Sunday, June 5, 2016

And Then, One Day, The Air Was Full Of Voices, by Margaret Ronald

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(SF) Dr. Kostia spent thirty years interpreting broadcasts from the Coronals for other people on Earth. The last broadcasts have caused a lot of disruption, even in her own family. (5,273 words; Time: 17m)

Rating: ★★★★★ Surprising, Moving, and Satisfying
Recommended By: GDozois:4 RHorton:4 NClarke

"," by (edited by Neil Clarke), appeared in issue 117, published on .

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

Pro: The story does a nice job of gradually cluing us in as to what was so disturbing about the Coronal's broadcasts. They didn't disrupt through novel technology, but rather through showing the world how another civilization killed itself.

In parallel with that, it develops the relationship between Dr. Kostia and her son, Wallace. It's perfectly plausible to believe that Wallace, who had loved the Coronals as a child, would be in deep despair, and the story lets us believe that, even as it gives us bits of information that contradict it. So it's a pleasure, a surprise, and yet a plausible outcome that Wallace is far from giving up. He wants to extend the Coronal's work and send it further out. The "torch" image that they use is not about burning things down--it's about shining a light in the darkness.

When Dr. Kostia decides to give Wallace access to the original signal, we know that she's renewed her faith in him, and that gives the story a delicious emotional payoff.

Con: Although it's part of the what-if, it's still a heck of a coincidence that a race manages to make contact with us just thirty years before it expires. It's difficult to see why the language-learning software worked better if the user spoke more than one terrestrial language. It's hard to believe that Dr. Kostia didn't have a self-driving car.

Other Reviews: Search Web, Browse Review Sites (Issue 117)
Margaret Ronald Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline

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6 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. This one blew me away - it's on my Hugo longlist for this year, and I fully agree with your 5 rating.

    The brain can be trained to learn languages more easily - people who are bilingual as children have an easier time picking up languages later - so it made sense to me that polyglots might have an easier time with the software.

    Jonathan Edelstein

  2. If you're interested in language learning, you might want to read "Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching," printed by the Foreign Service Institute, U.S. Department of State.

    In particular, have a look at "Lesson 6. A learner’s prior experience with learning (languages or other skills) also affects classroom learning." That section reports that it's definitely true that you can "learn how to learn" a foreign language, but it claims that it's a myth that bilingual children have any advantage in learning a third one.

    I could well believe that a polyglot would have an easier time with it, but what was unclear to me was that learning additional terrestrial languages would be worth much vs. putting the same amount of time into studying the Coronal materials directly.

  3. Thanks for the link - will read.

  4. I give it ★★★★, one less star than RSR. I like the post-First Contact scenario of witnessing the death of an alien civilization and the use of alternating threads (once I recognized it) for Dr. Kostia's visit to her wayward son and her closing keynote "infodump" two days later. However, I had trouble believing enough people would come to "worship" the Coronal civilization to be newsworthy, much less affect the protaganist's own family to this extent.

    It's cool that the story ends with the possibility of Earth civilization doing its own broadcasts in the "infospace" but I find it a stretch that the semi-sapient code technology hadn't already been militarized by governments and the infospace used for commercial purposes by corporations in the decades following First Contact . :-)

    On a separate note, reading the RSR review and the ease of finding other reviews has made me more aware of when I've merely skimmed a story and not fully understood key elements. I'm also learning to better appreciate the human relationships in stories. Maybe I used to be too focused on the grand SF concept, to the point of thinking too much talking between characters just got in the way of the plot :-) but that's changing now.

    1. BTW, the bit about learning languages to better understand the Coronal language has an interesting similarity to the movie "Arrival" and the impact of people learning the inky language.

  5. I am also giving it 4-stars.

    I actually do not like flashbacks that much, and the non-linear approach of this story (once I recognised it) just didn't work that well for me.