(urth) Short Story 36: Alien Stones

Daniel Petersen danielottojackpetersen at gmail.com
Mon Jul 16 08:08:58 PDT 2012

Yes, yes, yes.  Good points all round, Marc.  Glad you mentioned 'Tracking
Song' - I hadn't even thought of that one in connection to 'Alien Stones'
- interestingly, the two stories gave me a *very* similar feeling (though I
riproaringly enjoyed 'Song' unlike being a little bored by 'Stones'):
unease and mystification in the face of the non-human.  And that's crazily
artistically badass how Wolfe achieved a similar effect in a story
all about beings by degrees much *closer* to what we know as humanity.

And I agree, 'Houston, 1943' is the most densely and inherently enigmatic
story I've read by Wolfe.

And yeah, of course, I see it now:  this is practically Wolfe's biggest
theme throughout his oeuvre, but mostly in the medium of the fantastical
and metaphysical and supernatural rather than 'space aliens'.  Although, in
the Solar Cycle, I'm not sure how much Wolfe draws a distinction.  And
maybe that's Wolfe's main point in tracing the career trajectory you
describe - away from tech s.f. into a science fantasy and/or magical
relaism of sorts.  I'm not sure he'd even like the term 'real world
physics' (beyond its handiness).  The metaphysics of his work overall seems
to embrace a very 'ontologically haunted' (to borrow one philosopher's
phrase) reality.

So maybe what's explored in one sphere in an early work ('space aliens' in
'Alien Stones') is widened out to the universal as his career progresses -
the 'whole show' we're swimming in is just that irreducibly engimatic -
barely decipherable symbols that only show us a new view of ourselves as
seen by Others - things like that.  (My fave part of 'Alien Stones' as I
recall was just that they were floating and jetting around in space suits
inside this mega-relic alien craft type deal, cheap-thrills boy that I am,

On a theological note:  I think drawing out this kind of inexplicable
universe so consistently and incrementally throughout his work is what
makes Wolfe's introduction of divine 'revelation' by which comes
'salvation' so quietly powerful and persuasive for those readers who want
to follow out that thread.  The Conciliator and Outsider and so on really
make *hope* of meaning creep up and sneak in on the otherwise hopelessly
indecipherable existence the characters experience.


On Mon, Jul 16, 2012 at 3:14 PM, Marc Aramini <marcaramini at yahoo.com> wrote:

> --- 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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