(Please note this review is for the novella Enemy Mine, not the novel.)
Sweeping the major American novella awards, Barry B. Longyear’s Enemy Mine certainly caught the genre’s eye when it was published in 1979. A film produced six years later (a film which unfortunately is hindered by poor special effects), the exposure took the story beyond the book world and moved it into the attention of the general public. A tale of confronting Otherness, its treatment in the years since is perhaps a good indication of the novella’s innate integrity.
Opening mid-action—mid-punch even, Enemy Mine begins with a soldier of Earth in hand to hand combat with an alien Drac after their fighter jets have crashed on the surface of an uninhabited planet. Towering tidal waves, scarce food, and little wood for making fire, the harsh living conditions quickly force the two to cooperate or die. Lost at sea, scavenging among the rocks, and language problems all around, the two eventually form an accord that allows for a sense of normalcy to life. But when tragedy strikes, a whole new set of problems must be solved.
In the tradition of Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Cherryh’s Foreigner series, Enemy Mine utilizes alien cultures side by side with humans in a situation wherein they must work together toward a common goal. Confronting and assimilating Otherness, Longyear has ambitions—and succeeds from a moral, cross-cultural, and societal point of view. The main character’s perspective transitioned as much as the reader’s, it’s difficult not to identify with the story the closer it draws to a close.
But where Longyear falls a little short is in style. Emotional resonance exists at turns, but it is not replete—an important factor in a story built on characters. Missing are subtle details which would draw deeper empathy, and in turn make the relationships more realistic. Longyear did revise the novella into a novel, and if in doing so the existing story was expanded rather than extended, I can’t help but feel would be a better piece of writing.
In the end, Enemy Mine is a simplistic but touching story of a human and alien forced to come to terms with the others alien-ness. Successfully converting attitudes and worldviews, the novella is a success from a thematic point of view. Style largely direct and open, a lot more could have been accomplished were the individual scenes to have been fleshed out with little details to enhance character. Regardless, it is a poignant little story that deserves the accolades it achieved for ambition alone, yet seems to have faded from the reprints, anthologies, and the like given the weakness of style.