Book Review: We Have Always Been Here

We Have Always Been Here by Lena Nguyen


Weird shit is happening on the Deucalion, and Dr Park cannot figure out what the hell is going on. It started ever since she and her survey crew landed on a previously unexplored planet in the middle of nowhere—crew complaining of weird dreams, strange shifts in the ship’s structure, members getting sick and being put in cryo sleep, the androids acting…differently. Something is up, but no one is talking. Park was hired on last-minute as the back-up psychologist, and as a person more comfortable with robots than people, she’s feeling pretty over her head when her supervisor goes on an all-important mission and disappears. Leaving Park to figure out whatever the fuck is happening before the crew mutinies.

People inexplicably ran out into the cold, stripping their clothes off. Clawing at invisible enemies. Dying with their eyes and tongues missing.

Well, this week has been something of a theme for reviews: I started off with robots and wilderness and humanity, then transitioned to wilderness and plants and magic, and now we are back with robots and humanity and the wilderness of reality, with introversion spread throughout like a balm. So I offer this as a reverse pairing, like a wine-tasting of adult science fiction: a shot of We Have Always Been Here, with its sharp edges and psychological mystery and bleakness, followed up with a glass of A Psalm for the Wild-Built, a red wine concoction that goes down smooth and hits you with the bitterness of the tannins and truth and sends you into the sleep of a warm hug and thoughtfullness.

She was more like a glacier, alone and adrift on a warming sea. Cold, remote. But shrinking rapidly under the circumstances.

Park read like someone who was autistic—human emotions are alien and odd, despite being her primary point of study. She was someone who knew herself and was fine while alone but adrift and bewildered when surrounded by people—the unfathomable social cues and strangeness, the oddity of humanity’s quirks and rituals. So when shit goes south and people are acting weird, she’s even more at a loss, particularly when she’s the expert who is supposed to be able to fix it (when she’s not—her study is basically as a human emotion monitor: monitor and analyze, not implement and correct).

She was not an easy character, but was someone I understood intimately.

And this was not an easy book, being more psychological thriller with the trappings of a science fiction book. I’m not going to say much more than that, as I think this is a book best experienced with as little information as possible, just like Park (fyi, that first quote is not really a spoiler and conveys the sense of dread and weirdness of exploring an alien world with a small, isolated crew where help is literally years away).

This is very much the story of someone who grew up relating more to androids than people, because just like her, the androids were monitoring and mimicking humanity in order to blend in (or not). And then she finds herself having to work more with people and trust them in a situation where no one and nothing is as it seems due to the secrets imposed by the company she is hired to work for (twists and turns of indentured servitude versus freelancers, and who is trusted and who is not comes heavily into play here, and help explain why Park knows literally nothing a year into this expedition).

Anywho, I really enjoyed it, although enjoy is not quite the right word.

For some reason, I felt deeply uncomfortable reading this. Feelings long suppressed oozed out of my being, unease flittered along my spine, and the ending hit me like a semi-truck—sudden and unsatisfying and right all at the same time. This is a strange collection of emotions, and probably a weird ending paragraph, but it’s hard to explain the funk this book sent me into. The best I can explain the mood I had during and after reading this was how I felt after reading The Bell Jar, and the two books are absolutely nothing alike.

This book explores the concept of being alien, in as many sense of the word as it can find. It dives into isolation and plunges into the core of humanity and sentience. And I feel that at its core, it’s meant to unsettle something deep inside us, despite its relatively simple plot.

Definitely a book to check out.

I received an ARC from NetGalley for an honest review.

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