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Meru, The Alloy Era #1
by S. B. Divya

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted February 11, 2023

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Based on my reaction to Divya's debut novel, Machinehood, I pre-ordered Meru as soon as I learned of it, about six months ago. Even before I started reading it I became aware of its sequel, Loka, which I've already ordered even though its release is a year away. I am glad I did, but disappointed I can't start reading it right away. I am very anxious to continue with the story. Even though I know the title of the second book, I have not been able to find any other information about it. Meru is a newly discovered extra-solar planet which is possibly habitable by humans. Loka might be another planet, it might be a character name. Since it will be a book series, and while I don't know how many we can expect, they do have a collective name which I've used in the URL for the page, the Alloy Era.

As much as I enjoyed Meru, I have to admit it was slow going through the first few chapters, in fact I had to re-read several. Divya drops us into a confusing future where the solar system, and other systems, are wholly transformed from what we are familiar with. In several ways it echoed themes, but not plot, from another new book I read last month, Annalee Newitz's The Terraformers. That was set much further into the future, and humanity was still at the top of the social heirarchy, but they had uplifted (to use David Brin's term) multiple animal species to higher levels of sentience, along with robotic constructs. In Meru, humanity has dropped down in the heirarchy, with their activities restricted by alloys. In the beginning I had a notion that alloys were either animal-like, or machine-like, but they are post-human entities, their DNA originating from humans, but they had undergone centuries of evolution, most of which was by their own design. Most alloys think of themselves as superior to humans, somewhat like parents to their children. They felt humanity had mismanaged the ecology of Earth, as well as that of a potentially terraformed Mars, so now humans are restricted to Earth under alloy supervision, although there are groups of people who chafe at that, and wish to advance humanity's position in the cosmos. Among them is the book's main character.

Jayanthi is a human woman with a unique history. Her 'parents' are alloys, although it wasn't clear if they had used any of their own DNA in Jaya's design, or if in fact they had been the ones to design Jaya's DNA. Even between human parents, genetic design and artificial wombs for gestation were the norm. Jaya's alloy parents live on Earth in human-appearing "incarn" bodies, their true alloy bodies remaining in orbit. They are anthropologists fascinated with human history, and in a sense they were experimenting with Jaya, retaining some historical genetic anomalies, including sickle cell disease. Jaya had been offered the choice of further genetic manipulation to alleviate her SCD, but instead chose to undergo frequent blood transfusions and the use of certain drugs. Jaya knew she was unique, and her high intelligence also led her to believe she might one day be able to add a new discovery into the Nivid, a repository of knowledge compiled and organized by alloys, something that no human had ever done before. She wanted to be a tarawan, one who works in genetic design, and was being tutored by another alloy, Hamsa. After the discovery of Meru, which had a very high oxygen content in its atmosphere, Jaya thought she would be a perfect candidate to test whether or not it would be suitable for other humans. If the alloys who oversaw the Constructed Democracy of Sol were satisfied with her assessment, any future human émigré to Meru would have to be designed with sickle cell disease.

I don't know how far into our future the Alloy Era began, but it was not until 187 AE that the Declaration of Conscious Beings (DCB) was enacted, and that may have also been the beginning of the Constructed Democracy of Sol (CDS). Several other governing bodies are mentioned, most often using their acronym: TESC, the Tarawan Ethics and Standards Council; MEC, the Meru Exploration Committee. I may be mistaken, but I think the story is taking place at least 500 years following the formation of the CDS, but alloys use different measures of time. A varsha is approximately 3.3 Earth years, a masan about 3.5 months. Kaals and kilas are probably equivalent to days and hours, but there was never a comparison of them to Earth terms. The term alloy is one of the reasons I first thought of them as machine-like, since that is usually used to describe something that is a mixture of different metals, or metal with other substances. There are different types of alloys, with different appearances and sizes, and all are long-lived. Later in the book, the first time Jaya saw Hamsa in his true alloy body, she was surprised he was not as big as expected. A reason I thought they might have been derived from animals is that most have wings and tails, or other animal-like features. Other than Hamsa and Jaya's parents, the alloy most important to the story is Vaha, a pilot. Pilots have cargo and passenger carrying areas within their bodies, and my first visualizations of Vaha was like a whale. Then the author posted some art for Vaha online, where zie looked more like a mermaid, sleek and streamlined, which made me alter my visualization, particularly zir size and how cargo and passengers were taken inboard.

Hamsa had been in the process, for many varshas, of trying to amend the DCB to allow more freedom for humans, including leaving Earth for other colonies within the solar system, even to other systems. Up to that point, alloys and constructs did all of the work off Earth, but had to rely on Earth for some of their supplies, including water and a replenishing drink called bhojya. Alloys did not eat any solid foods. A vote is pending when Jaya's test on Meru is authorized, with Vaha being the pilot who will take her there and oversee the project. They have about eighteen months to determine the suitability of Meru for humans. The second stage of the project, if approved, would send other humans for longer stays. I have to skirt around several plot points to get to when Jaya takes it upon herself to accelerate to stage two. Using the medical facilities within an artifical womb taken to the planet, the purpose of which was to help Jaya maintain her SCD treatments, and for emergency use by Vaha's incarn, Jaya creates an embryo which she implants in her own uterus. At that point I thought the story would be about Jaya giving birth on Meru, with her and Vaha's incarn raising the child to prove the viability of humans on the planet. That was the plan, at least, but several things intervened.

If I was to reveal much more of the plot it would either confuse you, as some early things did for me, or spoil too much. Suffice it to say, Vaha and Jaya are separated, Jaya not knowing where zie was or whether zie was still alive. With the aid of a mega-construct, Jaya leaves Meru, is unable to find information of Vaha's whereabouts, but manages to get transport on two different constructs, the second of which was the size of a small moon. Chedi is encased in a layer of ice to guard against radiation, its human and construct passengers content to roam the known universe, although they occasionally have to return to Sol for resupply. Jaya was surprised to find other humans off Earth, but the creation of Chedi dated back centuries, perhaps even before the CDS, and in fact its creation had been authorized by Hamsa. They vote to return Jaya to Sol ahead of their schedule, but instead of her going to Earth, she meets Hamsa, and together they go to the Primary Nivid, where her activites will be judged. It is at that point her pregnancy is revealed.

Jaya desperately wants to find Vaha, and with the aid of a sympathetic alloy guide, she meets Kaliyu, another pilot, who at least at one point had been Vaha's best friend. Kaliyu was very anti-human, and had parted with zir friend when zie contracted to transport Jaya to Meru. Several other factors had caused Kaliyu to alter zir opinion of humans, and together they escape the Nivid and head back to Meru to search for Vaha. What I had expected to be a somewhat idyllic, but still challenging, life on Meru, with Jaya and Vaha forming a unique bond to accomplish the task, turned into so much more. It's an exciting adventure, clearly within the sub-genre of space opera. The story traverses two different solar systems multiple times, as well as the relativity corridor between them. Using modern day sensibilities as to gender, identity, and sexual expression, it is just as mind expanding as anything from the Golden Age. It's about a passion for knowledge, about perseverance and strength, of body, mind, and spirt. But most of all about loyalty and friendship. And love. Hamsa's amendment passes, even though it's possible Jaya might not be allowed to return to Meru. She gives birth back on Chedi, and that's where the story ends. For now.

To use a frequent exclamation from the book: By the Nivid! This is highly recommended!


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S. B. Divya

February 1, 2023

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