Kristine Kathryn Rusch
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform / 426 pages / (June 8, 2012)
If Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids, Bountiful may be an argument for sterilization. Consider the sun-scorched terrain, the constant threat of overexposure, and, of course, the grisly murders of the colonists’ children. The only redeeming factors seem to be the discovery and production of the much-in-demand Salt Juice and the existence of an intelligent alien race, Dancers, the only ones able to grow the Salt Juice plants.
Worse luck! The Salt Juice may not be as harmless as its press insists. And it appears the Dancers are killing the children in a form of maturation ritual. At the appropriate point, remove a Dancer youth’s heart, lungs, and hands, and the regenerated parts make the alien an adult. Do the same to a human child and, well, it dies.
Justin Schafer, xenopsychologist, has been sent to Bountiful ostensibly to learn the reason for the slayings and recommend a course of action. The colony’s leaders want the Dancers dealt with immediately. Schafer’s a bit more cautious; on his last assignment, he mistakenly brought about the extinction of another sentient race.
The investigation leads Schafer to study the remaining, apparently unconcerned children, and their relationship with the graceful, gentle Dancers. What he discovers pleases no one, especially the Bountiful bureaucrats. The killers are actually the remaining children; make use of the maturation ritual and become an adult. But the process didn’t work.
More horrifying is the realization that the bureaucrats knew, and planned to use the incident to wipe out the Dancers. The secret of the highly addictive Salt Juice is theirs now, and they see no reason to share the wealth with aliens.
Based on Schafer’s report, the planet is abandoned, the children taken from their addicted parents, and travel to Bountiful outlawed. Revolted by the murders, appalled by the unexplainable death of one of the five, but more frightened of Dancer-“infected” children, the authorities whisk the children away to separate penal colonies.
Years after the sentences are completed, John, the leader of the group accepts an assignment for a strange bounty that brings him into contact with a genie-like being and sets him off on a quest to locate his friends. The search takes him from salt mines to inter-species brothels and, finally, back to the planet that haunts him.
What he finds along the way brings him pain, shocking discoveries, and a strange reunion, but will it bring him peace?
Rusch isn’t here on this Earth to hand out easy answers. Alien Influences is, like all her work, memorable, enthralling, and just a touch frustrating; there are always more questions after the final page. And there is no final word.