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The Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull3.5 stars

Buy from IndieBoundFirst contact stories in science fiction have been used for decades to explore cultural and anthropological themes. More than anything, I would say SF writers use alien contact as a kind of emotional tonic, a way to relieve humanity’s existential distress at the very real likelihood we are either alone in the universe, or so far away from any other advanced, spacefaring species that contact with them will be effectively impossible before both we and the aliens become, in the natural course of time, extinct. First contact stories can be scary, exciting, action-packed, dramatic and serious, or satirical, and SF writers have shown remarkable invention in spinning endlessly imaginative variations on the theme.

One of these variations involves presenting the aliens as mirrors to ourselves, and that’s what Cadwell Turnbull does in his debut novel, The Lesson. It’s an unusual and mostly gentle story that nonetheless has a distinct apocalyptic inevitability, and though there are times Turnbull keeps some of his ideas perhaps a little too close to the vest for the story’s overall good, The Lesson is a story that should not be missed by readers who embraced such books as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven or even Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

It’s all about colonialism, basically. The Lesson takes place on the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, Turnbull’s own birthplace, and right away this piqued my interest, as I’ve read more than enough white-America-centered stories of alien visitation and invasion to last a lifetime. We meet a handful of perfectly ordinary characters managing their daily lives in the two weeks prior to the aliens’ arrival. Jackson is a college instructor who is midlifing so hard that even he is embarrassed by what a walking cliché he’s become. His wife Aubrey responds to the general malaise of their marriage by rekindling an old flame with her coworker Alice. And their teenage daughter Patrice is heading off to Pittsburgh for college, much to the dismay of Derrick, her childhood friend and semi-serious boyfriend, who lives downstairs in the same house with his grandmother and kid sister, Lee.

It’s all boringly normal until the arrival of the Ynaa, aliens from a watery world whose vessel descends one day out of the bright blue Caribbean sky. They come in peace, they offer humanity a number of advanced technologies, like instant cancer cures, and they reassure us all they only intend to stay a short time, while they complete some kind of research project, the precise nature of which they cloak in complete obscurity except to say it involves “the lesson.” Frankly, that sounds ominous as hell. But the Ynaa restrict their presence on Earth to St. Thomas Island itself, and don’t meddle in local or global politics in any way. They’re happy to leave everyone alone, but they do have an alarming way of responding to even the slightest antagonism from a human (or even a barking dog) with bloody murder.

It turns out that the Ynaa have had an ambassador on Earth, blending in with the native population, for about 300 years. Mera arrived on the island in the 1700s, and saw the place when it was a slave state run by the Germans and Danish. (In fact, for a while, the largest slave auctions in the world were held on St. Thomas.) In this way, Turnbull sets the arrival of the Ynaa within the context of St. Thomas’s long history of invasion and colonization.

The narrative structure here is interesting. After meeting our cast in the opening chapter, Turnbull pushes us forward five years after the Ynaa’s arrival, skirting the tropey bits of the typical first contact narrative to present us with a world whose society has adapted to the new normal of having visitors from another world. There are entirely new genres of literature and the arts, let alone fields of academic study, that have come into being. But mostly, humanity at large, and the residents of St. Thomas in particular, do their best to maintain a semblance of normal life.

Still, there is an inescapable undercurrent of xenophobic tension on the island. The killing of a local schoolboy who stupidly decided to take a swing at one of the aliens’ heads has most of the locals harboring barely concealed hostility. Mera — who, like the rest of the Ynaa, disguises herself in a convincing if slightly Uncanny Valley way as human — is now the aliens’ ambassador. But in truth, she was as surprised as anyone when the Ynaa vessel turned up. There is worry among her superiors that her long period of living among the humans might have made her a little too empathetic towards us. Derrick, in the meantime, has started working as Mera’s assistant, as he puts it, because it was the best-paying job offer on the island. But his association has led a lot of people to resent him as almost a traitor to his species, and this isn’t exactly helped by the way he’s begun actually crushing on his boss.

The way everything is set up, it’s inevitable that the story will culminate in some manner of fateful confrontation between the islanders and the Ynaa. Yet it’s a tribute to Turnbull’s storytelling that everything unfolds through scenes that ratchet up a slow burn tension that climaxes in something truly gripping and shocking. What might leave some readers scratching their heads, however, is the book’s apparent failure — or probably a better word would be “refusal” — to offer any concrete answers regarding its title. “The Lesson” is why the Ynaa, talking among themselves, say they are here. A flashback to Mera’s youth, on her homeworld, shows her mother imparting what she believes “the lesson” to be. But Mera later decides this was wrong.

Possibly “the lesson” of The Lesson is that there is no lesson, or at least, no one lesson. Life is often traumatic, and things can happen to us that are so out of our control that if we even survive them, whatever lesson we derive from them will not be the same for all of us. Maybe some of us develop the resilience to put the past behind us and carry on. Maybe some of us thirst for vengeance or retribution, putting our own selfish priorities above any consideration of the greater good. Whatever you get out of it, The Lesson is definitely one of those books that wants to provoke a deeply individual response from each of its readers, rather than spelling out a conclusive, pedantic “lesson” for us all. Perhaps that’s a good storytelling lesson more writers ought to heed.