First contact between human and extraterrestrial beings can be inspiring, terrifying, or a little of both. I guess Vertical Play by Laura Downing Root is going for inspiring in this case, but it’s hard to tell between all the forced wit and drawn-out episodes of veterinary work.
The Story: Saving Pets, Making Friends, And Fighting The In-Laws
Kim is a veterinary technician in Ventura County, CA. She works at Valley Vista and spends most of her time working on animals brought in by both human clients and emigrants from the planet Himbia. However, Kim also spends a lot of time off work, going to Himbian games and cultural events with her friends. This also leads to a conflict with her ex-husband Horatio and her former father-in-law Edward Smithson, who wage a campaign against Himbian farm workers in Ventura County and the spread of their culture.
The Cast: Kindhearted Humans And Himbians
Kim is the first-person narrator and protagonist for this story. She’s a decent human being, but because the author is also a veterinary technician, half of her narration consists of lengthy exposition about animal anatomy and veterinary medicine. Oh, and Kim’s husband is named Aaron, just like Mrs. Root’s, but I’m sure the similarities stop there…
Apart from Kim, none of the other characters really stand out. We get a lot of exposition about the various doctors and nurses at Valley Vista, but we don’t really see them in action or get to know them individually (and no, listing their eating habits and music preferences doesn’t count). Edward and Horatio Smithson stand out a little more as the antagonists, but even then, they’re just one-dimensional bullies whose behavior means no amount of humiliation will ever be enough to satisfy our protagonist.
And then there’s the Himbians. While the animals they bring to Earth are fantastic and unusual, the Himbians themselves are a developing alien race who haven’t achieved space travel and have gained a lot by cultural and social exchanges with the people of Earth. The Himbians are pacifistic, colorful, and everything about their culture is just so exotic…
Being of Latino descent myself, I find it interesting that the Himbians seen in Ventura County have been put into the common occupation of farm workers. And there’s a small but vocal minority of bitter white men who want them gone and see their culture as a threat. Does this sound familiar, amigos?
Final Verdict: Sweet, Short, And Simple
All things considered, there are a few interesting elements in this story that could have been better handled. I think the author’s expertise as a vet might have been better used as the foundation for a story dealing with extraterrestrial animals and people. Even the anti-Himbian movement could have been the focus of the story. But the story’s flow is confused. It seems that for every two to six pages of dealing with the Smithsons, there’s ten pages worth of treating animals that doesn’t have any bearing on the key conflict.
And before you ask, no, I don’t think the Himbians in this story are in any way like the Prawns of District 9. The Prawns may have advanced biotechnology, but do they have cute and adorable critters in need of a checkup?
Bibliography: Downing Root, Laura. Vertical Play. Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing, 2012.