The Vang: The Military Form is the second book I have read by Rowley and I was pointed towards it after posting my review of Golden Sunlands in April 2011. It was published in 1988, a year after Sunlands. The time is again the far future, with humanity spread over a large number of worlds, and aliens again make an unwelcome intervention. This time the tone is much darker, as indicated by the subtitle on the cover “A Close Encounter of the Fatal Kind”.
The Vang are a very alien race, not remotely like the funny-looking humanoids we have become used to from Star Trek and such. They are parasitic on advanced life forms like humanity, which they “convert” by taking over their bodies and making radical changes to their biology, turning them into ferocious, lightning-fast killers who are very hard to stop. They also have various life forms of their own, specialised for different purposes, which they create by laying eggs inside their “hosts”. Finally, they consume any spare hosts for food, preferring to consume them alive in a particularly disgusting way. The graphic descriptions of exactly what they do to their hosts make Ridley Scott’s Aliens seem relatively benign.
At the time of the story the Vang were an almost forgotten horror from the distant past, believed to have been eliminated in a war to the death with another alien race who managed to defeat them by the simple expedient of unleashing the most appalling weapons of mass destruction ever invented. So when some mineral prospectors poking around in a forbidden zone of space discover an obviously alien and very ancient ovoid drifting by itself, they think only of the vast profit to be made and have no inkling of what is to come.
The nearest human inhabited planet to the prospectors is Saskatch, a cold and rugged world with a small population, most notable for being the only source of TA45, a highly addictive and highly pleasurable drug. Its production and export are banned, which only ensures that most people in authority are complicit in its trade. This is the stage on which the drama of the human-Vang collision will be played out.
There is no one protagonist in this tale but multiple viewpoints from an ensemble cast of prospectors, drug smugglers and law officers, plus a wealthy naturalist and his team. And of course the Vang, whose viewpoint (in the shape of the Military Form) is also presented, from the first scene to the last. The story is almost relentlessly grim, with none of the quirky humour and offbeat charm of Sunlands, and might best be described as a blend of SF and horror. I mentioned Ridley Scott’s Aliens before, and the general flavour is not very different; this seems to have been Rowley’s take on the Alien series as opposed to Sunlands which read more like the author’s tribute to Niven’s Ringworld. Curiously, the one character with whom this reader began to sympathise by the end was the Military Form of the Vang, which faced all manner of problems in doing what it was supposed to, not all of them concerned with humans.