An Alien Light is kinda the reverse of that old Trojan Horse gimmick: it shows up like a trick-or-treat lawn ornament, but entices its subjects to enter its deceptive belly for the adult candy. And behind the Oz curtain is not the Wizard, but a conclave of touchie-feelie aliens from the Slaughterhouse Five(1) sound stage.
More precisely, the setup is in a future where man has spread out over galaxies. He has successfully found an enemy—the Ged—at about the same techie level and is presently kicking their soft bellies and kumbaya culture around some distant solar systems. However, here on Qom, light years away from the fighting, the human colony population—untethered from any origin or settlement history of their own—has managed to separate into two, warring camps with irreconcilable hostilities for generations, although a sketchy truce is presently in place. And so, here come the Ged—how we aren't told—seeing the indigenous colonists as a perfect petri dish to experiment and dissect what they call The Central Paradox; that is, no other species in the universe has reached space travel off their planet while they are warring and killing each other. The Ged are incredulous. They at first think the two hostile groups of folks are different species. It would be like us discovering that when pit bulls go without eating for three days, they make better babysitters for our toddling offspring.
The Ged erect a huge, windowless structure called "R'Frow" out of a universal material called "wrof"(p.72). They announce to the two opposite cultures of humans that if they come and stay and play in their jumping castle for one year, the Ged will give them "gems" and—far more importantly to all the NRA members—weapons. The hidden gem, however—and only grasped by a narrow few—is the Ged technology laid out like tables at a science fair and explained by Mr. Wizard himself. Remember, we're talking human barbarians at the Conan the Cimmerian level. A "stun strip" or a "pellet gun" are RPGs and Barrel Bombs to them. But there are those head-scratching, pocket protector types who are interested more in "science" and "electricity". The Ged? Well, the more they cuddle up to their enemy, the more depressed and anxious they become. Someone should burn all their copies of Sun Tzu's The Art of War.
Alright, who are these people? Okay, right off the bat, there are not many humans in this novel to bond with. With bitter irony, author Kress makes the Ged and the attitudes they represent as sophisticated, harmonious, and possessing more empathy for their own kind than most of their human counterparts. The Ged are not killing anybody here—us humans are doing all of that—although they are channeling Dr. Mengele a little. But most of the time they are huddled together, shivering out meaningless phrases to a kickass culture like ours, and mob panicking when things go awry. Their aphorism is "harmony sings with us"(p.3). The only Ged character followed past "hello" is Grax. He's the alien liaison that hands out weapons and teaches the technology behind them, but he's more 3PO without the namby-nagging butler routine.
The entrance characters to the two, adversarial camps of humans are: Ayrys repping Delysia, a city of artisans and traders patterned like a Classic Greece city-state—if it possessed a bourgeois class—and Jehane personifying Jela, pretty much Sparta as visioned in the film 300. Their local slogan is "Jela for loyalty, Delysia for treachery"(p.10) Ayrys is a glassblower who got exiled from her city because of blinkered prejudice, and loses custody of her daughter to boot. Jela is a young and very brash sister-warrior set out on her First Proving quest.On the veld, Jela makes an amateur error and ends up standing "on the same blade of honor"(p.9) with Ayrys, whom she considers "a free-rutting bladder-muscled slug"(p.14). This is the grudging yet saving bond of the novel and dedicated to holding the main message/solution that "temporary solidarity"(p.345) leads to understanding and ultimate harmony.
Its precedence lays the thematic groundwork that starts by seriously examining loyalties, especially if they are close to conflicting. The novel is overflowing with antipodal positions that demand resolution. In fact, in some like Dahar, it is his defining characteristic. He's first appears as a warrior-priest and right-hand man to the Jelite commander, although never fully trusted by his fellow grunts because "all warrior-priests, who were two things and thus neither fully"(p.147). Already torn between the dictation of soldier's allegiance necessary during war, and that of a healer of lives and souls—although no religion of Jela steps to mind—Dahar furthers his alienation by choosing Ged science over brother-warriors' "blade of honor"(p.182), getting burned out of the corps, bedding the enemy Ayrys, and even almost signing on with the Ged when they abandon Qom. Instead of loyalty to the dogmatic exclusivity of Honor, Dahar overindulges himself with the sterility of Truth and Solution.
The other characters round out an impressive ensemble, the quirkiest of which is SuSu, a "figure delicate as glass"(p.203), self-muted, a Jelite slit-whore who loves the curious albino giant from the Island of the Dead—and is ultimately the surviving groups' sibyl.
The novel ends with everyone either dead, leaving the planet, or changing their vision quest in favor of a saving yet glaring dues ex machina conclusion. Thumbing back through the book, there's a sense that this one kinda got away from author Kress. It was her virgin delving into novelistic Science Fiction, after all. It's a solid foundation, but the telling conflicts multiply like Malkovich in Being John Malkovich, irradiating the theme until it blinds all other literary devices, such as use of irony or multiple points of view. Characters like Kelovar and, to some extent, Jehune, become cardboard mouthpieces for brittle-based Machismo and inimical Honor, respectively. Antithetic, it's a little over the limit with characters and actions steamrolling into contradictory confinements with little or no breathing room.
The Ged don't have a chance. Hell, they couldn't even subjugate humanity at horde level. It's kinda like most efforts involving ecological or minority interests if they're contrary to imbedded, old guard concerns, because, like this pre 9-11 novel, when confrotation occurs it is not ethically bound, but a dogpile of short-term triumph. And remember, one antonym for "solidarity" is one synonym away from another's independence.