Sunday, April 3, 2016

Touring with the Alien, by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Read this issue
(SF) Months after mysterious aliens scattered their spacecraft across North America, no one has a clue what they want. Avery knows what one of them wants, though: it wants a tour. (11,819 words; Time: 39m)

Rating: ★★★★☆ Recommended
Recommended By: GDozois:5 RHorton:4 NClarke JStrahan

"," by (edited by Neil Clarke), appeared in issue 115, published on .

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

Pro: At a very high level, this story is about Avery finding something to commit herself to. We learn at the start how rootless she's been, and we get a strong hint that although her brother supports her choices, she's not really satisfied.

One of the charms of the story is the development of the relationship between Avery and Lionel. In fact, a secondary thread of the story is Lionel's attempt to be more human. The moment when he tastes bacon and complains, "it bit me," is priceless. Avery's infinite patience with him and her tender advice make it clear to the readers that she's in love with him--long before she realizes it herself.

The discussion about the difference between conscious and unconscious thought has a long pedigree, in stories as different as Blindsight, by Peter Watts, and Second Person, Present Tense, by Daryl Gregory. Lionel sees human consciousness as a disorder and a burden, and even Avery comes to see that to a degree, but the fact "Mr. Burbage" enjoyed the taste of consciousness so much that he was willing to die for it gives a strong, silent testimony to the converse opinion.

Con: Immediately after the events of the story, I expect the government to figure out what has happened, to take their tubs of earth away from them, and to destroy the cemetery with fire.

Other Reviews: Search Web, Browse Review Sites (Issue 115)
Carolyn Ives Gilman Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB

10 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. There's LOTS of very cool ideas in this one.

    Intelligence without sentience.
    Humanity being used as a drug.
    "Interpreters" as a distinct species, neither here nor there.
    Telepathic conduits, who can't even tell to what extent they're thinking for themselves.

    Those are some fantastic, chewy premises, and I really enjoyed the story for them. It did a great job setting them up, cluing us in, tying things together, making everything work.

    For all that, the story did feel a bit slow, and lacking in plot. There's tension all along, but what this story mostly does is present its various interesting ideas about what these aliens are and what unusual interactions with humanity they might have, and there's not much actual *story* there. Avery gradually learns all these things, and then the alien dies, and that feels like an ending -- but, an ending to what plot arc, really?

    Not that that's a huge problem. Plot isn't the focus here; what the story is aiming at, it does really well. I mostly want to see these cool ideas developed and played with further.

  2. This isn't an action plot, but I'm pretty sure the plot here is about Avery finding a purpose to her life--about finding someone/something to love.

    Of course you could also argue that it's simpler than that: she's given an assignment at the start, and the story ends when she has completed her assignment.

  3. Really liked the extremely alien aliens, the quasi-alien human translator, and the examination of consciousness. However, I can't quite understand or empathize with the choice that Avery makes at the end.

    1. I think it's not so much that she made a great choice as that she actually did make a choice. I think the story is really about Avery's personal growth--not the aliens.

      Although I agree that they're very cool aliens. :-)

    2. That's true. She is clearly portrayed as really wishing she had a strong connection with someone from the beginning of the story. It's just hard for me to imagine anyone feeling so lonely and disconnected they'd chose this. Especially with what she's witnessed with Lionel.

  4. I agree with RSR's ★★★★ rating. This story is a nice extrapolation of the zombie fungus that infects and changes the behavior of some tropical ants to help spread itself. Imagine if the fungus eventually infected bees, birds, beavers and other construction-oriented helper creatures and somehow evolved them to build ships, airplanes, and ultimately spaceships to spread beyond their home system, all while staying animals without self-awareness. (This was also done to thrilling and chilling effect in The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey.) The cool idea gives a strong frame to hang a well-written "road trip" story that lets us learn and compare and contrast human, part-human, and non-human beings. The reason I withheld one star was because the aliens could have done without the translators and just colonized Earth when they first arrived.

    1. Eh, they're not strategists - they react; that they should seek a faster or more direct mode of "invasion" than the way they do things would not be consistent with how they are depicted. This is a process which allows them to gain experience of the capacities and possibilities of the life on a planet they have come to. It's the way they spread.

      I do need to re-read Blindsight I think.

  5. I agree with the 4-star rating.

    Cool ideas as per Standback's comments.

    Avery is in her early 40's.
    The "in love with Lionel" bit was not convincing.
    Avery was kind to Lionel, but that's not the same thing.

    Like Laura, I also found it very hard to believe the choice that Avery finally made at the end of the story.

    I also thought that there would be more controversy over the "abducted children" aspect of the story.

  6. This was a fun and at times humorous story. I enjoyed a lot of it -- especially the exploration of consciousness and the mystery surrounding the aliens and their translators -- but felt that the author stumbled towards the end. The cemetery scene added a bit of unnecessary melodrama, and Avery's decision regarding the soil seemed unwise. I'm not sure humanity will thank her for it.


    1. Most authors have a lot of trouble sticking the landing. This one was so strong otherwise (and the ending was weak but not terrible) that I recommended it. And, yeah, her action at the end was an awful thing to do.