A retro review from March 3, 2012 …
Review: West of Eden, Harry Harrison, 1984.
Harrison, science fiction’s most prolific practioneer of the alternate history sub-genre before Harry Turtledove came along, uses not a pivot point involving human social history but an alternate version of the Earth’s geologic past – a comet does not wipe out the dinosaurs – as the grounding premise of this novel.
This is Harrison’s most ambitious work and was marketed originally to appeal to readers of Jean Auel who was new on the scene at the time. Biologist Jack Cohen, who also helped develop the aliens of Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Steven Barnes’ The Legacy of Heorot, helped Harrison develop the Yilane, the intelligent descendents of reptiles. They are masters of this world and biological engineering. Their boats, cities, and even microscopes are all modified organisms. (Given what seems to be their limited idea of DNA, I find this somewhat implausible but still interesting.)
Their language, developed by Thomas Shippey, professor of literature and an academic critic of science fiction, is so complex many Yilane never learn to speak it, and body gestures are an integral part. Physiology is so tied up with it that Yilane ca not lie. At best, they can only keep their body very still while talking. The very act of being exiled is, for most, a psychosomatic sentence of death.
Most of the these biological and linguistic details are explained in an appendix amusingly written in sort of a prudish Victorian scientist tone.
While a proud race with cities throughout the world, things are not going well with the Yilane. An encroaching ice age is causing some abandonment of their cities in the northern zones of earth, and an effort is being undertaken to migrate from the eastern hemisphere to the western hemisphere. The building of the western colony is directed by Vainte, a Yilante with political ambitions. However, the nesting grounds where the species’ docile, somewhat silly, and definitely disposable males hang out, is found by a group of hunting Tanu – Stone Age but anatomically modern humans. The old enmity between lizard and human awakens; the nesting grounds are destroyed; the Yilante retaliate by hunting down the hunting party, killing all except a young boy named Kerrick.
Kerrick’s story is at the heart of this novel. He becomes useful in Vainte’s schemes – his innate human ability to lie aids in an assassination. He even becomes a sexual plaything to her (all Yilante leaders are female) though this is not handled in a prurient manner but in a way that seems a bit inspired by the 1980s’ obsession with the effects of childhood sexual abuse. By the time he escapes the Yilane as a man and returns to his people, he has a unique ability to aid the humans in their war against the reptiles. But he also sees some worth and value in Yilane ways, has friends there he left.
It’s a relatively thick book but Harrison keeps the story moving and develops his background well (you really don’t have to read that appendix to understand things). Kerrick is the classic caught-between-two-worlds figure.
Though Harrison wrote two more novels in this series, this feels like a self-contained work which is not true of the others.