Nor Crystal Tears

by Alan Dean Foster
Reviewed date: 2018 Feb 17
Rating: 3
231 pages
cover art

I first read Nor Crystal Tears some fifteen or twenty years ago. I remember very little except that the main character was from a race of giant insect-like creatures and was named Ryozenzuzex. Ryo for short. He was special somehow, and was involved in making first contact with humans. And I remember the book ranked among the best I'd ever read.

I've read a lot of books since then. On this re-reading, I still enjoyed Nor Crystal Tears but it's perhaps not the crowning achievement of literary greatness that I remembered. There are portions that I found riveting, but the story is uneven and the narrative voice kept pulling me out of the story.

Nor Crystal Tears is a story of first contact with aliens, but the hook is that it's told entirely from the point of view of the aliens. The Thranx are an advanced space-faring race of giant bugs. They live underground in huge hives, are cooperative, conservative, and peaceful.

The Thranx young begin as grubs. Nursery workers teach them everything they need to know so that after they emerge from metamorphosis, they will be ready to become responsible and productive members of society. Ryozenzuzex is a particularly inquisitive grub, with high intelligence and excellent test scores. He never finds a calling or an area of study that particularly interests him, which is odd in Thranx society. After metamorphosis he still finds no purpose in life. "Eventually, he drifted into agricultural services, for which he felt a positive joy at finally being able to go Above and, unlike his highly gregarious fellow citizens, took pleasure in working outside the town." It's a living, but not a calling.

Ryo's calling comes in the form of an alien incursion. The Thranx have contact with one alien race, the warlike AAnn. While checking on some crops, Ryo witnesses an AAnn raiding party land near his hive. It's a small raid, just a small shuttle and a few AAnn warriors, but Ryo seizes the initiative. With only farming machinery, he attacks the invaders. He does little damage, but the AAnn withdraw. The incident makes Ryo a hero and a minor celebrity in his hive. But in Ryo himself, it awakens a desire: he wishes to go into space, to explore the unknown. A short while later Ryo hears a rumor of contact with an unknown alien race. This is his calling in life: contact with aliens.

The aliens are humans, of course. And Ryo can't get there himself, so he conveniently meets an eccentric rich old poet, Wuuzelansem. With Wuuzelansem's money and connections, it's no trouble at all to track down the location of these aliens, who have been captured and are being held in a remote military facility. Wuu and Ryo make their way to the facility, which gives us the opportunity to learn fascinating details about Thranx culture and society. Such as, many Thranx get motion sickness when traveling by air or spaceship. And that Thranx have strange and outlandish things such as customs and immigration officials. Foster missed an opportunity to portray a truly alien society. Instead he just shows us things that exist in human society already.

But the worst of it is that Foster keeps bringing human stuff into the alien story. For example: this is a story told entirely from an alien perspective, but the temperatures Foster mentions are in Celsius. And height of a fence is given in meters. Celsius and meters, for an alien race that has never even heard of humans. This happens throughout the book. It pulls me out of the story so fast, so abruptly. Ouch.

Ryo meets the aliens--the humans--and learns their language. He realizes, before anybody, that humans and Thranx must form an alliance. The AAnn are too strong, too warlike. Working together is the only way for either species to survive.

But the big problem is that the Thranx looks like giant bugs, and humans are afraid of bugs. And humans are big floppy meat sacks, and Thranx are afraid of squishy monsters. Nope, it'll never work.

And I just don't buy it. Humans would get used to big alien bugs pretty quick, and from what Foster has shown of Thranx, they'd get used to humans too.

Anyway, in the story, it's a big deal. It nearly derails the peace process. The only way it works is that Ryo orchestrates a grand and very illegal experiment. Human children and Thranx grubs are kidnapped and raised together in an experimental community, where it's proven that they can learn to outgrow their racial prejudices and view each other as people. It's all very lovely.

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