Sunday, March 27, 2016

DARK ENERGY by Robison Wells

In January, a reader wrote to ask me about Dark Energy by Robison Wells. I got an ARC (advanced reader copy) from Edelweiss and read it last week. I have a lot of questions. The book itself will be released on March 29, 2016. Let's start with the synopsis:
We are not alone. They are here. And there’s no going back. Perfect for fans of The Fifth Wave and the I Am Number Four series, Dark Energy is a thrilling stand-alone science fiction adventure from Robison Wells, critically acclaimed author ofVariant and Blackout.
Five days ago, a massive UFO crashed in the Midwest. Since then, nothing—or no one—has come out.
If it were up to Alice, she’d be watching the fallout on the news. But her dad is director of special projects at NASA, so she’s been forced to enroll in a boarding school not far from the crash site. Alice is right in the middle of the action, but even she isn’t sure what to expect when the aliens finally emerge. Only one thing is clear: everything has changed.
The synopsis doesn't tell us that Alice is "half Navajo." Her dad is white; her deceased mom was Navajo.

Back in January, I noted that I was interested in the author's note. I'll begin with it. There, Wells writes that he used to live on the Navajo reservation. Because he wanted to be respectful "of the tribes and ancestors of tribes mentioned in the book" he sent the manuscript out to several readers. He names seven individuals (Orlando Tsosie, Sammy Jim, Thomas Begay, Angelina Begay, Nadine Padilla, Susie Sandoval, and Thomasita Yazzie). Some of their surnames are clearly Navajo. Wells listened to what they had to say:
The small amount we see of ceremony and meeting with the Elders is a very whittled down version of a real Navajo ceremony. Originally we saw all of it, but the Navajos I spoke to--with only one exception--said it was too sacred to depict. I cut it back and and back until they were satisfied.
I am glad to read that Wells cut it more than once until his readers were satisfied. But--I have many questions, because equally important to the story Wells tells are Pueblo peoples. He doesn't say he sent the manuscript to Pueblo Indian readers. I'm not sure what I'd have said...

Let's back up.

From the synopsis, we know an alien ship has crashed in Iowa and that Alice's dad has to go there. The boarding school Alice is sent to is the Minnetonka School for the Gifted and Talented. Soon after Alice and her dad get to the site, the aliens start to emerge. The US government welcomes them and through a translator, figures out they call themselves the Guides. All but two are housed in a tent city next to the giant ship.

The school's gifted and talented student body is important to the story. Alice and her friends befriend the two Guides (these two are a brother and sister). Brynne, one of the Minnetonka students, tests the DNA of the girl alien (they call her Coya) and finds out that she's not an alien at all. She is human. Another student who is into languages records some of Coya's words, analyzes them, and figures out that Coya and her brother are speaking a Pueblo language:
"Keresan is a language spoken by half a dozen tribes in New Mexico. They're Pueblo tribes. Acoma, Laguna--those are the ones I've been to. There are others to the east."
Brynne says:
"...the DNA databases I've searched say they're not any one of those tribes, but they have markers for being an older tribe that those are descendants from."   
Alice says:
"the language is like a puebloan nation, but not. And the DNA is like a puebloan nation, but not. Are we talking about the Anasazi here?"
The conversation continues, with Brynne and Rachel giving the rest of the group some information about the Anasazi, including that the preferred name is Ancestral Puebloans.

So--Coya and her sibling and the Guides who were on that ship are not aliens. They're Ancestral Puebloans who were abducted by some bad aliens (they're called Masters), who we'll learn later, look like lizards. These bad aliens enslaved the Ancestral Puebloans and used them as incubators for parasites the Masters grow till they become like the Masters, too. How all that becomes known is laid out in the story in a gruesome discovery when Alice and her friends go onto the ship and find bloody rooms where, Alice's dad tells her, they think thousands committed mass suicide after puncturing their abdomens.

Are you unsettled by any of that? I am, and while that part of Dark Energy has nothing to do with ceremony, it does a few things that I would have asked Wells to revisit.

This alien abduction idea is one that appears here and there. As I did some research, I read that tourists tell tour guides at Chaco Canyon that abduction story. It is part of an X-Files episode, too. All of this feeds into New Age activity that is harmful to the sites, which have significance to us today. Will Dark Energy inadvertently encourage that abduction idea? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, consider sacred or significant aspects of your own spiritual or cultural or religious life and how they are (or could be) exploited by others who don't understand those ways.

I wonder if Wells took the feelings of Pueblo people into consideration? Why did he not ask Pueblo readers to read his manuscript? I think I can offer an answer. The entire story is dependent on abducted Ancestral Puebloans. If I said "no, don't go there," I can't imagine how this story could be told. Can you?

Another thread that I am uncomfortable with is the ways in which Alice and her friends go about teaching "our culture" to Coya. There are places in the story where Alice says something that tells us she's well aware of politics, history, and oppression of Native peoples, but there are other places where that orientation disappears, like when teaching Coya "our" culture. Alice is clearly a US teen, into things most other US teens are into, but for me, she slips in and out of a Navajo orientation in ways that I find jarring. At one point she talks sarcastically about small pox, and then at this "our culture" part, there's this:
It was amazing the things that she didn't have any concept of: awards, winning, competition, prizes.
And there is another part where another student (he's from India and has applied for US citizenship) and Alice are talking about what the government will do with the Guides. He says:
"I wonder what they'll do about the Guides' citizenship. They landed in America--does that make them American? It's not like we can load them on a bus and send them back to where they came from. Besides, from what you said, putting them on a bus would just be shipping them back to Mesa Verde, right?"
"I don't see us creating a new little nation for them, I said. "We've seen how well that's worked out in the past, with Native American reservations."
"I don't know what they'll be," I said. "These Guides are going to need a lot of education, and they don't have any money. Are we just going to give them free houses?"
See? Her voice, her orientation, her political knowledge.. it seems uneven, or, inconsistent.

As the story draws to a close, Alice and her friends are running, along with Coya and her brother, to the Navajo reservation where a ceremony will be done by a Hopi man who talks of monsters who came from the sky, and, a bundle with the skull of one of those monsters. It isn't clear to me who does a sandpainting of the ship... is it a Navajo man or the Hopi one? I can't tell, but, we learn that the Hopi learned how to kill the monsters, using a poison they make from juniper berries, dried insects, and dried flowers. Arrows are dipped into that poison. Alice and her friends go to Chaco Canyon, the Masters/Monsters arrive there.

Alice talks with one (through a translator mechanism that Coya and her brother have been using). It is angry. It asks her if she knows what her friends have cost his people. She says they're her people. It replies:
"What do you mean 'your people'? These slaves were taken from this weak little planet more than eight hundred of your Earth years ago. We took only what we needed--we bred the rest. Your population is exploding. You seem to have more than enough to spare a few."
Some dramatic fighting ensues, but those poison tipped arrows do the trick. The four Masters/Monsters are killed.

These parts about enslavement are meant to make a point about enslavement of Africans and they're the part about history that the Kirkus reviewer referenced, but I don't know... It doesn't sit well with me.

What Wells does in Dark Energy is too over-the-top and, as noted earlier, the abduction/alien theme plays into New Age abuses of our ancestral sites. I've read and re-read what I've written here, trying to bring it into a useful and coherent sharing of my thoughts, but I feel confounded by what I read in Dark Energy. Obviously, I've decided to stop trying and just hit the upload button.

Published in 2016 by HarperCollins (a major publisher), I conclude with this: I do not recommend Dark Energy by Robison Wells. I invite your thoughts.

Update, March 28, 2016

I'm back to address something that I didn't include above. Alice learns that Coya is human because of a DNA test that was done without Coya's knowledge or consent. In real life, that should not happen. Readers might say it is ok because at the time the sample was taken, they didn't know she was human, but in that case, I think Wells could circle back to it later and say it was not right. A key point I want to make: the taking of DNA from marginalized peoples or vulnerable populations is a serious concern. You may be interested in the misuse of DNA samples taken from the Havaupai Tribe in the 1980s.

Readers may also be interested in knowing that a DNA test that has markers of Native heritage does not mean the individual with that DNA is one who can say they are Native American. Being a citizen of a tribe is far more than that. To gain insight about that, you can read this interview with Kim Tallbear (she's a scientist): 'There is no DNA test to prove you're Native American'. You can also get Tallbear's book, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science


Gabrielle Prendergast said...

Another great and balanced examination. Sci - fi is a genre wherein authors have much to learn and be mindful of with regards to sensitivity, and doubly so if indigenous themes are explicitly included.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your insightful review as always. But what I'm commenting for is to thank you for the links in the update about DNA. I've been seeing commercials for the DNA tests and there was one last night I saw where a woman spoke about finding out she was "26% Native American". I just didn't register why it was bothering me.

Christina Stuck said...

Wow, I'm shocked because the reviews I read for the book mentioned nothing at all about there being anything Native in the book (School Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly). I mean, it doesn't kill the plot to let people know about the DNA bit and the results. Also, how did reading that not strike anyone odd?!

This lack of information in two reviews ticks me off because when any review mentions any particular Native Nation I wait to purchase it. For better or for worse, I like to hear what you have to say about the authenticity of the story, or lack thereof. We only have so much money to purchase quality books for our libraries. Why waste it on books that misrepresent or abuse people's cultures or continue stereotypes?? I still don't know how this story was reviewed the ways it was.

Debbie Reese said...


Your comment, today, is especially interesting because yesterday, Linda Sue Park tweeted that Kirkus is including race descriptors in their reviews now. I went back to look at the SLJ and PW reviews. You're right. No mention at all. Kirkus, on the other hand, did mention Alice's identity. Which makes me think that Kirkus is the one-to-watch!

Here's what their review said:
"Half-Navajo Alice loves living in Florida, where every day is sunny and warm. She's totally unprepared to follow her white, widowed father to Minnesota's wind-swept snowfields."

Sam Jonson said...

There's one other thing you left out of your review, Debbie...the language!
Those Ancestral Puebloan abductees would actually be speaking Proto-Keresan, since Keresan is a language isolate.

And by the way, do you think the book could been better if the author had done three things:
1) made Alice say or think something like, "But--but that's impossible! That's just a New Age hoax, made up by pseudoscientists who decided to say 'Since we don't know, it musta been aliens' to the question 'What happened to the Ancestral Puebloans?' It's like saying 'Judge Crater was abducted by aliens' or that aliens built the pyramids!",
2) followed Alice's statement up with another character saying, "Well, I don't think any New Agers have ever provided this much evidence, in a real science lab using real research techniques!" and subsequently suggesting that the abduction happened well before the Ancestral Puebloans moved away, perhaps with the Masters erasing all the remaining Puebloans' memories of the abduction, and
3) removed the part about the DNA test and replacing it with, say, a blood sampling done on a hospitalized Guide?

Sam Jonson said...

And quite ironically, the writer (Chris Carter) of that very same X-Files episode ("Anasazi") you mentioned also consulted Navajo elders while making the episode's sequel, "The Blessing Way". As mentioned here, he'd incorrectly depicted a Navajo person carrying a dead body (for anyone who doesn't know, Navajo avoid handling corpses for fear of evil chʼį́įdii spirits). So he made sure the Navajo culture was portrayed accurately in "The Blessing Way". Wish he'd also consulted Puebloans as well, to make sure no racist New Age myths were repeated or anything.