You can listen to a podcast of this story courtesy of Escape Pod. It’s really cool you should give it a listen!
This is more like it! Here we have a meaty short with a laser-like focus that takes one of science fiction’s founding conceptual motifs – aliens – and takes another look at it with modern eyes. Aliens are a great metaphorical device. They can be a kind ‘wise fool’ figure, pointing out the oddities and contradictions of human existence. If this story did just that, it could still be a great story.
But what makes it a great science fiction story is that as well as this, Cadigan sketches out a believable human and alien relationship in just a few pages; as well as metaphor and satire it also works as realist speculation. This is the kind of multi-stranded thematic structure that science fiction does so well.
Cadigan quickly establishes a weird vibe between the humans and aliens early on in a terrific opening paragraph:
Barely fifteen minutes after he’d called Area Traffic Surveillance, Etan Carrera saw the big limousine transport coming toward him. He watched it with mild interest from his smaller and temporarily disabled vehicle. Some media celebrity or an alien – more likely an alien. All aliens seemed enamored with things like limos and private SSTs, even after all these years. In any case, Etan fully expected to see the transport pass without even slowing, the navigator (not driver – limos drove themselves) hardly glancing his way, leaving him alone in the rolling, green empty countryside.
The alien itself, when it arrives is uncanny and seductive.
The creature on the end of the seat seemed to have coalesced out of humid semi-dark, an off-white mound of what seemed to be fur as close and dense as a seal’s. It might have repelled or disconcerted him except that it smelled so good, like a cross between fresh-baked bread and wildflowers. The aromas filled Etan with a sudden, intense feeling of well-being. Without thinking he reached out to touch it, realized and pulled his hand back.
The alien doesn’t mind, though, quite the contrary, and Etan ends being the victim of what we might consider a sexual assault, albeit a rather eccentric one, and then paid off with wads of cash.
This is not the first science fiction story about sexually predatory aliens, of course, and it’s not the novelty of the idea that’s so strong here, but it’s presentation. Here it’s seen not as overt violent rape, but a more subtle and coercive force. This also makes the story feel very current as we re-examine our definitions of sexual abuse to include non-physical coercion and mental abuse.
It’s our old friend colonialism, as well, although instead of plucky human colonists battling against a hostile environment, here we get the post-colonialist view: humanity is just another indigenous peoples exploited by a colonising force. Whatever harm is done by treating another human as a commodity to be bought and paid for like livestock can be quickly papered over with dollar bills if you are rich enough. And if you’re poor and disenfranchised enough you’ll accept it as your lot.
As well as all this, though, it’s a convincing portrayal of how things might work between humans and aliens in certain circumstances. It doesn’t feel contrived as Cadigan keeps her inventions to a minimum. It’s clearly some kind of future, and alien contact seems settled but relatively recent – ‘even after all these years’ implies decades rather than centuries.
It’s a world not all that different from ours, in fact, and while we don’t get a lot of character detail, Etan feels like a relateable protagonist. He’s not the slightly intimidating geniuses in Blood Music or Trinity and his situation is convincingly mundane. He’s an everyman and this makes it easier for me to identify with the bizarre situation he finds himself in.
Despite the old theme of aliens on the pull, this story feels fresh and interesting. It packs a lot into a few pages. It’s probably the shortest story so far but never feels shallow or lightweight. A really terrific story!
Themes: colonialism, sexual abuse, aliens, exploitation