Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Audience, by Sean McMullen

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The Javelin reaches a rogue planet 36 light-days from Earth, but the crew finds something terrible there. (9,200 words; Time: 30m)

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ Not Recommended
Recommended By: GDozois:5 NClarke Readers LTilton

"The Audience," by (edited by Trevor Quachri), appeared in issue 06|15, published on by .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: Nice story about a first-contact with highly advanced, highly alien aliens. It reverses the assumption that there could be no conflict with aliens too different from us to want to share the same world--their mere desire to study us is frightening. The effort to throw them off the track is interesting.

Con: This story fails the suspension-of-disbelief test over and over. To start with, there's no way a manned vehicle would ever arrive at a place like that before a legion of unmanned vehicles had been there first. Second, the captain doesn't really act much like a captain--she seems distracted, uncertain, and emotional. Third, it's hard to believe they could figure out how to infiltrate a human mind and learn the language after just four attempts. Jander's acts to try to make it seem that the vehicle came from Gliese 667Cc seem absolutely paranoid. It's impossible to believe that the aliens had zero idea that the sun existed and was so close to them. They ask Jander how people could be safe without ice to protect them from the sun, so they certainly know about suns. Finally, the Javelin couldn't possibly last for 4,000 years, and the aliens ought to be able to determine that--given all the other stuff they did.

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4 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. I liked this story a lot more than the 2-rating you gave it. It is a story that entertains the reader while they are reading it.

    There is also humor in the story, which is something I have always appreciated in this author's previous work.

    1. I suppose it depends on how important suspension of disbelief is to you. (Or perhaps how much you care about scientific credibility.) I found the story impossible to enjoy because the author kept introducing new challenges to belief every few pages.

      Sometimes humor can make up for it, but not, I think, in this case. The best example I ever saw was:

      "But sir, that can't work. It would violate the law of conservation of momentum."

      "I'm a pirate! Of course I violate the laws!"

      So besides the humor, what did you see in this piece? And did you not notice all the inconsistencies, or did they just seem unimportant to you?

  2. Spoiler Alert...

    I re-read this. I rarely re-read but this story survived a re-read. I also tend not to miss major inconsistencies. I do have a lower expectation in short fiction for details, than what I would for a novel. That is what short fiction is for - story, not details imo.

    The story is set about 300 years from now. Space exploration is pretty standard by then "spacesuit boots of humanity on 5703 worlds, mainly small asteroids and comets" to quote a sentence from the novelette.

    They do prospecting on comets and ice worlds. I get the impression that going off to explore a new planet is important but not ultra-important or that rare. Still enough to make one a celebrity on returning home.

    The Limbians did understand what the sun was but I don't think they appreciated it as much as humans. Jander was trying to deceive the Limbian into thinking that Gelser was our home world - a world where only one side of the planet saw the sun and the other side was perpetual night, with a thin habitable strip for humans.

    Before the other crew members got taken they speculated that the Limbian natives could have developed bio-tech but not engineering, as this was a water and ice world, so possibly their biological sciences were very advanced but not their engineering. This would account for them thinking the ship could survive a 4000 year return trip.

    The 1 thing that could have been mentioned or made clearer in the story was "Why" the desire to explore this planet, aside from exploration for the sake of exploring. I also expected the Limbian to go back home after a certain point in the return trip once 1st contact was made.

    I thought the story was consistent within the world-building context.

    I have read Sean McMullen's short and long fiction. He does tend to exaggerate a bit for effect but he tells a very good story. His fiction entertains the reader, and there are usually no obvious social messages in his works. I do consider entertainment value in a story to be important (that is why it is call "fiction").

  3. I would rate this story a 4 -- recommended.

    The author did a good job building up tension through the half-way point of the story with the disappearance of the astronauts, their reappearance as zombies, and the awful pit-in-your-stomach feeling in the reader that the awesome teleportation technology of the aliens could lead to a takeover our solar system.

    But rather than give the story a Gypsy-like ending (Gypsy, by Carter Scholz) where the reader winds up super-depressed, the author instead manages to raise the reader's spirits (mine at least) with a clever and ballsy plan by the last astronaut to mislead the aliens about our home, thus giving humanity four thousand years to plan a defense.

    Yes, there are minor suspension-of-disbelief issues, and the historical revision section was a bit too long, but I was so relieved and entertained after the tension at the midway point that I'm sure a year from now I'll still remember this story for the reasons above and forget the minor blemishes.