(urth) (Urth) In Glory Like Their Star

Nathan Spears spearofsolomon at yahoo.com
Wed Apr 18 15:10:18 PDT 2007

Thank you both for your replies.  My reading was more sympathetic to Mr. Lackey's, but I wish I hadn't taken the book back to the library so I could read the story again to look for Mr. Ellis' perspective.  From what I can remember of the tone of the story I think that Mr. Ellis is putting something of his own ideas into it - I remember feeling that the narrator was basically blackmailed into making promises he couldn't keep to the native.  He was dying in the desert and this local thought he was a djinn or something.

Having thought about it since then, I find your comments revealing in another direction I hadn't considered.  The story also acts as an illustration of not only how badly, but how strangely, relations between vastly technologically different cultures might be.  The alien finds himself in the strange position of having to emulate a god in order to survive, ie The Man Who Would Be King.  He tries to make good on his word but is unable to, and his shame leads him to abandon the native in question.

I still am not clear on why he has to incinerate the native as he leaves.  That bit weighs favorably for Mr. Ellis' reading as far as I can see.

"It is the interior change that suffices, the transformation that rewards"
This statement is Christian doctrine reworded, so I doubt that Wolfe intended it to bathe the narrator in a negative light.  Unless the story is also a commentary on how missionaries to impoverished nations should spend more time distributing medicine and less time evangelizing. 

----- Original Message ----
From: Tony Ellis <tonyellis69 at btopenworld.com>
To: urth at lists.urth.net
Sent: Wednesday, April 18, 2007 3:43:26 PM
Subject: (urth) (Urth) In Glory Like Their Star

Roy C Lackey wrote:
>I don't know what the moral is, exactly, but the twist on the aliens-as-gods
>story seems to be that the better judgement of technologically superior
>beings can be seduced by too much reverence.

This sort of chimes with my reading, but I'd go further and say that
we're being invited to feel outright contempt for the narrator. Far
from being divine, he's an ass.

Almost the first thing he says is that from his perspective, the tribe
who want his people's help are indistinguishable from the enemies they
want help against. Fair enough: that sounds like a suitably godlike
opinion, we're all equally sinful in the sight of God, etc, etc. Then
he casually says he may indeed propose that his people destroy their
hosts. He's sitting there, eating this tribe's food, and coolly toying
with the idea of exterminating them. Not nice.

But then, his whole attitude towards these natives is arrogant and
condescending. "The natives could not understand, saying again and
again in many different ways that knowledge is a thing one uses. We
sought to explain by the Great Disciplines that such things have
nothing to do with its value... It is the interior change that
suffices, the transformation that rewards... They could not

Such lofty conceits about knowledge may be all very well when you're a
technologically advanced super-race, but these are primitive
tribespeople. From their perspective *of course* knowledge is a thing
one uses, and maybe if the narrator and his people deigned to impart a
little they could learn things like medicine and irrigation.

Everything the narrator says sounds superficially wise and gnomic, and
then, when you think about it, pompous and unrealistic. I'm reminded
of the Laputians in Gulliver's Travels - a race so advanced they're
actually kind of stupid. Even more than that I'm reminded of a Wolfean
type: the arrogant academic. Doctor Marsh is one; Doctor Finch in
Trip, Trap, another. In particular I'm put in mind of Quoquo in
Feather Tigers, the alien psychologist who decides we must have built
our computers to lie because sometimes he can't understand what they
mean. Like Quoquo, our narrator sets off alone into the wilderness, in
the belief that he is a match for it, and like Quoquo he finds that he
is not.

There's a little detail here which for me is the icing on the cake.
The narrator is mysteriously reticent about exactly what went wrong in
the desert, but it comes out anyway: "I told him of my plight... my
machine broken when it collided with a stone." Yes, you read that
correctly: the mighty, godlike alien drove his vehicle into a rock.

As Roy says, the narrator makes rash promises to the camel rider that
he can't fulfill - and isn't it telling that the thing he promises and
can't deliver is eternal life - precisely the thing God is supposed to

As for morals... Brian Aldiss has said, with his tongue only slightly
in his cheek, that the theme of science fiction is "hubris clobbered
by nemesis", and I think this story is a good example of that. More
specifically, I think Wolfe wants us to think - in his typical
convention-inverting way - not about the vast gulf between primitive
people and a super-race with godlike technology, but about the far
vaster gulf between such a race and actual divinity. Either you *are*
God, or you're infinitely far from God. The sci-fi cliche of godlike
aliens fails to deal with what 'godlike' really means, and possibly
that was what bugged Wolfe about the original story he read.
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