Rainbow's End isn't quite what I expected . . . and I found that to be a very pleasant surprise.
Erica welcomes us to the story with a very well-crafted prologue that reflects back on the events of 9-11, the whole DADT (don't ask, don't tell) fiasco, and the backlash against gay marriage. Before you realise it, though, she's begun to subtly alter society's reaction to those events, foreshadowing a rather distressing future where gays and lesbians are violently shunned and openly discriminated against. By the time the story starts (in 2015), the stage is already set for us to understand the overwhelming desire to escape human civilization.
Enter the Grays . . . aliens from a dying race who are desperate for an injection of new genetic material that it turns out humanity can provide. I absolutely love what Erica has done with these aliens. Instead of creating some glorious new extraterrestrial race full of in-your-face sex appeal, she takes on the urban legends of alien visitation and makes them real. She offers us very plausible explanations for why the Grays have been watching us for so long, how they've accidentally influenced ancient civilizations, and even why they've gone to such lengths to abduct humans for probing and testing (a necessarily evil for which they feel guilty). More than that, she sketches out the history of the aliens themselves, explaining why their appearance differs so much from ours, while their basic genetic makeup is so similar. This is what science fiction does best - offer us plausible answers for those celestial mysteries we're desperate to understand - and Erica handles it well.
Much of the story centers around a slowly blossoming lesbian romance between Tarry Milkwood (TV new anchor and primary liaisons with the Grays) and Lee Stavreti (a clinical psychologist). Both women have been damaged by their pasts and by society's response to their sexuality, but while Tarry has found strength in her struggles, Lee is slowly dying inside because of them. After some very awkward flirting and a few angry mistakes, Barry Marks (a straight male reporter and Tarry's best friend) manages to bring the two together.
While their three-way friendship really serves to ground the novel, it also introduces the major source of tension. Lee and Barry are fully intending to accept the Gray's offer, to leave Earth and join in rebuilding the alien civilization, but Tarry has no intention of doing the same. The closer the three become, the more this strains their relationship, but Erica allows the situation to progress naturally, and presents us with a climactic decision that makes you want to stand and cheer, even as you wipe a few tears from your eyes.
Just a quick word on the aliens themselves. Although there are only a few who feature prominently as characters in the book, they are very well developed. Erica humanizes them and makes them familiar, to the point where we come to care as much about them as we do Tarry, Lee, and Barry - which is absolutely crucial if we're to feel the proper sense of concern and compassion for their mission. Like I said, she avoids the common temptation to make the aliens sexually appealing, eliminating 'lust' as a driving force in the novel. Instead, it's that human compassion, that feeling of community, that brings the two races together.
My only (minor) complaint about the novel is that it could benefit from a little copy-editing. While it's not repetitive or glaring, and they don't detract from the flow of the narrative, there were enough spelling and grammatical glitches to catch my eye.
Personally, I cannot wait to see where Erica takes the story. Although she ends on a bit of a tease as to what will happen next, Rainbow's End is a completely self-contained novel, and works very well as a solo read. If you're looking for some thoughtful science fiction that deals honestly and sincerely with the very concept of what constitutes humanity, I highly recommend it.