Review: Trang, by Mary Sisson

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sat Jul 16 21:10:50 PDT 2022

by Mary Sisson

Series:    Trang #1
Publisher: Mary Sisson
Copyright: 2011
Printing:  December 2013
ASIN:      B004I6DAQ8
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     374

In 2113, a radio mapping satellite near the Titan station disappeared.
It then reappeared five days later, apparently damaged and broadcasting
a signal that made computers crash. The satellite was immediately sent
back to the Space Authority base in Beijing for careful examination,
but the techs on the station were able to decode the transmission: a
request for the contents of databases. The general manager of the
station sent a probe to the same location and it too vanished,
returning two days later with a picture of a portal, followed shortly
by an alien probe.

Five years later, Philippe Trang has been assigned as the first human
diplomat to an alien space station in intergalactic space at the nexus
of multiple portals. Humans will apparently be the eighth type of
intelligent life send a representative to the station. He'll have a
translation system, a security detail, and the groundwork of five years
of audiovisual communications with the aliens, including one that was
able to learn English. But he'll be the first official diplomatic
representative physically there.

The current style in SF might lead you to expect a tense thriller full
of nearly incomprehensible aliens, unexplained devices, and creepy
mysteries. This is not that sort of book. The best comparison point I
could think of is James White's Sector General novels, except with a
diplomat rather than a doctor. The aliens are moderately strange (not
just humans in prosthetic makeup), but are mostly earnest,
well-meaning, and welcoming. Trang's security escort is more military
than he expects, but that becomes a satisfying negotiation rather than
an ongoing problem. There is confusion, misunderstandings, and even
violence, but most of it is sorted out by earnest discussion and
attempts at mutual understanding.

This is, in other words, diplomat competence porn (albeit written by
someone who is not a diplomat, so I wouldn't expect too much realism).
Trang defuses rather than confronts, patiently sorts through the
nuances of a pre-existing complex dynamic between aliens without
prematurely picking sides, and has the presence of mind to realize that
the special forces troops assigned to him are another culture he needs
to approach with the same skills. Most of the book is low-stakes
confusion, curiosity, and careful exploration, which could have been
boring but wasn't. It helps that Sisson packs a lot of complexity into
the station dynamics and reveals it in ways that I found enjoyably

Some caveats: This is a self-published first novel (albeit by an
experienced reporter and editor) and it shows. The book has a sort of
plastic Technicolor feel that I sometimes see in self-published novels,
where the details aren't quite deep enough, the writing isn't quite
polished, and the dialog isn't quite as tight as I'm used to. It also
meanders in a way that few commercial novels do, including
slice-of-life moments and small asides that don't go anywhere. This can
be either a bug or a feature depending on what you're in the mood for.
I found it relaxing and stress-relieving, which is what I was looking
for, but you may have a different experience.

I will warn that the climax features a sudden escalation of stakes that
I don't think was sufficiently signaled by the tone of the writing, and
thus felt a bit unreal. Sisson also includes a couple deus ex machina
twists that felt a bit predictable and easy, and I didn't find the
implied recent history of one of the alien civilizations that
believable. The conclusion is therefore not the strongest part of the
book; if you're not enjoying the journey, it probably won't get better.

But, all that said, this was fun, and I've already bought the second
book in the series. It's low-stakes, gentle SF with a core of discovery
and exploration rather than social dynamics, and I haven't run across
much of that recently. The worst thing in the book is some dream
glimpses at a horrific event in Trang's past that's never entirely on
camera. It's not as pacifist as James White, but it's close.

Recommended, especially if you liked Sector General. White's series is
so singular that I previously would have struggled to find a suggestion
for someone who wanted more exactly like that (but without the
Bewitched-era sexism). Now I have an answer. Score another one for
Susan Stepney, who is also how I found Julie Czerneda. Trang is also
currently free for Kindle, so you can't beat the price.

Followed by Trust.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-07-16


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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