Thursday, November 3, 2022

Alien Nation 5: Slag Like Me by Barry B. Longyear

Alien Nation 5
Slag Like Me
by Barry B. Longyear
1994 Pocket Books

In 1959, journalist John Howard Griffin disguised himself as a Black man using tanning booths, medication, and make up, and travelled the American South, recording the experience for Sepia magazine. Unlike the similarly themed Soul Man...

his book Black Like Me seems to still be well regarded. I was familiar with the parodies, from Eddie Murphy in Saturday Night Live...

to Chris Morris' Brass Eye. Even Superman's Girl Friend, Lois Lane, gets in on the act

And the Punisher. Oof.

In Slag Like Me, a human reporter undergoes surgical treatment to look Tenctonese. He goes undercover in LA, hangs around gangsters, and exposes bigoted police. When he goes missing, LAPD and the FBI investigate, and Matthew Sikes undergoes the same procedure to flush out whoever did whatever to the reporter.

Meanwhile, George Francisco is partnered with former overseer and current FBI agent Paul Iniko to chase down leads, such as the exposed crooked cops and an angry neighbor.

I don't know if this story was based on unused season two scripts, and tie-in novels come with a lot of restrictions, so I don't want to assign blame, but everything about Slag Like Me gets it wrong.

Alien Nation is a metaphor for immigration, assimilation, and bigotry. These themes are baked into every scene of every story. I struggle to comprehend the creative mind that, after a movie, 22 television episodes, and four novels, decides "Hey, how about we make this next book about racism?" It also falls into the same trap as some X-Man stories - instead of using fictional bigotry to highlight and explore actual bigotry, it uses actual racism as a metaphor to explore the real theme, fictional racism against aliens who do not exist. And the discussions on racism and bigotry are not subtextual here, it's pure soapboxing.

One would think, given the title and cover and all, the main story would be Sikes living life as a newcomer. You would be wrong. A decent amount of page space is budgeted to him preparing, but he's barely out in public in disguise and can't manage to stay in character for more than two minutes. His first undercover act is to make an appointment with a Tenctonese gang leader, to whom he instantly announces that he is a human cop.

Very quickly they're pulled over and beaten up by the police. Matt is taken to the hospital and has amnesia, so I was hoping we'd have a bit where he would think he was Tenctonese for a while, but nope, he gets his memory back almost right away and promptly tells everyone he is a human cop. Sikes is not very good at going undercover.

At no time did the foundational premise of the book, Sikes going undercover as a Newcomer, have any affect on the plot or themes, other than to discover that LA cops would be as mean to Newcomers as they are to everyone else, which Sikes already knows.

The mystery plot is equally disappointing. Various conspiracies are hinted out before it's revealed to be characters who are named in passing once, and they did it for dumb reasons. Some mysteries have non-sequitur endings that reflect the chaotic nature of real crime, other times it reads like the author didn't feel like wrapping everything up and just picked a killer at random. This felt like the latter.

As with the last book, Sikes and Francisco are split up through most of the story, denying the buddy cop element, and is replace by Francisco and Iniko. We get kind of a Bugs/Daffy, Mickey/Donald deal where Francisco goes from being the rational half of the duo to being the irrational one. Pretty much all the soap opera elements, such as Francisco's home life, are neglected. We do get a little bit more of Dobbs, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs' character, which was nice.

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