Science fiction is a genre that generally falls into two widely different scopes (the epic, action-packed, space opera; and the intimate, character-focused, story of ideas), and two equally diverse themes (that of the truly 'alien' threat from beyond the stars; and that of the the 'human' threat, emerging from much closer to home).
With ARIA: Left Luggage, Geoff Nelder opts for the more intimate scope, but pairs it with the alien threat. It's a combination that's particularly difficult to pull off, but he manages to do an admirable job.
Taking his cue from the Greeks, Nelder pulls a Trojan Horse ploy, depositing an innocuous looking piece of alien luggage on a human space station. Due to a mixture of arrogance and curiosity, the contents of that luggage - Alien Retrograde Infectious Amnesia (ARIA) - are soon shared with all of humanity. Before long, people are having their memory erased quickly and progressively. Lost, confused, angry, and scared, the world finds itself in dire straits . . . but there may just be hope.
The contagion itself that is the initial draw here, and Nelder does a superb job of exploring the intimate, personal details. We see precisely how individuals suffer under its infection, and watch how their lives are destroyed. He also extrapolates the impact of a mass case of alien dementia, giving us the bigger picture of a society falling into ruin. Its fascinating, terrifying, and heart-breaking as well.
Of course, exploring the impact of ARIA can - or make that should - only be taken so far. Like a plague-ridden post-apocalyptic nightmare, the horror can quickly wear thin, trying the reader's patience and causing them to lose interest. That's where Nelder wisely turns to a story of heroism and hope, as a small group of survivors attempt to understand where the infection came from, why humanity has been targeted, and what can be done to halt the infection in its tracks.
The characters are strong, more than capable of carrying a tale that moves along at a good pace. Even those minor characters who come and go so quickly are well-drawn, human beings with human sufferings. The story does lag in a few places, as Nelder catches us up on the 'how' and 'why', but for the most part he keeps the pace moving. The core mystery is handled exceptionally well, never overburdening the story, but never getting lost in the chaos either.
Considering all that's going on, I expected a more confused and convoluted tale, but was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to follow (and relate) to events. It's not quite a door-stopper, but Nelder has written a science fiction novel that offers a good, solid read, with plenty to absorb and enjoy. More importantly, he has written a story with a great deal to think about, wrapped up in a story that makes you want to think.Originally reviewed at Beauty in Ruins