(urth) Short Story 36: Alien Stones
marcaramini at yahoo.com
Mon Jul 2 22:05:14 PDT 2012
(I feel that there is a certain post golden age space opera context to this story that I have very little background in, so I have been reading forward in Wolfe to about the mid-90s, reading copious classical and SF/Fantasy stories from Sturgeon, Ellison, Dunsany, Kipling, Chekhov, C.A. Smith, and many others in an attempt to parse some of the tropes that Wolfe may or may not be playing with in some of these more allusive stories, thus the slower pace of these write ups. Soon the pace will accelerate again.)
Alien Stones was first published in Orbit in 1972 and appears on page 27 of The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories.
SUMMARY: Daw and his ship, the rather self-aware Gladiator, approach a large seemingly abandoned spacecraft. It is a far future setting in which mankind has scattered across the galaxy, and though fragments of long lost civilization have oft been discovered, it is revealed that they have always been descended from man himself. Alas, they have finally come across a massive ship, possibly an abandoned derelict, in space, and proceed to explore it. The captain has an understudy, the young Wad, who is described as a dark complexioned young man “whose face showed plainly the strain of two years’ involvement in a hell that demanded night and day a continual flow of deductions, inferences, and decisions – all without effect”.
In this future, empaths are employed to smooth the way in interpersonal communication, and they always work as married couples because “everyone, notoriously, fell in love with empaths.”
The large ship is modular in nature and several crew members board it to look for traces of the civilization that abandoned it. It is enormous, but during the exploration the empathy Youngmeadow, who is liked by all but is also the subject of some envy because of his beautiful young wife, disappears.
While the crew tries to decipher the alien symbols and their crystalline and vacuum tube computer systems, they do eventually come to understand the star maps of the civilization. Some of the alien symbols are deciphered, and it ultimately turns out to be a numbering system that represents the course of the ship – in particular, Gladiator as it approached the alien vessel.
Helen Youngmeadow refuses to leave her husband, who never shows up. At one point, Captain Daw seeks to rescue her, and fails to mention that he has seen the body of her husband floating by in his suit. Daw wants to gain the aliens’ attention, and Helen assumes to do so he must break something, the same mistake her husband made. Daw instead tries to improve something, and the aliens appear as a simulation of the empath Youngmeadow to talk to them.
They indicate they are now aware of the humans, and that are “not … not-friends” but that further intercourse at this time is impossible. Daw then reveals that Wad is also a simulation of his younger used for test purposes and training young up and coming Captains, who are never promoted from other officers but are raised to be Captains.
Helen then ponders if her husband was ever real, and Daw reveals why he died – breaking something to get their attention, since “his empathy was all for people, not for things.”
Later on the ship he ponders the Matther 22:28 verse (to paraphrase) about a woman who had seven husbands who died – whose wife would she be at the resurrection? But Heaven doesn’t work that way.
Helen has asked Wad about Daw’s youth, and then asks if Daw’s training captain was an older version of himself, to which he responds, “I don’t think so .. a real captain. He was a crusty bastard, but he generally knew what he was doing.” (Of course, this might describe him).
COMMENTARY: Borski has some very interesting analysis of this story as kind of a “Wolfe does an inverted Star Trek and confronts the types of love” but while there is some appeal to his analysis I think he takes an overtly humanist/biological stance on the action that is really not at all warranted by the text itself. In his analysis, Eros, Agape, and Philos are represented by different characters or relationships in the story and the main didactic purpose of the story is to chronicle how man is evolving through his machines now, far away from the “young meadow” of Eden. His most convincing point is that on Daw’s bridge there is a new and old testament, and this is absent on Wad’s otherwise identical bridge. I don’t think this anti-tech conclusion is at all warranted for this story written by an engineer, but here is a link to Borski’s post below.
I think this story is not at all condemning man’s evolution through machines, but rather about learning to perceive life that is different to some degree, and learning to see ourselves from that perspective – Youngmeadow thinks he understands how the aliens works because he knows they are still there – but when he breaks a machine he makes himself a nuisance to them, and, failing to understand the nature of his own existence, he is destroyed. His suit also fails to understand this, and seeks to preserve the biotic environment of his rotting body. What then is life? Neither his suit nor the aliens recognize him as the only sentient life at that point.
In any case, there is a long philosophical/functional discussion of how the symbols of the aliens work (which even includes the etymology of how the rounded number 2 might have evolved from 2 parallel lines) – and it turns out, they are a subjective heading that points towards the Gladiator as it approaches. Those numbers are how the aliens perceive the humans. This is very important for the theme of the story in my opinion. Helen Youngmeadow mentions how stones used to be used for counting, which became an abacus, then over time lost their meaning and she ponders: “those numbers you figured out were little stones from a world we’ve never seen … The thing I wonder about is where are they now, those first stones? Ground to powder? Or jus kicking around Italy or Egypt somewhere, little round stones that nobody pays any attention to. I don’t really think anything would happen if they were destroyed – not really – but I’ve been
wondering about it”
All this time is put into deciphering a code that ultimately points to a way of perceiving and contextualizing themselves that is quite simple but was beyond their ability to discern without a lot of work. They assumed it was an escape route, but the aliens have not gone anywhere. There was simply no way for them to communicate effectively until the realization of the nature of their life forms was brought about. Even the space suit of Youngmeadow cannot know what human life is: it seeks to maintain the biotic organisms that have sprung up from his corpse.
Indeed, Wad, a simulation of the captain for the purpose of getting material for training new captains, seems very lifelike at first but is in fact nothing but a simulation of the captain who he can interact with as a “son”. Helen wonders after her husband dies if he was ever real at all, since there should only be one real person in every chamber and they were staying in one, and it felt as if he had never been know that he was dead. The aliens are real but they cannot be seen or experienced directly, only through their proxy, a simulation of Youngmeadow.
This examination of what life can be, and how different the ways of the spiritual world are than our biological one, seems an inquisition into the evolution of life through machines, through integration with alien philosophies, and even after death, and I do not think the condemnation of the mechanical that Borski posits is really present at all in the text. The strange ways of the mechanical and spiritual world might be every bit as vital, but just staggeringly different, as the final biblical quote drives home – there will be no marriage in heaven. Old categories will simply be irrelevant.
Also of note is that the Captain was bred for his position – he was not promoted. This engineering for a certain task is seen in some of Wolfe’s other short fiction as well.
There is an interesting parallel between Daw having a simulation of himself that he will care for and communicate with and the simulation of Youngmeadow the aliens use to communicate with the humans.
NAMES : Daw and Wad are clearly named as mirror images, one young and one old, but the name Daw means beloved, and this actually resonates well with Borski’s analysis of the story in terms of eros, agape, and philos. His conclusion condemning technology and its exploration completely ignores that it is through understanding things and computers that Daw gains meaningful access to at least a glimpse of the aliens.
Also of note is the name Youngmeadow: his naïve hubristic empathy from the starting point, entirely human and entirely based on emotional understanding, simply cannot intersect with the advanced technology/ alien nature of this progress. While it may be inhuman … I think the final biblical quote drives home the idea that ultimately spiritual beings are equally inhuman and incomprehensible. The name Helen Youngmeadow also resonates with the story of Helen of Troy to some degree – the bride of one coveted by another, but though ships are involved here that story has been augmented too much for a simple overlay.
RELIGIOUS ALLUSIONS: The famous quote on marriage from Matthew 22:28 ends the story, and this is a rather profound moment in the gospel that says the ways of man are simply NOT the ways of the spirit – there will be no institution of marriage. But what then of love, the love between a man and a woman? This quote and the meaning of the name Daw really do lend credence to love as a major theme of the story – the types of love and their expression across different boundaries – outside and beyond established relationships, after death, beyond human flesh.
ALLUSIONS: This is the part that has delayed me – I simply haven’t read enough golden age SF. Clarke and 2001 kept jumping out at me, but I don’t think that Wolfe would have had access to “Rendezvous with Rama” (published the same year as this story) while he was writing it, though there are some similar themes: a giant incomprehensible intelligence turns out to be something that is like a Deus ex machine, but not really. I tried to read a bit of Sturgeon and contemporaries, but nothing jumped out at me besides the generic space opera tropes. I really don’t think Star Trek had much to do with it, unlike Borski.
In any case, unlike Clarke’s 2001 where aliens seeded the creative spark for man to evolve, in “Alien Stones” entire civilizations have sprung from mankind and decayed over time to be found by other branches of man’s unified species. However, Daw and his Gladiator ship have come across something different and possibly incomprehensible at last.
RESONANCE WITH OTHER WORKS: Once again, I feel that the mechanistic, logical construction trumps human emotion here, much as it did in “Of Relays and Roses”. The passionate man Youngmeadow choses a passionate action and is killed as a result because he does not think things through logically. The nature of the spaceship and its captaincy is less Hobbesian and subject to mutinous contention than Wolfe’s novella “Silhouette”, but the ships themselves don’t seem all that different with their distinctive personalities and ability to operate independently of their captain, though in this case Daw has authoritative manual control over every ship process.
The alien symbols are a mathematical course heading that represents heading for the ship Gladiator – how they are perceived through alien eyes, if one wants to take it symbolically. Playing with mathematics this way was done in “King Under the Mountain” with hexadecimal, though this appears to be a 12 digit system. Also, the much later “Useful Phrases” might have a similar (but probably impenetrable) Rosetta Stone coding system (not based in Mathematics, from my perusal).
The doubling of Daw and the lust he has for Helen seems fairly typical of Wolfe’s treatment of marriage and desire, even as recently as “Short Sun” and “Home Fires”.
Next up is “Beech Hill” from Castle of Days.
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