Title: The V’Dan
Author: Jean Johnson
Release Date: December 29, 2015
Book Source: Library paperback
The V’Dan always believed they were the chosen race, destined to make a mark on the galaxy. For the last few centuries, they interacted peacefully with other sentient species—save for the Salik. Cold, amphibious, and vicious, the Salik were set on one goal: to conquer every race within their grasp.
Now that the Salik’s ruthless war has begun, the fate of the galaxy is in the hands of two strange companions: Li’eth, a prince under siege and his rescuer, Jacaranda MacKenzie. A beautiful ambassador from the Motherworld, Jackie possesses more than the holy powers of a goddess. She brings a secret weapon—a strange, wondrous, and dangerous new technology that could be her and Li’eth’s last and only hope to save their people from extinction…
I was both prepared, and entirely unprepared for this book.
The series is called, “The First Salik War”, but despite that title, the Salik (aliens whose preferred form of nourishment is live humans), have had exactly two small scenes across the two books. Which seems crazy. On the surface, one would expect “The First Salik War” books to be military space fare, but instead, as of so far, these books are very much political fiction.
Based on this, as military space fiction, these books are sorely lacking, but as political fiction, these books are quite good. The entirety of The V’Dan is occupied with the challenges and political minefield establishment of a human embassy on the V’Dan homeworld.
Like in The Terrans, (Read Review Here) The V’Dan is prone to LONG soliloquy-like passages that can get overbearing, and while I do like these books, I honestly think these two first books in this series could have been easily been a single really superb book.
To be truthful, once I got the gist of any particular monster-passage, I skimmed through quite a bit, which made getting through the book much more tolerable. There really is a fantastic story here, but it’s also a very uncomfortable story.
***WARNING,MILD SPOILERS FOR THE TERRANS AND THE V’DAN BOOKS AHEAD***
To explain why, I need to do a bit more set up on what’s happened across these two books.
In The Terrans, humans on a spaceship from Earth encounter a hostile alien race (the Salik). As mentioned above, the Salik like to eat live humans. On encountering the Salik, the humans discover that the Salik are holding prisoners on their ship, and decide to rescue them. On doing so, the humans discover that the prisoners being held by the Salik are also humans. Alien humans (V’Dan).
The V’Dan are actually humans from earth, but have not lived on earth for 10,000 years. They were transplanted to their homeworld (V’Dan) by someone known as The Immortal. So we have a branch of humanity that split from earthbound humans 10,000 years ago, and evolved as humans and as a society on a totally separate planet.
On V’Dan, the political system is a monarchy, with a social caste system, and as part of their separate evolution, when going through puberty, the V’Dan develop markings on their bodies that look like tattoos. They call the markings Jungen.
Because these markings develop during puberty, the V’Dan consider anyone without the Jungen marks to be a child, and because Earth based humans (Terrans) look exactly like the V’Dan, except without markings, the V’Dan default to treating the humans like children.
This is the principal conflict in both The Terrans and The V’Dan, and this is what makes these books uncomfortable to read. The Terrans, who we as the readers are meant to identify with, are constantly being treated like you might treat a two year old child, and understandably, the humans don’t like being treated like children.
The main protagonist in The Terrans and The V’Dan is Jackie MacKenzie, who is also the Terran Ambassador to the V’Dan, and every time a V’Dan treats a Terran like a child, Jackie goes into what I think of as “Condescending Adult Mode”, berating and scolding the V’Dan individual (and the V’Dan society at large) for judging people based on how they look instead of based on their actions.
An important point here is that the society back on Earth has “matured” past the point of racism, treating all people of color equally. In general, the human political system and society is portrayed as being highly evolved.
Okay, so why is all of this uncomfortable? Because we have one set of humans (the V’Dan), treating another set of different looking humans (the Terrans) as “inferior”, and when being treated as inferior, the Terran humans react very strongly. Never violently, but always very strongly. Without compromise and with very little sympathy for the V’Dan point of view.
I don’t know if this is the author’s intent, but as a white person reading this book, I felt very uncomfortable with the way the Terrans reacted every time they were treated like children.
Every time the Terrans got all pissed off about being treated like children, I thought, “Jeez, lighten up a bit.” and, “You’ve got to lighten up, you can’t expect them to change on a dime.” But every time I had that reaction, in the back of my head, something felt wrong. Maybe I’m a bit obtuse, but it took me until nearly the end of The V’Dan to put it together.
See, we’re not just dealing with the Salik, the Terrans and the V’Dan. We also have a number of other alien races that the V’Dan have already established alliances with and none of those aliens are humanoid, and the V’Dan have no problem treating these different looking aliens like adults.
But when the V’Dan see humans that are essentially a different color than they are, they treat them as inferior. When I finally pictured the V’Dan as white people, and the Terrans as black people, and thought about it in the context the world of 2016, I found my discomfort.
Right here I want to type, “I am not racist.”
The problem is, while I don’t believe I am racist, and I definitely strive not to be racist, I’m also very likely blind to the hundreds of years of institutional biases that exist in me and in our society. Like the bias I had when reading these books that the “minority” group was overreacting to the repeated acts of mistreatment/oppression based solely on how they looked. That was really uncomfortable.
Again, I don’t know if Jean Johnson intended this in her writing, but for me it was timely. One last note. The ending of The V’Dan is a bit predictable, but also, is wholly satisfying, especially in this context. I still think Johnson could have trimmed a lot of fat out of both The Terrans and The V’Dan, but despite that, I’m looking forward to book three of The Salik War.