In Alien Flesh

Another day of not having thing new to post. Since Gregory Benford was mentioned awhile ago, I thought I’d give this, sort of Raw Feed though a bit skimpy on a couple of stories.

Raw Feed (1991): In Alien Flesh, ed. Gregory Benford, 1986.

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Cover by Joe Bergeron

Doing Lennon” — A famous story about an obsessed fan getting his ultimate wish to become his idol, John Lennon, via impersonating Lennon after being cryonically revived. The pathological nature of the fan, the thrill of pretending (without anyone to deny it) to be Lennon, “doing Lennon” as a drug-like experience, is well-depicted. The surprise ending, where Henry Fielding is confronted by a revived Paul McCartney, was truly surprising as was Fielding turning out to be a computer simulation, a simulation designed to help “Fielding Real” to better carry off his scam, a simulation that will betray Fielding Real because he has known the joy of “doing Lennon” (that phrase has not only a connotation of drugs but also of violence and sex — Benford uses language well and has a knack for titles) and plans on impersonating someone else if he can get his computer construct mind transferred to a human body.

In Alien Flesh” — A strange story of alien contact. The title contains the connotations of the story. Our protagonist Reginri is hired to put an electrical tap into the neural nexus of the alien, whalelike Drongheda — the problem is this involves crawling in a blowhole like opening. The word “flesh” is literally evoked in this operation. But “flesh” also has a sexual connotation, and this implication is realized when one of the expedition is crushed to death when — for the first time ever recorded — another Drongheda puts a tentacle in the “blowhole” (not a term used in the story, “pinhole” is) to mate and communicate and our hapless scientist is in the middle. It’s a disturbing image, being crushed to death in an alien, vagina-like structure by a penis-like tentacle. The image of sex and communication is odd, disturbing and memorable. The people who listen to the electrical output from the neural nexus find themselves oddly attracted to the aliens’ thoughts though Reginri suspects each person “hears” what he seeks. I didn’t find that element of the story as intriguing as the intimate blend of sex and communication which goes on, at some level, amongst humans of course.

Time Shards” — An interesting story revealing Benford’s characteristic concerns over technology’s effect on history and the radicalness of historical change which, in some sense, renders history both meaningless and alien. The idea here is sound recorded via a potter’s wheel in ceramics. [The rationale, as I recall, is that a stick or knife forming a pot on a wheel will be affected by the vibrations of sound. Arthur C. Clarke mentioned the notion in one of his tv shows.] John Hart, scientist, misses the deadline to put a recording in the Smithsonian’s time capsule for the year 2000. The recording is from 1280. The time capsule is a compilation of things the year 2000 thinks the year 3000 should know and important. Through a quirk of religion, the sounds from the past are also what the year 1280 thinks the future should know, stuff on keeping sheep, warnings against obscure people, tips on “pot-charrin”. “ … a lot of garbage” says Hart. Benford is making a point about the radical effect technology can have human lives and how fleeting, time-bound some of our most cherished concerns and obsessions and interest can be. Who knows what, in us, the future will find interesting. But Hart tells his boss, who has just finished sealing the time capsule, that he doubts its contents will be of any more interest to the year 3000 than the babblings of 1280 are to 2000. A nice story even if the dualistic construction is a bit contrived.

Redeemer” — I liked two ideas in this story. First, the idea of space colonies and Earth so devastated by the effects of a nuclear war that hijacking a colony ship’s gene bank is profitable. (It was a nice touch the thief is a descendent of the colony’s leader.) Second, the idea that space colonies (this may be one of the first developments of this notion in sf — John Shirley’s Eclipse books use it) would not be L-5 utopias where every economic and political and religious persuasion can have a home but places of strong men who control, for safety’s sake, life support systems and communications systems. It’s an interesting notion that planetary ecosystems may offer more freedom from political tyranny than space colonies. Benford’s space colonies are sort of futuristic Toynbean water-empires.

Snatching the Bot” — This, according to Benford’s afterword, is a fusion of sf and mainstream “literary” genres and a parody of the latter. It captures the flavor of “literary” stories well: vague conversations that seem to allude to something indeterminate and ponderous; the repeated, twitchy scenes (here of a character exercising) that supposedly have metaphorical significance, and a claustrophobic, banal atmosphere. But the story falls into the trap awaiting parodies: a recreating of the bad qualities of the target without any redeeming humor.

Relativistic Effects” — This is sort of a compressed version of Poul Anderson’s excellent Tau Zero. This runaway starship features a caste system amongst its crew (our hero cybernetically directs the plasma jets that drive the ramscoop ship) with the image of a spider (a very “literary” device) out of place in the Main Drive section symbolizing Nick’s attempt, sabotaged by his co-workers, to escape his job via promotion. Benford also introduces much imagery in his description of the cyborg link of directing plasma. The story ends, for me, on sort of a flat note. Nick compares himself to the lost spider — both incapable of having perspective. Nick loses the drive to be promoted and takes a bigger perspective beyond mere ship life; he decides to strike up a relationship with his co-worker Faye. And he contemplates, with her, the future prospect of watching the universe collapse; of saving, through their work, unknown galactic civilizations from being damaged by the ship’s drive; and of being a god, a beacon of other intelligence, to unknown aliens as their ship hurtles across the universe; of being small humans with indomitable will to survive and a tremendous, if unquantifiable, impact on other, unknown lives. Benford is showing the impact of small lives, the trading of petty concerns for literally universal ones and stupendous wonders. It’s somehow a very sf tale, a rebuke of the petty perspective of so much of literature and our lives. Yet, for all the intellectual grandeur, the story rings flat in terms of Nick’s life. The payoff has been somehow, subtly, indefinably sabotaged.

Nooncoming” — This is one of those post-revolutionary future stories. Here the revolutionaries are environmentalists, fairly anti-tech, agrarian communists. This is a fairly low-key story (mostly, I suspect, because Benford tried to write in the “New Yorker” style). There are no black-tech smugglers, resistance fighters, or concentration camps for techies (I think Benford is a bit kind to what kind of society environmentalists would create. One of repression I suspect. He acknowledges sympathy with environmentalists if critical of their anti-science stance.). This is a battle between two world views, two drives as embodied in two lovers. Benford’s point, as he says in the Afterword, is that there are always some humans who feel drawn (like Benford) to science and tinkering (and he sees this as the true driving force of history) and any society must deal with this urge. I suspect the specter of radical Angela Davis (Benford is from California) shows up in the choice of name for Davis Agriworks, a post-revolutionary project.

To the Storming Gulf” — Idea-wise there’s nothing special in this story. In 1985, when this story was written, a space-defense system against ICBMs may not have been that common, but now (due to political debate more than sf) it’s hardly novel nor is the notion of a tyranny of space colonies over Earth. What makes this post-holocaust story nice is Benford’s homage to the Alabama where he was raised, the southern culture that molded him, and the literature of William Faulkner.  Benford’s Afterword talks interestingly of the predominant Northern outlook in sf (the winners, the extraordinary, the frontier) and the influence of Southern (seemingly, in sf, only on Benford) culture (family, the ordinary, the downtrodden, the wilderness, ecological conscious as opposed to exploitation of a frontier) on Benford’s writing. In this story the space-dominated people of Earth — everyone’s become a spiritual Southerner seeking to find a place in the winners’ worlds.

White Creatures” — A fine story, one of my favorites in this collection. This story is only marred by the strange inclusion of a table labelled “Comparison of Forecasts, 1964 and 1977 Developments”. It’s not only hard to understand as a table but seems to have no bearing on the story — unless the entry on comunication with extra-terrestestrials is to symbolize the eternal longing for contact with other intelligences, a longing that consumes viewpoint character Merrick. Out of the mixture of the search for alien life, death, aging, and the tale of two lovers (began when Merrick commits adultery with the married Erika), Benford has a written a moving, elegant, beautiful story. The main theme, for me, was the disintegration of relationships tracked through time like disintegrating chemical bonds or growing entropy (I’m trying to avoid the cliche word “alienation”, but it fits here. Literally because, at story’s end — and beginning — Merrick, in his old age, perceives his medical rescuers as aliens, the title “white creatures”. The theme of alienation is also developed by Erika and Merrick’s relationship. Before she has herself frozen, Merrick realizes he does not know much about his occasional lover. At story’s end, he is alienated from her in time (when, as an old man he sees her on the street, freshly thawed, she, naturally, does not recognize him as he doesn’t recognize his rescuers). He is on his way to the hospital, dying of cancer. Aging is another theme. Merrick, involved in searching for aliens, doesn’t feel his aging. He looks in wonder at his old body after he realizes who the white creatures are and how old he has become. And, he realizes the aliens, his life’s obssession, have not been found. Erika, though, is painfully aware of her waning, takes steps to prevent it, and considers the joy of living worth more than life dedicated, like Merrick’s, to ideals and philosophies. She is in love with living. Benford, in his Afterword, says the story is about how the loneliness and vastness of the universe affect those who study it. Some, like Merrick, devote their lives to searching for another voice other than man’s even while expiring. Some, like Erika, aren’t going gently into that good night.

Me/Days” — A story of a developing artificial intelligence trying to communicate with humans. (Shades of Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” in having the computer say “I Am.”) The most interesting thing was having the computer’s memory erased everyday so it has to leave notes for itself. Otherwise, the story didn’t do much for me.

Of Space/Time and the River” —  I liked this story just as much the second time around. I was interested to learn the descriptions of Egypt were lifted directly from Benford’s time diary. [The story has aliens setting up a colony in the Nile Delta.]

Exposures” — I liked this story better the second time around mainly I was more interested in the details of the astronomer-protagonist’s work.

Time’s Rub” — This story really didn’t do anything for me because I wasn’t interested in the Newcomb logic problem.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

2 thoughts on “In Alien Flesh

    1. Mr. Benford, thanks a lot for stopping by and the kind words.

      I have to admit I’ve bought a lot of your novels based on how much I’ve liked your short stories, and I always meant for a long time to do a Benford reading project.

      However, to date, I haven’t read a single solo novel of yours. I was aware of Berlin Project and mean to pick It up. Somehow I missed news of Rewrite which looks very interesting with various sf writers putting in appearances.

      Of your short stories, my favorite is “A Dance to Stranger Musics” though, with trepidation, “A Desperate Calculus” comes into my mind more often.

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