Beneath the Surface by Rebecca Langham is book 1 of The Outsider Project. It takes place on a future Earth where humanity has so damaged the climate that people are forced to live in enclosed domes or beneath the surface. Perhaps that’s why when the Outsiders were made known to the people it was easier to put them underground. They were too alien, too different, and the populace was told that they were dangerous. The original leader of the Outsiders was promised that as refugees they would be taken care of, given jobs, and fed. But generations later, that promise was proved false because the Outsiders were denied another basic right, freedom. In exchange for living in prison-like internment camps, they were expected to build goods for the world above. And they were expected to follow all the rules. You’d be hard-pressed to miss the political and social implications of the human’s treatment of what amounts to an immigrant population.
When the Lydia, the daughter of one of the four world governors, spends three months down below on a teaching rotation, she receives more education that she gives. The more she gets to know the children and adult Outsiders, the more she realizes how very alike they all are. Especially as she is drawn to Alessia, who is an Outsider that is more than she seems. Lydia is forced to take a major risk to follow her heart when it comes to Alessia and her race of people who don’t deserved to be shut away and treated as less than human. Especially once certain secrets come to light.
At first I thought Lydia was too meek, too pliable. She seemed like a tenderhearted sort, but just kind of went along with everything she saw. Becoming a teacher was her way of rebelling somewhat from her father’s expectations. He was a man who cared more about winning the next election than his missing wife or an unhappy daughter who was expected to live life in the public eye at all times. Volunteering to teach the outsiders was Lydia’s way of escaping all that. Underground they had no instant neural connection to the web, it was silent and somewhat anonymous.
Alessia was quiet and meek as well but not in the same way and not for the same reasons. She was born to lead the outsiders, a secret that few knew. She was stronger, faster, and smarter than humans and other Outsiders but she kept all those traits a secret. Alessia was well aware that true freedom had to come from the patience involved with changing the hearts of the people above, and not in changing their minds through violence. Neither Alessia nor Lydia expected to be so drawn to one another. Acting on their emotions could and does endanger both of them, though it puts Alessia in more peril since she is not a governor’s daughter. I liked Alessia and Lydia, the author did a good job writing the strange yearning that both experience. Langham also well conveys the imminent sense of danger on both of their minds even as they take risks to see and comfort each other.
The Writing Style
Beneath the Surface was written 3rd person which is definitely the way to go for a story like this. While this comes across as a science fiction piece, nearly dystopian, it is also somewhat romantic and has a firm thread of mystery running through the entire novel. There are things that keep you guessing, and even more information you don’t learn until nearly the very end. It was easy to follow though, and well written.
I think my favorite thing about this novel was the amount of thought Langham put into the Outsider’s biology. She didn’t just write their physical bodies, she wrote about the emotional differences from human as well. And between those two things, she swung the narrative around to describe the cultural mindset that evolved to allow the Outsiders to function as a society with their strange sort of bodies and minds. It was almost like she wrote people as people were meant to be.
There was a lot of information left in the dark for both Alessia and Lydia, as well as the reader. I mentioned that there was information that you didn’t find out until the very end of the novel. I think this would have been alright, the level of mystery involved, if I’d gotten to see a little emotional development more between Lydia and Alessia. But I think perhaps the storyline just ran too fast and there wasn’t time in the plot to do such things. Maybe because of the speed of the plot I found the ending to be a little abrupt. I wanted to see the couple develop once they were given more time together. And the novel had a few minor typos, but otherwise it was pretty solid.
To be honest, the book was pretty slow to capture my attention. But in all fairness that sometimes happens when I’m distracted by a million different things. However, once I hit my stride it became truly engaging and I was extremely glad I pushed through. It eventually got to the point where I couldn’t put it down.
Langham writes an excellent tale about what happens when humans let things go wrong, and then what happens when they try against the odds to finally get them right.
The novel touches on the politics and machinations that perpetuate the rise and fall of the human race, but it doesn’t get bogged down with it.
The characters are well done, the plot is involving and unique, and over all Beneath the Surface was a really good dystopian science fiction piece. Certainly different than many of the others I’ve seen before. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to read it and I’ll be looking for the sequel when it eventually comes.
Excerpt from Beneath the Surface by Rebecca Langham
The holo-pro whirred to life. Hundreds of small three-dimensional circles, each one with an Outsider’s face, flew out from the wall and surrounded Lydia. The gender of each person was indicated by the colour of the circle. From what Lydia could tell, the fifty or so red icons signified adults who had chosen to remain without gender, regardless of the sexual traits their bodies may have expressed. It was an aspect of their culture she’d always found quite beautiful, and one that —unlike so many other things—had been discussed above ground. Humans had come so far when it came to the acknowledgement and respect of a range of gender identities, or lack thereof should that be the case for some, but for the Outsiders, such respect seemed ingrained, organic. They responded to the emotional and physical well-being of one another without question. Humans, on the other hand, had to be shown the way step-by-step, led to tolerance and understanding by a pioneering few who’d possessed the compassion, the tenacity, and the intelligence to break down the walls of gender and sexual segregation.
The faces of pre-ceremonial, androgynous children were attached to the white icons. A symbol in the lower left corner indicated their physical sex. Most Outsiders, as with humans, were born with the physical traits that established one aspect of their identity. Unlike humans, Outsider parents allowed children to develop without a strictly enforced gendering program.
The whole concept fascinated Lydia. Humans who changed sex or gender were, of course, widely accepted and supported in the world. Growing up without the assumption their gender would be in alignment with their physical sex, however? Rare indeed. For the aliens, it was their way of life. Somehow that aspect of their culture had survived despite the years of human ‘education.’
“Remove yellow and white,” Lydia told the Hive.
The remaining icons grew larger, expanding into the space vacated by the files Lydia had sent back into the access wall. She selected a few profiles, one at a time, leaving each open for a short time. Lydia skimmed them to ensure the security logs would show she had been trawling through a variety of Outsider files. She hoped they’d think she was just bored or curious. Otherwise she’d be hard-pressed to explain, even to herself, why she wanted to know more about one person. Most of the women whose profiles she read lived innocuous lives. Nearly all the Os seemed to be pansexual, each one having had relationships with a variety of people, not confined by sex nor gender. Though humans saw all types of relationships as valid and equally dignified, the fact was that most people still tended to identify as heterosexual. It was just the way of things. The Outsiders, though, they apparently had no such statistical majority of sexuality.
Satisfied that she’d left a meandering trail through the system, Lydia selected the profile she’d wanted to read in the first place. As she did, she was struck by a niggling sense of guilt. The profiles felt far too similar to systems she’d seen used to catalogue animals or buildings or any other number of corporate assets. As intrusive as she felt looking through them, she chose to continue. She’d gone this far, she may as well learn more.
Alessia’s photograph must have been taken a few years earlier. She seemed lighter, somehow, in the image. As though life’s pains had not yet taken their toll on her ingenious face. The details provided within the profile were basic. It seemed Alessia had not drawn much attention to herself in fifteen years. There were only two protector reports written about her; both suggested Alessia had failed to arrive at her work shift on time. The woman had apologised profusely both times and made up the hours without a fuss.
Lydia swiped her hand sidewards, scrolling to a new page. Alessia’s work detail arrangements. It seemed, without being labelled as such, Alessia was a sort of mechanical engineer. Anything that needed problem-solving, whether it was fixing a piece of machinery or repairing code that interfered with the effective operation of an AI chef, Alessia would be assigned to it. Job designation: critical. She had the most authority, the most colony access, and the most professional respect an Outsider could achieve. Impressive, Lydia thought. This woman was smart. Really smart.
One page of the Outsider’s file was noticeably bare though—the one concerning relationships. Every other profile listed significant people, those an Outsider was connected to through blood, through ongoing sexual relationships, through love. There was no one listed on Alessia’s profile, just a brief comment from one of the protectors: suspect same-sex attracted only. Lydia was more pleased by the single line of text than she knew she ought to be. Connections keep you sane, she thought. What kept Alessia grounded? A deep sense of unease replaced her initial pleasure at reading the data. The existence of such indecorously personal profiles, akin to a catalogue of animals being offered up for sale, made her mouth go dry. Yet wasn’t she part of the problem, given she was looking at all of this, simply because she could?
Lydia sighed. Peleus had told her Alessia was worth knowing. She’d been on the outside. The file said nothing about any of those experiences.
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The Outsider Project
Beneath the Surface
Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number: 9781947904897
- Publisher: NineStar Press
Rebecca Langham Online
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