Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Country of the Kind (1955)

Science Fiction Hall of Fame entry by Damon Knight is an alternate take on Lovecraft's perennial "Outsider," in this case a genetically altered exile viciously roving a future world. Short narrative follows the wicked exploits of our unnamed, lawless, self-described king of the world, free to do as he pleases, ruining property and terrorizing citizens (whom he dubs non-imaginative "dulls") who merely wait helplessly until he passes like a summer storm. He can work great mischief but can do no physical harm lest he fall into an epileptic seizure. Turns out, this is his sentence for having committed murder while a 15-year-old young adult: his body chemistry has been tweaked to render him both ugly and odorous, making him more easily avoided and ignored, elevating his status as homeless pariah even as he visibly trolls the surrounding society. The story catches this wretch at his breaking point, no longer angry at his fellow man, merely desperately lonely for companionship; his "creative" outbursts of late have been little more than distorted yawps for attention. This clarifies an underlying tragedy: not only did our antihero commit his crime while an admittedly abnormal youngster, he seems to suffer from a psychological malady not addressed by the same sciences capable of making a monster out of him. Hard to tell the cure from the inherent poison? Better to undergo capital punishment than suffer certain kinds of kindness.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Moral Biology (2020)

Neal Asher in Analog, May/June 2020. Interstellar exploration team led by Perrault, Gleeson, and Arbeck seeks to converse with a unique alien life form; they are boots on the ground for Mobius Clean, their ultimate mission coordinator: the imbedded AI of their orbiting starship. Arbeck is a Golem android, in charge of military protection for the two scientists: Perrault is the human interpreter, wearing a biotech "shroud" to enhance his communicative powers, enabling him to process clues from pheromones and other cues in the surrounding atmosphere, thereby building a language matrix from literally thin air (this among other skills). Gleeson is an archeologist specializing in alien civilizations, determined to collect information about the creature's culture faster than anyone else on the team. All wear biosuits equipped with tech augmentations that help solve the puzzles of the story: The more advanced technology became, the more it came to resemble life and the products of life. (Beware asking Arthur C. Clarke about that; he'll start doing magic tricks.) There are a couple pulp-era-worthy action set pieces: attacks by alien spiders and monkeys and wild pigs, not to mention a slithering, Lovecraftian tree. These payoffs punctuate a narrative otherwise built on hard science-based descriptions of the technology deployed by the characters, and how it in turn morphs their personalities even as their quest draws them dangerously closer to the sentient squid-critter living, Horta-like, in nacre-lined tunnels, itself alien to the planet underfoot. In a yarn about language and communication, a couple more lines of zippy dialog would have been most welcome, but a superb twist on Ye Olde First Contact trope unfolds in the concluding moments and what at first seems a hard-SF riff on Ted Chiang's Sapir-Whorf ruminations in "Story of Your Life" becomes uncomfortably closer to the biological mechanics of Alien (1979).