mardi 1 septembre 2015

Loving the alien

(((Just in case you're wondering : yes, I believe there's a Bowie quote for absolutely everything, and yes, this is one of the worst videos he's ever done, and apart from this line "believing the strangest things, loving the alien" the lyrics aren't very good either.)))

But I've read a couple of books about aliens, so the title is perfect.

In 1996, in Cyberdreams, I published a short-story by Ian MacDonald called Frooks. It was precisely about that thing : the allure of the alien, people who where sexually attracted to the extra-terrestrials who had come to Earth, and who dressed up as aliens, thus misleading other poor souls like the story's narrator. I loved this short-story : it inhabited, in literary form, the same territory Ziggy Stardust inhabited in musical and aesthetic terms : the appeal of the strange and nonconformist, expressed by drag queens, campy rock n' rollers and pulpy books with lurid covers.

This is what Yesterday's Kin, by Nancy Kress is about : family and alienness and the way the two interact and mess up people's lives. It's a novella and a 2014 Locus Award and Nebula winner.
Marianne is a geneticist, with three adult children, with whom she has difficulty communicating, but who hasn't ? She has just published an important article in Nature when
aliens arrive on Earth and plonk a ship in the middle of New York. They want Marianne to meet them, with other important people. It turns out that the aliens are not so alien : they're humans, abducted from earth in the past and who have evolved on a different planet. They've come to Earth because they know a cloud of spores is approaching : if nothing is done, it will wipe out humanity.
So all the scientists  get to work like mad to try and identify the virus and find a cure, although they know it's almost useless, while the alien invite all the people who belong to their long lost mitochondrial line to join them — and Nathan, Marianne's strange misfit son, learns he was in fact adopted. And finds out that he feels mysteriously at ease and confortable with the aliens. He has found a family whose strange appearance and even stranger customs do not weird him out, on the contrary — the only thing I find slightly disturbing about it is that he feels attracted to his genetic family in a way which isn't explained, scientifically or otherwise. (He stops changing personalities because of a drug he takes, but I don't remember if we're told why, and that's a bit frustrating, even if I didn't think about it when I was reading.)

After reading this (really good, by the way, the quibbles are just that, quibbles) novella, I couldn't help but wonder why we SF people love so much to read about alien customs, when we are, very often, completely put off by real, human social conventions. I know I am. Celebrations. Marriages. Rituals. Customs. There must be something phobic in it, or I wouldn't avoid them that much. But reading about extraterrestrials, or faraway cultures ? No problem.
Thus, this summer, I also read  Starship Seasons, by Eric Brown.
He is one of my favorite English writers, I've been reading him since he began publishing in Interzone — I just slowed down a bit these last ten years, and now I have a lot of stuff to go back to. So, Starship Seasons, which is four novellas taking place on the backwater planet Chalcedony, Delta Pavonis. The principal character is David Conway, who has taken refuge there after the death of this daughter and the end of his marriage.
And he finds a new family, in the form of three friends. And they have adventures (sort of), with aliens.

(A necessary aside : this winter, I had to deliberately, forcefully decide I wouldn't watch the reruns of Friends on tv. There's nothing worse, really, than watching these funny tv shows, which are completely depressing, being what lonely people watch when they come home from work. Tv shows that must be deliberately made for them, as an audience :  otherwise, why would they be about groups of people being friends and having adventures, not a stupid normal life like you and me ? So, I though there was nothing more awful and depressing than to watch Friends while eating, so I decided not to watch it, even if it is funny— and ended up watching reruns of Stargate. Sigh. Anyway, now I have Netflix.)

So what happens to David Conway in those four novellas is that he meets the alien, and loves it, and is changed by it. The world should be changed to, and it is, but Eric Brown doesn't do what is usually expected of SF writers : extrapolate a whole load of situations out of  an idea, what he does, is make the characters evolve and that's so well done even I forgive the not extrapolating thing.
So, in Starship Summer,  David Conway go to a scrapyard and buy a spaceship which he turns into a house. No kidding. A spaceship on the beach, travel without the hassle. He even gets visits by aliens from the past and gets to travel to the Golden Column, which turns out to be this new means of travelling in space. Which is sort of better than what the civilisation have already, except Eric Brown is clearly not interested in developping this, the point is that the alien gives you beauty (the Column) and the knowledge that you can travel, if you want. And being the fist novella, we are introduced to the other characters : Hawk, seller of derelict ships, Maddie, a strange woman and Matt, a crystal artist. In Fall, a former holo star comes to Chalcedony, has an affair with Conway (who is famous after the discovery of the first story, but not too famous) and uses him and the local alien Ashentay to settle accounts with the past. The Ashentay have a ceremony called "smoking the bones", in which they use a drug to obtain glimpses of the future — some don't survive it. But again, embracing the alien gives answers to those who are bold enough to embrace it, even if they are hard earned. Conway thinks he has found love but it was a trap, and his friend's alien girlfriend survives the bones' ceremony, while we learn something about his ex-pilot friend. In the next novella, Winter, it is the artist Matt who has travelled the galaxy (Conway's friends travel, not him, he stays on the beach in his spaceship house and drinks beer with them when they come back, this guy has the best life, I tell you !) and who has come back with special stones which he uses to make works of art. Things get complicated when a rival turns out to have tried a kind of telepathic theft of the alien stones. But in the end, wisdom is acquired by everybody who has come into contact with the stones. And in the last story we see Conway in a successful relationship while we learn more about the aliens of Chalcedony.

None of this, I realize, conveys the reason why this book is such a pleasure to read : the engaging characters, the beautifully evoked planet, the wonderful weirdness of the aliens and their various artifacts,  the quiet perfect life of a group of people who have drinks and adventures while looking at en alien seaside, and above all the warmth of true friendship.
Much, much better than watching reruns of Friends on tv.

1 commentaire:

  1. One name I must add to my searchlist (Paolo Bacigalupi, Celia S. Friedmann, Linda Nagata, Tricia Sullivan, Sheri S. Tepper)..


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