(urth) Short Story 36: Alien Stones

Marc Aramini marcaramini at yahoo.com
Mon Jul 16 07:14:43 PDT 2012

--- On Mon, 7/16/12, Daniel Petersen <danielottojackpetersen at gmail.com> wrote:

From: Daniel Petersen <danielottojackpetersen at gmail.com>
Subject: Re: (urth) Short Story 36: Alien Stones
To: "The Urth Mailing List" <urth at lists.urth.net>
Date: Monday, July 16, 2012, 5:40 AM

I haven't read Borski's take, but it looks like I'd be inclinded to side more with your analysis here.  It's actually been some years since I read this story, but my overwhelming memory of the story is that it was at core about the incomprehensibleness/incommensurability of 'alien contact'.  It put me very much in mind of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris.  And when I saw Prometheus recently, this story sprang immediately to mind.  
The funny thing is, I didn't overall care for the story when I read it, though I very much wanted to because I love stories that take place in the deeps of space and I love Wolfe - unfortunately I don't know if the two go all that well together.  However, even though it ranks among stories of his I don't terribly care for, it has yet stuck very strongly in my imagination over the years.  It is pretty much my go-to story-memory for the theme of the truly enigmatic nature of alienness.  I think your point about the story's use of Matthew 22:28 confirms this theme.
Are there other stories or novels by Wolfe that take up this theme this intensely?  I'd be very interested to see them considered alongside the Solar Cycle.  The alien life forms in New Sun seem closer to 'Alien Stones' whilst the alien life forms in Short Sun seem slightly more comprehensible, 'contact-able'.  The Neighbours/Vanished People are perhaps slightly in between - though still far, far nearer humanity than this life form in 'Alien Stones'.
Thanks for your thoughts, Marc.
Thanks Daniel!  I have been going a bit slower on stories so a few more comments like yours can come up.
In the meantime I have read ahead in Wolfe to about circa 1995, and I will try to address where he takes up this theme.  As far as aliens or other types of beings are concerned, the sheer lack of time that players like Inire and the pandours get in New Sun have a veneer of this inscrutability, but they are ultimately very understandable in terms of their goals and function: a manipulator and drones.  "Tracking Song" I think is actually an inversion of this: things which are not human can seem very human when you live among them.
I think the incomprehensibility is much more common with spiritual and fantastic in Wolfe rather than alien things - the story "Houston, 1943" for example is about as bizarre and incomprehensible as anything Wolfe has done (the boy Roddie in the story can't come to terms with what is happening to him, and finally just concludes it is a dream, though there is no indication he will ever wake up).  What is so weird about that story is ... Roddie is clearly supposed to be Gene Rodman Wolfe, it's supposed to be our Houston, Gene really had a dog the name of the dog in the story, and there are all these "familiar" characters from literature, but even with ALL THAT real world crossover of time and place, everything that happens is well and truly bizarre.  
So the theme of context making higher meaning and a failure to understand it inhibiting valid communion or even self-awareness is ALL throughout Wolfe: Peace, The Haunted Boardinghouse, Mute, A Cabin on the Coast,  Sorcerer's House, Short Sun ... but I don't think anywhere else is it quite so concerned with pure outerspace aliens as in this story.  I've noticed that Wolfe's 1970s fiction was usually more concrete and closer to real world physics than the short works he was writing in the late 80s to mid 90s - he seemed to take a conscious step away from near future dystopia towards overt fantasy (albeit sometimes still dystopian).
Thanks again for your comments, Daniel.  My favorite part of Alien Stones is that the symbols that they work so hard to decipher simply indicate that the aliens are aware of their approach, and are thus symbols of themselves through alien eyes.
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