Enemy Mine by Barry B. Longyear

Enemy Mine coverI really fell in love with this book, but after talking to people about it at our scifi book group I’ve heard all kinds of reactions. Some people really liked it, some not so much… it’s a 100-page book, so the plot is very simple. It’s about an Earth soldier who crash-lands with a Drac solider on an uninhabited planet. They begin as enemies cooperating to survive the harsh environment, but as they get to know each other a warm relationship grows between them.

When they first meet, the only words each knows of the other’s language is insults meant to incite the enemy and make him act without thinking. Davidge, the human, insults the Drac’s venerated philosopher, and Jeriba Shigan (nicknamed “Jerry”) insults Mickey Mouse, which makes Davidge laugh. They slowly learn each other’s language by building outwards from the word kiz (“shit” in the Drac language), which is actually a pretty fitting metaphor for organic growth. They create a mixture of human and Drac speech:

“How nasesay steer, Davidge? In that, how steer? Ess eh soakers, waves, beyond the land take, gavey? Bresha… Ess eh bresha rocks on, ne? Then we death.”

As they build up their relationship and begin living together in a cave they find, Jeriba introduces Davidge to the philosophy of Shizumaat and teaches Davidge how to recite the Shigan family line. The recitation of the family line, I thought, was the most moving part of the book. To Dracs, requesting someone’s line is a gesture of great respect. He reads, “Before you here I stand, Shigan of the line of Jeriba, born of Gothig, the teacher of music…” It reminded me of the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony in the Jewish religion, when the Torah is passed from grandparents to parents to the (now) Jewish adult.

[here I go off on a little tangent…] I was raised Jewish. I had never been heavily invested in my Jewish identity but Operation Protective Edge and the discussions it sparked amongst my relatives made me want to leave the religion for good. However, I feel as though I can’t leave because I’m ethnically Jewish and my family expects me to comply with Jewish ritual, if only occasionally. Because of my complicated relationship with Judaism, the part about reciting the family line hit me pretty hard. It depicts pretty well that experience of pride in one’s heritage that a bat mitzvah feels on the bimah. That sense of ancestry and identity is the part of Judaism that’s the hardest to leave behind. You can roll to put out a fire, but there’s no way you can roll enough to turn into something else. Judaism is the same way – you can extinguish your belief in God, and maybe your pride in Israel as a nation, but abandoning your personal heritage feels like committing a crime against your ancestors. The recitation of the line reminded me of the proverbial baby I’d be throwing out with the bathwater, and because of that, it meant a lot more to me than it did to other readers I’ve spoken to. Funny how one reader’s amusing detail is another reader’s stab in the heart.

Dracs and humans come into conflict because they’re both trying to expand their frontiers. Because of this, and each of their lack of knowledge about the other, human society is hostile to Dracs and vice versa. After Davidge returns home he finds that he can’t stomach human company anymore because of their xenophobic attitude towards the Dracs. He saves up his money and travels to the Drac planet, where he finds Jeriba Shigan’s offspring, Zammis, in the Drac equivalent of a 1960s mental hospital. Zammis’s family hadn’t even been told he was born because he presumably asked about Davidge and was deemed a “human lover” and thus a blemish on his family name (I guess this is the negative side of that whole family honor thing…). This reminded me of the second season of American Horror Story, where Sarah Paulson’s character is being “treated” for homosexuality by being forced to vomit while looking at pictures of naked women. It’s not depicted that graphically in Enemy Mine, but Zammis says next to nothing through his interaction with Davidge until Davidge performs a secret handshake that snaps Zammis out of his stupor.

The gender angle of this book is really interesting as well. Dracs are hermaphrodites. They don’t need anyone else to reproduce, so they may seem cold, since they don’t have the necessity to socialize for the continuation of the species. They have one parent for each generation, so it makes it easier for them to recite their family history (though siblings/aunts/uncles don’t appear to be part of that tree). Jeriba doesn’t really have a gender, but Davidge nicknames him “Jerry” and uses the pronoun “it” for him. This could be considered a flaw, but the book was written in 1979 and we still don’t really have standard gender-neutral pronouns (though I’m kind of partial to ve/vis/vir because it keeps the same ending sounds as he/his/her). Davidge’s character begins as a generic, tough soldier guy, but he is forced to take on a more nurturing role and his battleground changes from the physical to the emotional as he struggles to take care of the infant Zammis and retain his sanity despite the stress of living in isolation. This part also gets pretty real if you know what it’s like to be alone for a long period of time.

The writing is clear and humorous, and the world-building struck me as especially imaginative. I liked the descriptions, of the planet, the Dracs, Drac society, and the tiny book necklace that is the Drac equivalent of a Bible. It’s a short book, and there aren’t any wasted pages (unlike the book I’ll be reviewing next…), but it manages to reach a lot of poetic truth (imo). I have to say, I really enjoyed this one, and it hits the sweet spot with realistic non-human characters, so it gets the full five stars from me.

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆

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