Book cover: Damocles by SJ RedlingWhen evidence is uncovered suggesting humanity was seeded on Earth by extraterrestrials, a tiny crew of specialists is sent on a one-way mission into deep space to find our makers. Pulled out of stasis ahead of schedule, the team find that first contact is no easier when you’re the advanced, space-faring aliens.

Damocles was an Amazon impulse buy. I hadn’t heard of SG Redling (and might not have been reassured if I had), and I had a moment’s fear when I realised it was published by the same Amazon imprint responsible for the terrible Extinction Point. Thankfully, this is much better stuff.

Redling has done a fine job turning out a reverse first contact. Mankind has reached the stars, settling the solar system and beyond. Stasis and chelyan crystal technology have made interstellar travel a possibility; when an ancient message is decoded that suggests man kind from the stars, it’s the impetus to send a 6-person crew into deep space aboard the Damocles in search of our ancestors.

The novel is very simple: it begins with the crew awakening in orbit around the planet of Didet, and it focuses on the intricacies of trying to survive first contact when you have no common frame of reference. It’s unexpectedly charming and I found myself sucked in, for all that the characters are very thinly drawn.

Much of the charm is derived from the Dideto perspective – specifically Loul Pell, a geeky young man in a back-end job, who bungles his way into becoming the primary interpreter. He is vulnerable, enthusiastic, self-aware, lacking in confidence and utterly entranced by the alien visitors, and it’s hard not to like him.

Unlike old favourites of mine such as The Sparrow, you never get under the skin of the human characters – or even much insight into the back story. There are merest hints of how history has shaped Earth, and even of the alien message that prompted the journey. Much like Loul and Meg’s conversations, this novel only scratches the surface – but it’s set for sequels, and I’d happily read them if they appear.

Redling gets bonus points for portraying gender-neutral societies on both Earth and Didet (although there’s not many female Dideto in the cast): the crew is 50/50, and if the captain is male, the pilot and the engineer are both female (as is the primary character, linguist Meg). That said, there’s not a whole lot of female:female conversation or friendship, and one of the women barely appears as she stays in orbit on the Damocles, so it’s not a perfect future. Still, it’s refreshing and it took me half the novel to notice – but I liked it more when I did.

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