We Have Always Been Here by Lena Nguyen

Recommended for
Read October  2021
★   1/2

Aka: Science Fiction Written by People Who Watched One Episode of TV Sci-Fi

It was on page three when I realized Nguyen and I were going to have differences:

“And with no foreign microbes in space, the chances of incurring infection in route were vanishingly small.”

Oh boy. I read that twice to be sure it was saying what I thought. Yep; it was. Apparently, Nguyen is completely unaware that our bodies are literally bacteria habitats–any disturbance in homeostasis and a little bad luck, and you will have a population explosion sure to cause problems. I mean, it isn’t “foreign microbes” that are responsible for 200 thousand people admitted to the hospital each year for diverticulitis, nor for the lucky 7% of the population who develop appendicitis.

Okay, maybe it gets better. Not everyone knows about bacteria.

Wait; it doesn’t. Here she describes the lead character, Park:

“She was one of the two psychologists on the ship, charged with monitoring the crew’s mental health; Chanur was the physician in charge of their physical well-being. That meant they were both medical professionals… But Chanur obviously saw their roles as completely separate from one another.”

Um, no. For the longest time, I thought there were three psychologists because of how oddly this paragraph was written. But it doesn’t really matter if there are two or three, because Park is a shitty psychologist, or whatever kind of brain doctor she claims to be (hint: calling your long-term co-voyagers ‘patients’ isn’t good practice).

“Park was suspicious, but after a while she let him go. She did not feel equipped to press a patient with questions without Keller there.” 

Sure, I get why a professional who literally has a job designed around asking questions, may have issues actually asking, you know, questions. What? Hand you a pill? No, I’m a nurse, I’m not sure I’m equipped to do that.

It gets better. The other psychologist (that’s two for a team of thirteen) is Park’s mentor, Keller. Who is, incidentally, also shit at doing her job, just like all the other psychologists in this book (I’m beginning to see why they need more than one). She manages to invalidate and dismiss her mentee’s concerns, all at the same time:  ‘The mission is designed so that all crewmembers can still succeed in their jobs. The robots are only here for support and back up— not as an integral part of the expedition.” She gave Park a smile, and then another motherly, reassuring pat on the hand. “Don’t worry. I’m sure they’ll all be fine.'”

But it isn’t just bacteria and medical people that Nyguen has trouble with. She’s also terrible with ‘robots’ and ships. When Park asks one of the robots a question, a psychologist has something to say about it:“‘Who, in your opinion, do you think would try to poison me?” Chanur wheeled on her [Park] then, eyes flashing with disapproval. ‘It doesn’t have an opinion, Park,” she said tightly. ‘Being a machine.'”Actually, I would think the robots would be best suited to answer that question, particularly if they had access to all monitoring systems on a spaceship–they could work out logical probability in a heartbeat. I’m having trouble working out a society that thinks ‘robots’ can be security, janitors and cooks (basically all your low-wage jobs), and yet not have the ability to process information. And then having people around them hate the robots. Knowing the human ability to anthropomorphize just about everything, how likely do you think this is?

Speaking of spaceships, Park has a surprising amount of trouble navigating around this one, but only because of Plot-Related Reasons. Because I’m almost 100% certain there’s no science-y reason for a spaceship described like this:

“Structured like a rabbit’s warren, the ship itself a great oblong disc whirling through space, its innards three decks’ worth of cramped and crooked passageways that twined around each other in dimly lit confusion. No straight lines here, Park often thought…The way the corridors twisted around each other-coupled with the way the ship spun-meant you could never really tell what direction you were moving in.”

When I realized how much my antipathy was growing, I tried to channel the emotion into a hate-read, so I could at least participate with my buddies and not just drop out. Clearly, I’ve grown as a person, because I couldn’t even manage to do that. It turns out there are REASONS for some of these things, but not good ones. No; it’s like Nyguen had a plot she wanted to use and worked backwards for the science and conditions to make the plot possible. And then didn’t think about how she needed to back those conditions up by actual reality.

“Truth be told, she didn’t think she could shoulder the burden of the ship’s nine remaining minds all on her own. Didn’t believe that she could interact with all of those people, process all of those worries and neuroses and fears, without herself going mad. She had never trained for this—had never expected to take on a role beyond that of an observer, a monitor.”

Sure, I can see how someone selected for a space voyage, with the express purpose of treating the ‘minds’ of the crew would feel overwhelmed by, you know, doing the job she was hired for. (bolded sarcasm font).

Truth be told, I never expected this to be such a hot mess of a book, or I wouldn’t have suggested it to friends as a buddy read. It had all the ingredient I’ve loved lately: exploration spaceships, psychological uncertainty and intelligent but misanthropic leads. Ruined by absent world-building, the lamest plot ever, and the kind of pseudo-science seen in Sci-Fy Movie of the Week, I recommend this to no one.

And “unity rain?” Wth, Nguyen.

My deepest apologies to Nataliya (her review) and Phil (his review) who were game enough to finish.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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14 Responses to We Have Always Been Here by Lena Nguyen

  1. Oh dear.

    You know the novel Rite of Passage (1968, and a Nebula winner, nominated for the Hugo too)? It remains one of my favorites and includes meticulous world-building. There is, for example a reason for each detail of the ship’s structure.

    I have a couple dozen copies of the novel and enjoyed teaching it twice. The covers are mostly ridiculous. The main character describes herself on page one and her name is Mia Havero, but most overs make her blue-eyed or green-eyed or blonde or too tall.

    • thebookgator says:

      I don’t know the novel Rite of Passage. Sounds interesting! Yes, usually a part of the ‘sci-fi’ of spaceship books is an explanation of why the structure is the way it is, for some physics-type or community-type reason. This is so they can hide things in the basement. /eyeroll.

  2. pdtillman says:

    “Science Fiction Written by People Who Watched One Episode of TV Sci-Fi”
    Pity, that. I happened to see Nataliya’s review first, but you both said ~ same thing: OMG!
    Oh, well. Plenty more VN techies where she came from. Or here, in Calif….

  3. drewvan says:

    This book ticks most of my favorite subject matter boxes and sounds perfect for me. Thanks for saving me the agony of slogging through it!

    • thebookgator says:

      To be fair, some of my friends (the less-judgey ones) did enjoy this book. I’d go by what you think of the quotes and how similar we may be on tastes. Phil reads widely in sci-fi and also disliked it.

  4. pdtillman says:

    Interesting (to me) how many women readers (and writers!) are into SF these days, It was BOYS ONLY in the late 50s… Except, a couple of my sisters caught the bug not too much later — I’m the eldest, and only boy of 5 sibs. I got to mow a LOT of lawns! And, let me tell you, I was SO PO’d at my Dad, who bought a nice riding lawnmower pretty much the day I left for college!

  5. Ola G says:

    LOL, I’ll never read that but I’m happy I had a chance to read your review – had a good laugh, despite sympathizing 😉

  6. cathepsut says:

    LOl… I actually ended up giving this read 4 stars, because I tend to be a very chilled reader. I had issues, especially with the stupidity of Park‘s character, but eventually liked the story well enough. I do get your points though and agree with them. Especially Park being a shitty psychologist.

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