When I featured What Happened to the Indians by Terence Shannon a few months ago as part of my “Discovery Showcase” program, several things hooked me. One was the military setting. Another was the political suspense feel. And the aliens were merciless; just shooting down military aircraft, almost like a test. Here’s the blurb. This isn’t the blurb on my copy; which I can’t find in electronic form. This is the blurb that the author sent me.
Aliens make themselves known only to the United States government through a small series of hostile acts. They shoot down a couple of fighter jets and kidnap a commercial airliner packed with passengers. The one communication they offer is a request for an earth base in an isolated canyon in New Mexico. Whether the aliens have come in peace or not is up to the president to decide. The president’s advisers split. The hawks say not to give up any territory without a fight, what the American Indians should have done with Columbus. The doves say let them land, that it’s insane to start a shooting war with a superior power. The doves hope to deal with them for the secrets of their technologies.
The novel opens as an aircrew–presumably from the Air Force–is investigating the loss of an F-16. There’s nothing left but wreckage floating in the water. While they are looking at it, an alien disk comes along and does what the aircrew thinks is a “victory roll” over the wreckage.
Part of what hooked me in this chapter was this little gem:
In its wake Rizzo sat there dumbfounded. He needed time to get used to it. He was passing through a mountain range of amazements. It was hard to know which peak was the highest.
Mr. Shannon had three marks of a proficient writer. He had a compelling hook. He could handle dialog. And he could write.
However, I really don’t like the title. It’s What Happened to the Indians, just like that, with no question mark. The only question-like title I’m aware of is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. And he went ahead and put the question mark in the title, which I think is what Mr. Shannon should have done.
The blurb invites you to imagine you’re the president when you have a situation where an uncommunicative and occasionally hostile alien species wants a chunk of undesirable land in an inaccessible place. This would have been a better hook if the point-of-view character was actually the president. But it wasn’t. It was Charlie Doyle, a Lieutenant in the Air Force. Charlie’s a likable guy; you can think of him as sort of the narrator, but it’s a third-person narrator. He works for the White House, where he attends high-level Cabinet meetings as a sort of a scribe. He doesn’t take part in the meetings, but he does influence it behind-the-scenes.
As the story progresses–with almost perfect pacing–the aliens keep escalating the situation. First, they simply want to occupy a canyon. When Lt. Doyle is ordered to visit the canyon, he does so without any reaction at all from the aliens. When he returns to retrieve the tape-recorder, there’s no reaction again. There’s not even a reaction when he gets mad at their unresponsiveness and throws a rock at the ship.
Or maybe there is, because a few weeks later, they set up a no-fly-zone for a 30 mile radius around it.
The story plays out from there, where the Cabinet–very tentatively–decides to test this no-fly zone. The reaction is brutal. They test harder; the reaction is the same. Then, an old CIA agent tells Doyle that the aliens first came in the 40s, shortly after the United States first started messing around with nuclear bombs. And he proposes a truly radical game of interspecies chicken.
I enjoyed the story, but the biggest flaw was several dangling storylines. The shot-down fighters are hardly discussed at all when the cabinet members put forward their strategies of either surrender or fight, and neither do the military seem to be very involved in questions of strategy. They simply must obey seemingly senseless orders, even unto death. Neither do you learn the fate of the kidnapped commercial airliner. I get the distinct impression that a sequel might have been envisioned by the author, even though the book comes to a conclusion. That’s because I can easily see the aliens coming back for Round Two.
The author included a bundle of pages, which I was supposed to read at a certain point in the story. These weren’t pages that fell out of the book; they were standard 8.5 by 11 office paper. I set them aside because I wanted to see how the book read without them. When I was finished, I went back and re-read the extra pages.
The story was much stronger without the extra scene. I’m glad I read it “my way” first. The pages don’t add anything except an actual face-to-face communication with the aliens, in which the president challenges the aliens to the above-mentioned game of chicken. I think the story read better when the aliens were completely mysterious. The extra scene also obscures the timeframe; without the scene, the novel appears to take place in the 90s. I really think the author should stop including these pages when sending the book out. Published professionals don’t get to do such a thing; neither should self-published authors.
Mr. Shannon can unquestionably write. Were it not for the dangling plotlines I mentioned above, I would have given it four stars. Military fiction seems to be is forte; as his writing style is clean and utilitarian. I hope he keeps writing.