“Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman
Reviewed by Jason McGregor
The April 2016 issue of Clarkesworld gives us three novelettes of ten to eleven thousand words and one shorter story of about five, mostly dealing with death, destruction, abuse or the like. This month is unusual in that, while I have read many Clarkesworld stories and been infuriated by one or two, I usually find something to like in each issue and have even been overjoyed by several stories. Not so, this month, as every story is serious and the longer ones quite elaborate and products of great authorial effort, but none appealed to me or even (quite) managed to infuriate me.
“Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman
Avery is a woman with something in her past which leads her to a strange and rootless life, so she is able to go on a journey at a moment’s notice when an employer calls her with a strange job. Alien artifacts have appeared all over North America (why just North America?) and humans who may be abductees eventually appear from them. Avery is to drive one of these, and an alien, to St. Louis. Along the way, she reflects on her life (ultimately revealing the great tragedy of her life, which the reader suspected in a general way), her strange companions, the nature of consciousness, and makes a decision with enormous consequences.
While quite good in ways, this is a very flawed story in at least three others. In media res is almost always a good tip. This tale, on the other hand, starts with a prefatory section which makes it appear to be a rendition of the “Strange Domes Appear Overnight and Cordons Are Formed and Investigations Begun” story when that is just a trigger and not really the point at all. A variant on the same flaw is that, stylistically or tonally, it starts out like it’s going to be one of the New Wavy surreal varieties of that story but then turns fairly prosaic. A second problem, beginning with minor issues, is that the opening of the story has small plausibility glitches: it takes the military “days” to cordon off the domes? And the author seems to make a point of it, but it’s still bizarre that a spy-type guy hints broadly over the phone and sends “secret” emails. But these quibbles pale in comparison to how one ends up wondering how these aliens could possibly abduct anyone given their nature, how they could evolve in the way they have, and why on earth (other than it being “in the center”) we happen to be going to St. Louis, which just happens to be Avery’s hometown. The third problem is purely subjective—ideological—in that Avery thinks, “If this were a Star Trek episode… this would be when Captain Kirk would deliver a speech in defense of being human, despite all the drawbacks. She didn’t feel that way.” Well, I do, and the story doesn’t remotely persuade me otherwise. I find the character to be guilty of a crime of unfathomable magnitude, bred from her psychological dysfunction. That said, up to that point, it is a thoughtful story full of interesting perspectives and makes the character somewhat understandable. There is an aspect in which the protagonist’s past trauma and her companion’s current trauma are almost symbolically wed which had me wondering if this would become a truly brilliant story but somehow didn’t quite come together for me. So: interesting, serious, many people will enjoy it, it has many strengths but, ultimately, its weaknesses (or my own limitations) made it not work for me.
“Balin” by Chen Qiufan
“Balin” (originally published in Chinese in July 2015) is the story of Peng, his father, and the titular paoxiao named by Peng. In the present time, Peng is doing a science experiment in pursuit of a degree, using Balin as a subject, concerning how the brain optimizes motor movement choices and how this relates to the question of free will. The bulk of the story, however, is the backstory of how Peng’s father brought Balin to the family home, how Peng and others abused Balin, how Peng and his father fought over the father’s pre-programmed life plan for his son and how the son wanted to become a scientist. The thematic point of the story concerns empathy and there is eventually a sort of breakthrough.
This story shares several features with the preceding one. First, it feels like Balin is not only a character (albeit mute and strange) but a nexus of metaphor that might make the story come together in a satisfying way, but it never quite works as the story seems at once distracted and overwrought. Second, there is a related mismatch of this and other parts: the story is mostly prosaic family drama, but has frequent infodumps of a highly science fictional nature (and this coming from someone who likes a certain degree of infodumping), yet breaks into a sort of transcendentalism at the end which seems to be intended to carry the reader along but didn’t carry this one. And, at the heart of it, is the unexplained figure of Balin, himself, who is not treated like an alien or made scientifically plausible in any way but just seems to be a pure fantasy-based metaphor (at most, a bit of complacently unexamined crypto-zoology) thrown into the midst of this predominantly science fictional tale. Perhaps a third shared element is the negativity of the characters where this one fares even worse: in a story of empathy, the protagonist is an acknowledged “cold-blooded” (one might even say, psychopathic) person and, during one breakthrough, has an “emotional” hug while thinking, “I think I finally understand how to solve the problem.” Now, it can be perfectly natural for an emotional moment to lead to a cognitive breakthrough but, in this context, it is of a piece with Peng being a cold-blooded person actually using every one and every thing around him in pursuit of his goals, using the event as a means of calculated gain and never really being at one with an emotion and a moment. Basically, this is a cruel and unpleasant tale of empathy which waxes unconvincingly rhapsodic at the end to try to shout past its weaknesses. Perhaps the most pertinent shared element is that this is a serious, thoughtful story with good elements that some may enjoy but which was ultimately unsatisfying to me.
“The Bridge of Dreams” by Gregory Feeley
In the far future, a posthuman who is called Heimdallr is fashioning Bifrost between Pluto (here “Plouton”) and Charon when an entity who happens to be called Gardrofa arrives with a summons for him to go to the Sheltered Gardens, which appear to be another example of an astroengineered megastructure (there’s a lot of that going on in this story). Having been lonely for a few zillion years, he has sex with her, she “dies” as designed, he catches a sort of posthuman digital STD and becomes Heimgard and goes off to his appointed round. The entities there direct him to deal with the kobolds and they, in turn, direct him to see if any of the Tritonides, who obviously aren’t on Triton anymore, still exist in the sweet spot of the Neptunian atmosphere. More or less the end.
I have often wondered why I don’t mind some stories that I’ve read in variations a million times and others bother me more quickly, but I think I’ve hit on at least a metaphor to make it clear: we’ve spoken “modern” English for about 500 years and we’re not tired of English. And the language evolves and many innovations should and do endure. But “wiseguy” and “groovy” are not so enduring, nor are they novel today: they speak of, say, the 30s and 60s very specifically and it would be a mistake to say “groovy” today without some sort of self-conscious ironic point. Similarly, I can read “Spaceman Spiff braves the spaceways” stories forever because it is part of the basic language of SF, like common words such as “house” and “dog” and I can also appreciate novel approaches that seem like they should endure. Whereas this story is very “groovy.” Buried under a linguistic megastructure of Norse references, remarkably klutzy ungendered pronouns (such as “hse” and “hrs”), and that all-too familiar 90s “posthuman” tone, is a story that takes us on a tour of a much-changed Solar System with some very entertaining ideas, such as moving Mars and Venus (or Aris and Hesperus) close to each other and siphoning the excess atmosphere of the one into the insufficient atmosphere of the other. I feel the author intended this mass of verbiage and, if you respond to such things from start to finish with no relief, then you will enjoy all the nearly 11,000 words (which seem much more) of this story. He establishes a tone, mostly maintains it, and describes things in as mannered a way as possible most of the time, rarely allowing the clear, bright, sharp lines of actual science fiction to shine through, and keeps most things in the murky poetic twilight of his gods. But if you don’t find this an admirable goal, there’s not much here for you and what there is will have to be dug out at great cost, as the reader plays kobold to this tale.
“The Cedar Grid” by Sara Saab
In a future in which humans have been subjugated and/or done some subjugating, a human on Earth gets killed chasing an alien suicide-bomber (and how that’s even possible, I don’t know—why would a suicide bomber run?). His brother, on an extra-solar world, grieves and becomes a lover of a member of the species who killed his brother.
This is a bit of a “rabbit as smeerp” story in that this is obviously about current events and ethnicities and orientations and, despite quick but strong brushstrokes depicting stark alienness, doesn’t really do anything with its ostensible science fictional-ness. Indeed, it does little at all, being nearly plotless. Also, there’s a gimmick with telepresence across light-years which makes no sense.
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