Debut novelist Cadwell Turnbull sets The Lesson on the island of St. Thomas where he grew up. The publisher has billed this as “one of the first science fiction novels set in the Virgin Islands,” and that sense of a place and the people who inhabit it grounds a rich and nuanced speculative tale of alien first contact.
The story begins by introducing us to the seemingly everyday concerns of our core cast of characters:teenagers Derrick and Patrice, longtime friends who might turn lovers; Aubrey, Patrice’s mother, who finds herself increasingly attracted to a female co-worker; and Jackson, Patrice’s father, who seems headed for a midlife crisis with a flirtatious ex-student. Their lives are all thrown into upheaval when an alien spaceship appears in the sky over the island. “A giant seashell, Patrice thought. A seashell in the sky, not obeying gravity, humming in her bones… this was how change occurred: something on the horizon closing in.”
But instead of focusing on the turmoil and worldwide shock and awe that follows in the wake of the UFO’s arrival, Turnbull skips ahead five years, to a point when the alien Ynaa have already established their presence. They’ve struck a deal with Earth’s governments, promising to stay only for a limited time while they search for something of great importance to their society, and to will limit their presence to St. Thomas. In return, they will provide humanity with clean energy and cures for various diseases, including cancer.
While their actions seem benevolent, the reality of the situation is much more fraught for the islanders. Some of the Ynaa live among them, having hidden their alien shapes and assumed human form, though they remain stronger and more resilient than humans. When these incognito interlopers encounter the slightest resistance or minor provocations, they lash out violently, maiming and killing without hesitation.
Mera, one of the Ynaa, is their ambassador, and Derrick now works for her as an all-around helper. Patrice, who left the island to study, has recently returned, pregnant and unsure of how and if she fits into a society that has been changed in profound ways.
While Turnbull unspools his narrative through shifting points of view, enriching our understanding of the ways the alien arrival has affected the local society, Mera, Derrick, and Patrice are at the heart of the book. Mera and Derrick share a particularly interesting dynamic: both function as liaisons between the Ynaa and humanity, and are resultantly regarded with mistrust and even outright hostility by many of their own people. Both are also interested in, maybe even fascinated by, the other side, and if that interest is tainted with a dangerous naïveté in Derrick’s case, Mera has no illusions about the risks inherent in the Ynaa’s presence. We soon come to realize her interest in humanity goes deeper and farther back in time than the aliens have revealed.
Though the constant threat of violence makes most locals too afraid to complain about the Ynaa, tensions run deep beneath the surface, and when a family member of a man who was brutally slain by an alien seeks revenge, things quickly spin out of control, setting up a riveting conflict that carries the novel to its life-shattering conclusion.
By employing and subverting first contact tropes, Turnbull explores and interrogates theme of colonialism and violence—specifically how violence can be used both to oppress and to resist, and what that does to a society and to people, whether they are the victims or perpetrators of that violence—but it is not the paint-by-numbers allegory the log line might suggest. At every turn, he drills deeper, anchoring his story in the real history of St. Thomas, contrasting the arrival of the Ynaa with flashbacks to the distant past when population groups like the Ciboney, Arawaks, and Caribs arrived on the island.
The local history plays an important part in the book, as it is also part of Mera’s history: she has been on the island much longer than five years, and in various human forms, though usually as a black woman. She has experienced firsthand the brutal era of slavery, from rebellions to lynchings, and some of the strongest scenes in the book come in the form of glimpses of her past lives. Of all the novel’s richly drawn characters, it’s easiest to root for Derrick, who seems to be in the right as he works to bridge the gap between the Ynaa and humanity and find a way for the two species to live together through understanding rather than by the threat of violence., but Mera is the most compelling. She is strong, intelligent, and dangerous in ways that Derrick, who idolizes her, cannot comprehend. Her backstory only adds rich nuance to her character.
For all the story’s thoughtfulness and literary depth, The Lesson is given a sharp edge through Turnbull’s refusal to flinch from portraying the true consequences and costs of invasion, violence and resistance. Rather than simply pitting heroic humans against dastardly aliens, he does something much more interesting, laying bare the flaws and strengths in individuals on both sides. The stakes are high for both the Ynaa and the humans, and in the end, no society nor individual will come out clean in such a confrontation.
I’ve been a fan of Turnbull’s short fiction for some time (he’s been published in Nightmare, Lightspeed, and Asimov’s). In his first novel, he displays a sure hand with plot and characters, creating a complex world that is firmly anchored in, and made more compelling by, its roots in real history. The Lesson should appeal to fans of the socially aware and thoughtfully constructed science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia E. Butler, works that are concerned with more than the gee-whiz noise and flash of strange aliens and nifty new tech, that are deeply concerned with how encounters with beings not like us might change society, even as they echo events from our own past.
Consider the title: there is not one lesson in this narrative, but several unfolding concurrently. There is the lesson the Ynaa learned on their homeworld, where they had to compete for resources with several other intelligent species. There is the lesson humanity is being taught by the Ynaa on St. Thomas. And there is the crucial, deeply personal lesson Mera has learned during her many lives on Earth. Each of these lessons is painful and hard-learned, and integral to the way the story plays out.
“The universe didn’t care about strength,” Mera muses at one point. “It didn’t care about anything. Indifference looked like malice to creatures with something to lose.”