Continuing on with the 2017 Hugo Nominated Novelettes, we have “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman, published in the April 2016 issues of Clarkesworld. My main focus is on some undergirding philosophical issues. Jon Mollison has some commentary on the story’s virtue-signaling mess.
It’s a sci-fi story, where alien structures, “towering domes of overlapping, chitinous plates in pearly dawn colors, like reflections on a tranquil sea”, have appeared suddenly all over North America with human translators that were abducted at birth.
The story picks up when Avery, a driver for a Specialty Shipping company, is tasked to take an alien for a ride in a tour bus. The human translator and alien, unseen in a mass of shipping crates, are picked up in Rock Creek Park and direct Avery to drive “anywhere”. On their trip, the translator reveals he is a kind of conduit for the alien who itself is perpetually unconscious, literally unaware of things. The translator, from time to time, establishes this neural connection by the traditionally terrifying means (weird tentacles in facial orifices) and the alien participates in his awareness. This is like a drug to the alien though, who is dying like a junkie.
After some off-color encounters where the alien wants to experience things like killing and eating a cat, they finally end up driving to a cemetery where the alien can die in peace. Avery has a moment reflecting on her daughter who died in infancy 20 years back, before the alien properly dies and the translator reveals that the now rotted alien will give off spores establish colonies in the brains of passing dogs and children and invade. The story ends with Avery excitedly collecting spores to “grow an alien of my own” (read: embrace our new unconscious overlords).
From the get go, it has to be said the story is written well. The Hugos at least cull the bad writers, technically speaking. There are some oddities around characterization. Lionel, the alien translator, has ostensibly grown up in a world where his closest companion is unconscious and unaware. The writer attempts to get this across by strangeness in behavior, but it doesn’t read well from Avery’s responses. She seems oddly unfazed and mechanical, even when she’s trying to get away from the guy who just ate a cat to death.
But what about the content? What’s going on in the story? As my last review made clear, this is what I care about. I’m actually not a man against message fiction – I just want good messages, artfully presented.
The story stumbles on this count.
At the core of the story is the question of consciousness, acting with intentionality. Those who are familiar with the philosophical discussion around eliminative materialism (championed by big time Fantasy Author and philosopher R. Scott Bakker) may recognize its contours. Gilman doesn’t completely endorse such a view – the denial of intentionality, our capacity to act in such a way that is “about” something (see here if you want to shake that limb) – but she has tried here to imagine a “sentient” race which is basically such a thing. Human have intentionality – we are conscious, aware of, and thus direct our actions – but the aliens do not.
Swallowing this pill is made easier by not ever interacting with the aliens. The translators instead tell us that they are this way, acting confused whenever Avery uses language that applies consciousness to the aliens.
Humans, you see, have this cerebral cortex. Apparently the aliens just have the inner brain, but evolved to an immensely high degree. Thus they “act” without consciousness. I read it basically as having an instinctual nature, akin to an animal, but so complex that it “looks” human.
The story has a somewhat dim view of human consciousness. In fact, Avery seems to recognize that her own life problems stem from such things:
“As the road led them nearer to southern Illinois, Avery found memories surfacing. They came with a tug of regret, like a choking rope pulling her back toward the person she hadn’t become. She thought of the cascade of non-decisions that had led her to become the rootless, disconnected person she was, as much a stranger to the human race as Lionel was, in her way.
“What good has consciousness ever done me? she thought. It only made her aware that she could never truly connect with another human being, deep down. And on that day when her cells would dissolve into the soil, there would be no trace her consciousness had ever existed.”
Later, holding death watch over the alien, she and Lionel reflect on consciousness:
“Does he know he’s dying?” she asked.
Lionel nodded. “I know, and so he knows.” A little bitterly, he added, “That’s what consciousness does for you.”
“So normally he wouldn’t know?”
He shook his head. “Or care. It’s just part of their life cycle. There’s no death if there’s no self to be aware of it.”
“No life either,” Avery said.
Lionel just sat breaking twigs and tossing them on the fire. “I keep wondering if it was worth it. If consciousness is good enough to die for.”
She tried to imagine being free of her self—of the regrets of the past and fear of the future. If this were a Star Trek episode, she thought, this would be when Captain Kirk would deliver a speech in defense of being human, despite all the drawbacks. She didn’t feel that way.
“You’re right,” she said. “Consciousness kind of sucks.”
So it may not be that the alien “appears” human in its complexity. In fact, it may be that we humans are just screwed up. Then again, the alien dies because it’s attempting to experience consciousness, as though it is something they desire. Thus we are left with some hope in the final paragraphs of the story:
“‘We’ve got something they want. The gift of self, of mortality. God, I feel like the snake in the garden. But my alien will love me for it.’ She could see the cooler in the rear view mirror, sitting on the floor in the kitchen. Already she felt fond of the person it would become.”
It’s all an interesting thought experiment. However, perhaps because of the philosophical training, I’m left wondering how the aliens ever experience the desire for consciousness. How do they even act or decide to do things, how do they direct their translators and such to some end if they aren’t conscious? Or do they? Are these things actually only following instincts? They apparently infect other races to build their structures, to effect their invasions. Is this a decision? Apparently not, at least not a conscious decision. It seems to all only be instinctual.
But why laud this? The things feel no pain. This seems the crux of Avery’s attraction to their unconsciousness. She’s a woman who lost her child and is now rootless in the world. She appears to desire to experience something of the aliens’ unconscious existence. I’m tempted to go down nihilistic-suicide readings here, but I’ll refrain.
There is an egalitarian spectre, though. The two ways of existence – conscious and unconscious – seem to be treated with equivalence by the end – each able to help the other. I’m uncomfortable with this. The aliens seem to be nothing more than animals, maybe not even plants. Very complex animal-plants, but still nothing but animal-plants. They may not be conscious to life and death, but similarly they are not conscious to right and wrong – not a point made explicitly in the tale, but eating a cat to death without concern seems a little amoral.
In philosophic terms, this is tantamount to denying anything special about being human – at it’s best end, a kind of buddhist all-is-nothing; at it’s worst, full on atheistic materialism. Both amount to that same thing really. Maybe I should have gone down the nihilistic-suicide reading.
If the philosophic point here is too much, then go for the political. You know that environmentalist which says dogs and humans are the same? Yeah, that’s what this is.
Beyond this underlying nihilism, there’s also the usual cultural klaptrap ready to strike. The well-todo brother is gay; small town folk are bigots; the foreigner is treated with unfair suspicion by all but the protagonist. Oh, and being a traitor to humanity and celebrating an alien invasion is aokay!
Interesting, but nihilism. Always with the damn nihilism.