I first met Erin M. Hartshorn’s talent with creating alien cultures that felt real in her short story “Rise of Kencha.” Looking for something of the same sort, I picked up the novelette Ophid Dei. Though in this case the story focuses more on the human side, there is a lot to explore in the “snakes” even when their culture is largely mentioned in passing. Both their sense of morality and how they see those on the planets they have conquered speaks to a non-human perspective, though we’ve seen similar beliefs in our history, which makes the aliens understandable.
In the same way, the story takes some scientific leaps with the aliens’ technology, and yet couches them in the familiar just as the snakes have certain characteristics that are common among humans. Even with a basic understanding of genetics and gene therapy, I can see how what goes on could be plausible given a highly advanced understanding of the process. At the same time, the snakes are not omniscient. They make mistakes and their techniques are not an instant success, something much more plausible when you consider the invasion meant their first contact with a new biological form: humans.
As you can see, the aliens caught my attention as they did in Hartshorn’s earlier work, but that’s not what made the story linger. At first, I thought Sovann’s charade would be implausible. A highly advanced species capable of space travel and yet unable to tell male from female? Let me just say that it worked beautifully in with one of those traits the snakes hold in common with humans, that of accepting what they’re told unless given a reason to question.
Sovann’s story is both what drew me back for a second read and what bugged me enough that I didn’t write this review until now. While I want to avoid specifics so I don’t risk spoiling some of the story, I will say it was one of the themes that kept the story in my conscious mind, that of risks and sacrifice in the name of survival.
Alien invasion stories are a trope that frequently shows up in American films. It doesn’t stop me from enjoying that trope one bit, especially when the author takes time to make the alien culture unique. I hadn’t realized how the common treatment of that trope had built up expectations, though, until now. I couldn’t understand why, despite enjoying the story a lot, it continued to bug me until I figured it out. This story is the French film equivalent of the trope, and knowing that, I can enjoy without any hesitation.
The strength in Ophid Dei is in the connections Sovann forms despite his adverse circumstances. These bonds, and how they affect his plans if not his outlook, are the reason this story held up to a reread when so many fail. I already knew the plot and how it ended, but I enjoyed seeing how the characters came together and their reactions to what happens in the story, evoking emotions that are fresh with every read.