Thranx are. It introduces Ryozenzuzex, or “Ryo” for short, during his larval stage. Like other Thranx, he is looked after in a kind of communal hatchery by professional nursemaids. He loves to learn, and excels in this area, but has a quality that alarms his tutors - he wants to know about everything, which runs counter to the strong tendency towards specialisation in his culture. Ryo’s boundless curiosity is a classic trait in SF protagonists, which often drives plots - as is the case here.
As an adult Ryo eventually, and reluctantly, settles into a profession and becomes a respected agronomist on his homeworld, Willow-Wane. His ordinary life is disrupted when the aggressive, lizard-like AAnn Empire mounts a small incursion on the planet. Ryo and his colleagues fend off the attack, and he later hears that a Thranx vessel has encountered monstrous new aliens in deep space. Later, this is laughed off by officialdom as a mere hoax. These events flip a switch in Ryo’s mind. Suddenly he has to get off Willow-Wane, and embarks on a reckless mission to learn more about the aliens.
Foster spends much of Nor Crystal Tears exploring the Thranx and their society. The book works through various implications of an intelligent species having an insect-like physiology. One example is that, to compensate for a lack of facial expressions, Thranx use their six limbs for a complex array of gestures to communicate their feelings. James D. Nicoll has suggested that the Thranx are inspired by Vulcans from Star Trek, in their “reliance on logic and entrenched conservativism”. Of course, both Thranx and Vulcans are the first intelligent aliens encountered by humans in their respective settings.
While the Thranx are fairly convincingly alien, their society is much less so. After Ryo leaves Willow-Wane he travels to Hivehom, the world where the Thranx evolved and the centre of their interstellar society. There he takes advantage of trains, restaurants, and other facilities that would not be out of place on today’s Earth, let alone that of the far future. Thranx social organisation also seems similar to that of humans, except that their cities are called hives and exist mostly underground. Clearly, depicting aliens and their environments in a convincing way is a huge challenge. An author like Octavia E. Butler was arguably more successful, with the Oankali in her novel Dawn (1987).
With the help of the wealthy and eccentric poet Wuuzensalem - or “Wuu” for short - Ryo is eventually able to make contact with a group of disgusting, monstrous aliens that wear their skeletons on the inside: humans. Their ship, the Seeker, was damaged in Thranx space by an AAnn attack. Captured, they have been interned in an isolated military base in one of Hivehom’s inhospitable polar regions, there to be experimented on by Thranx scientists. Ryo’s inexhaustible curiosity helps him communicate with a pair of the humans. Later, he leaves Wuu behind and embarks on another reckless scheme. His intention is to create a bridge of understanding between Thranx and humans.
Nor Crystal Tears has an interesting setup but fails to stick the landing. The speed with which humans and Thranx learn to communicate with each other doesn’t convince, and the plot meanders towards the end. For these reasons, this novel is arguably the weakest of the first three standalones in the Humanx Commonwealth series. It is the most important, though, because of its focus on a key moment in the setting’s history.
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