PHOENIX CAFE

Gwyneth Jones

Tor Books / 350 pages / January 1998

ISBN: 0312865341

In White Queen the aliens arrived, and not everyone on Earth was pleased. North Wind brought us back to an Aleutian-run Earth, divided between the alien-haters and the alien-collaborators. Neither side wished to claim the half-castes: the product of genetic and surgical tinkering and mankind’s attempt to be Aleutian. With Phoenix Café, three hundred years have brought us to a nearly decimated Earth, but one with a united purpose — everyone wants the Aleutians gone, especially the Aleutians.

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Someone has to perfect the Buonarotti drive. It is instantaneous transfer or nothing. Anyone stuck on Earth loses. It hardly needs to be mentioned that the Aleutians aren’t planning on any terrestrial passengers for the trip home.

If you miss the Aleutian characters from the previous books, you are in luck. And you aren’t. Remember, they always return, but you can’t count on them to come back as the same quirky alien you knew and loved. Don’t bother to guess at identities, almost no one in Phoenix Café is who or what they appear. In fact, thanks to virtual reality and designer sex drugs, it’s difficult to put much faith in any aspect of this world.

But, that’s part of what Jones does best, destroying assumptions and keeping the reader off-balance. Assumptions about sex and sexuality — as you may have already learned in the first two volumes of the White Queen trilogy — are the first to go. Not only are the Aleutians impossible to classify in standard male/female terms, but humans have dropped the old labels and now come in all varieties.

Take Catherine, the protagonist: she’s the Aleutian in human form, a species and gender experiment. Mostly, s/he’s confused. This life is a chance to atone, to make amends for some of her previous lives. Her attempts demand deeper and deeper involvement with humans, from assisting a bizarre (but sadly topical) suicide cult to participating in a submissive rape “relationship” that leads her deep into a human conspiracy amongst the planet’s elite.

Perhaps this would be a good time for a cautionary statement. Phoenix Café openly examines the possibilities of alien/human sex, mixed-gender sex, same-gender sex, clone sex, and I think I caught a hint of computer/cleaning product sex. The easily embarrassed aren’t going to be reading any passages aloud.

Back to the story. Catherine’s connections lead her to the highest levels of human society where the lowest forms of behavior are standard practice. But, something more vile than normal is going on among the rich and famous, and it might mean the end of the Aleutian Expedition or all life on Earth. A permanent death for humans and aliens.