The dead walk in Eric Brown's Kéthani, which takes place in a world where aliens (the Kéthani of the title) have given human beings physical immortality. The story begins with the mysterious materialization of a few hundred thousand enormous crystalline spires across the planet. These are the "Onward Stations" of the Kéthani, an alien race similar in many ways to the Overlords of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End: their purpose is to give us the means to return from the dead, in exchange for serving as the Kéthani's explorers and emissaries to the stars.
I first encountered the world of Eric Brown's Kéthani in the first volume of the Solaris Book of New Science Fiction. The story "The Farewell Party" made quite an impression on me, as I wrote:
These themes—a scientific means of resurrection; the ennui of those who have not yet joined the dead—are reminiscent of Robert Silverberg's novella Born With the Dead, to which this story is a worthy heir. I was pleased to see that Eric Brown has written a number of stories set in this world, including Kéthani, a novel Solaris will be releasing next spring. If it's anything like this moving mood piece, it should be well worth reading.
So, is it? Yes, though its overall effect isn't as strong as the individual story's was. This isn't, strictly speaking, a novel; it's a fix-up with very apparent themes. Eric Brown has been writing stories in the Kéthaniverse since 1997, and this book is a collection of those stories, with brief linking material. ("The Farewell Party" is the final chapter, so I unwittingly began at the ending when I read it two years ago.) But each chapter still feels very much like a short story, rather than a portion of a novel. It's not as extreme a case as H.P. Lovecraft's "Herbert West, Re-Animator," which repeats the same introductory information every two or three pages, but there is still a bit of repetition, which detracts from Kéthani's impact as a novel. There's also a certain sameness of mood throughout the stories; it's not just information that repeats, but some themes as well.
That's not to say there isn't much to recommend about the book, particularly in its approach to its basic conceit. The Kéthani themselves never appear, but the degree to which their presence transforms Earth's society is, understandably, enormous. But Brown's book doesn't go into too much detail on that big picture stuff: he tells the stories of average individuals and how the Kéthani affect them personally. That's what's most interesting about the idea of alien resurrection, and Brown sticks to it.
And religion plays an understandably big role in those stories. Several chapters of Kéthani describe conflicts between individuals who disagree about the spiritual meaning of physical resurrection: in general, religious people are opposed to resurrection, and refuse to accept the alien implants that make it possible. It's nice that Brown doesn't give us just one religious response, though: different chapters show us Buddhists, Christians, and Nietzscheans who refuse resurrection, plus one relatively radical Anglican priest who doesn't.
The loudest voice in the book's debates, though, is that of Christians who see the Kéthani's resurrection as a Very Bad Thing, a ploy to keep us out of heaven by offering us eternal physical life. At first I thought the speed with which the Kéthani's implants became universal was a little bit unlikely. After all, given the overly mysterious nature of the aliens, and the fact that every major religion in the world opposed them, wouldn't people be a bit more reluctant? If you believe in a spiritual afterlife, don't you also believe it's supposed to be better than physical life? But the book changed my mind: I think if physical immortality became a real possibility, doubts would fade pretty quickly after the first resurectees returned. Most people, I think, would look at it as a question of economics rather than spirituality, and would hedge their bets: better the proven afterlife than the supposed one (which, by the way, the Kéthani don't believe in). But that quickly becomes pretty extreme: a decade or two after the Kéthani arrive, people begin committing suicide in order to move on to resurrection and a life in the stars. This makes the Kéthani look pretty ghoulish: couldn't there be another way to get us into space, one that didn't lead to this kind of self-directed violence?
There is, of course, a lot of rebirth language in Christianity. Take Romans 7, for instance, in which Paul discusses Christian freedom from the law in terms of death and rebirth: "But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit." That's the kind of thing the Kéthani offer, but where the rebirth of baptism is symbolic, the Kéthani demand real, physical death, which comes across as... well, satanic. I'm reminded of the humanist complaint about the story of Abraham and Isaac: what kind of God would require someone to sacrifice his son? Well, what kind of benevolent aliens would require us to sacrifice ourselves?
There's something unsatisfying in the book's exploration of these questions. The Kéthani are pretty darned mysterious, and the undead "returnees" avoid discussing their experience of rebirth. That's the mystery at the core of the book: Can the Kéthani be trusted? What do they really want with us? The book's all-too-brief epilogue gives something of an answer, but I kinda don't buy it: it's a very vague, very cheery portrait of a wonderful millennia-long career as an explorer. There's a brief line about the Kéthani's motives being "complex," but I found myself unable to accept the optimism about the Kéthani that the epilogue sells. After 400-odd pages of questioning their motives, and particularly after the issue of suicide arose, I couldn't let the aliens off that easily. But despite that uneasiness, I was very pleased that Kéthani gave me so much to think about. After reading "The Farewell Party" I said this book should be well worth reading; and now I'm happy to report that it definitely is.