Seventeen year old, overachiever, Cara Sweeney, has been chosen over thousands of applicants to participate in the Leihr Exchange Ambassador Program (LEAP). The L'eihr's are an alien race who made contact with Earth two years ago and the program was developed to help humans and L'eihrs get to know one another better. Students from America, France and China will each get a student ambassador. Cara will host a L'eihr named Aelyx, in her home for eight months and then she will travel to L'eihr to live on their planet for period of time. Cara will be helping Aelyx take soil and water sample so the L'eihr scientists can analyze them for contaminants. Cara is completely overwhelmed but she eagerly agrees to participate. After all, the L'eihr scientists cured her mother of cancer, saving her life. This was a way to show her gratitude.
Meanwhile eighteen year old Aelyx, along with fellow L'eihr clones, Syrine who will go to France, and Eron who will stay in China, discuss their assignments to families on Earth. They also allude to their plans to sabotage their mission which is to begin work towards an alliance with humans.
This alien exchange story is told by Cara and Aelyx. When Cara sees Aelyx for the first time she is immediately attracted to his unusual appearance; Aelyx is tall, with honey brown hair and strange silvery gray eyes. Despite his good looks, predictably, Cara finds Aelyx extremely strange; he refuses to eat or drink, only speaks when he's asked a question, avoids physical contact and his gorgeous eyes have an unsettling emptiness to them.
For Aelyx, Earth is shockingly vibrant; it strong colours and smells overwhelming in comparison to L'eihr's muted greys and browns and its quiet, organized lifestyle. He finds Cara's actions puzzling - her penchant for singing and listening to loud music. Both Cara and Aelyx must learn to put aside their assumptions about each other and develop a mutual understanding of each others culture.
The mission of the L'eihrs is gradually revealed throughout the story. The L'eihr's who are an ancient and advanced people, want to form an alliance with the humans. We learn later on in the novel that the L'eihr's were once like humans, violent and passionate. The Way, a group of the wisest leaders, eventually came to rule L'eihr. In an effort to control and eliminate the violent and stronger tendencies, The Way began a selective breeding program where only the most intelligent and emotionally stable citizens were allowed to breed. As technology improved, natural breeding was replaced by technology that combined genetic material from male and females, with embryos grown in artificial wombs. For the past 900 years the L'eihrs have bred in this manner. Sexual interaction was avoided by the use of hormone regulators. However, the result of all this is that the passion and creativity which drives innovation and makes life interesting was gradually bred out of the L'eihrs resulting in a people who are lethargic, depressed and who live shorter lives. In an attempt to reverse this, the Way began cloning people using material from the archives. Aelyx is one such clone. HOwever the Way realized that this was not enough. They needed the stimulation provided by another species to help them recover what they lost so they began searching the galaxy. They discovered Earth and have set up this exchange program which they hope will help the three clones recover some of their emotion and passion. Eventually they hope the two races will interbreed. In exchange for recovering their passion for life, the L'eihrs could provide Earth with advanced technology.
However, Aelyx's generation does not want an alliance with Earth. To thwart this alliance they have brought along the sh'alear, a parasitic tree that robs the soil of nutrients, to plant in the three locations the student ambassadors will be living. The three L'eihr ambassadors are afraid that the humans, with their uncontrolled breeding, would soon overrun L'eihr if they were to colonize their planet, destroying it.
Gradually Aelyx begins to adapt to life on Earth, especially with Cara's help. Although he has judged Cara and her family, he begins to recognize in Cara, a caring ally who is very loyal. Cara is determined to make Aelyx's experience on Earth a positive one. She tries to learn how to make larun for Aelyx and eventually she discovers foods he can eat. She also stands up for him at school as he opposition to his presence on Earth grows. Gradually Aelyx and Cara's relationship moves from one of friendship to a blossoming romance.
Despite the increasing opposition to the L'eihrs on Earth, Aelyx begins to find himself becoming conflicted over having planted the sh'alear tree. Eron who has been sent to Japan also begins to doubt their attempt to sabotage the alliance, because of the kindness of his family. Only Syrine remains committed to their mission. Aelyx is further convinced it is wrong when he makes the discovery that Earth's water supply is gradually being destroyed and that only the L'eihr technology can save the planet. As racial tensions and paranoia increase on Earth Aelyx must decide who his loyalties lie with; his people or the human girl whom he loves.
Alienated is a refreshing new addition to young adult literature, with an interesting premise and two likeable, realistic characters. Landers draws out her story well, pacing both the human's gradual disillusionment and paranoia over the alien L'eihr race with the blossoming love between Aelyx and Cara. Woven into all this is Aelyx's increasing conflict over what he considers his duty to protect his planet from humans and his growing attraction to Cara. Destroying the alliance between humans and L'eihrs means he will never see Cara again. In addition to this, the discovery that Earth is irreparably damaged and will die without the intervention of the L'eihr, means that he has doomed Cara too.
One of the novel's strongest themes is that of tolerance. It is human nature to be afraid of those who are different. But this is seen in both humans and the L'eihr ambassadors. The humans believe the worst of the L'eihrs probably because the balance of power lies in the alien's favour. The L'eihrs are prideful and dismiss the human's emotionalism as primitive and a sign of weakness. But they have forgotten how to truly experience life.
Cara is a strong female character, not afraid to stand up for what she believes in as well as tolerant as she struggles to understand Aelyx's perspective. It is her open-mindedness and courage that wins Aelyx over to the humans, just as it was Eron's little brother's love and compassion that changed his views. The lesson here is that acceptance and compassion win the day over hate and bigotry.
Perhaps the only thing that appears to mar this novel are the occasional strange statements that seep into the storytelling from time to time. For example, this piece of commentary by Aelyx: "The child bore a slight resemblance to the girl, but considering China's population restrictions, he probably wasn't a sibling. Too bad Earth's other nations hadn't implemented similar policies. With their limited resources, humans were mating themselves into extinction." Perhaps Melissa Landers is unfamiliar with the problems China's one child policy has created in terms of gender imbalance, the trafficking of women in China, and the inverted population pyramid that will see many elderly without the children to support them. Advanced aliens like the L'eihrs who are struggling with what they've done to their society, especially by restricting just who could reproduce, would likely be very aware of the problems inherent in China's one child policy. They would also be aware that vast areas of Earth are not yet populated and that the problem is not too many people but poor distribution and use of our planet's resources.
Despite this, Alienated is a fun, light read, with plenty of typical teenage drama and a dash of romance all blended into a neat science fiction story. These are the aliens we want to contact Earth, needing us as much as we need them.
The next book in the Alienated series is due out next year.
Alienated by Melissa Landers
New York: Hyperion 2014