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Off On A Tangent: F&SF Style
Carolyn Ives Gilman's "Okanoggan Falls"
Alien invasion has been one of SF's most enduring themes. It has taken many literary variations and forms since H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds in 1894, exposing our vulnerability and scaring everyone to death. While the human race survived his Martian invasion, it was due not to anything we as human beings did—after all, our military was powerless against the invaders—but through the inability of the Martian life forms to assimilate safely our planetary microbes, which turned out to be deadly to their alien immune system. If not for this oversight on the part of the Martians we would have been dead meat. Their overwhelming force and singular desire to crush us like bugs would have sealed our fate, no questions asked. They weren't interested in negotiation or compromise, or enslaving us for whatever malevolent purpose most suited their alien intellect. They wished simply to exterminate us and take over earth for their own purposes. And there was nothing we could do about it. We were helpless. Toast.
But would it be true that all creatures from other worlds automatically seek our unconditional eradication? Would not some of them seek us out as friends in a large, lonely universe? Would some harbor conquest, but not total annihilation of our species, to use us to further their alien ends? Would simple enslavement accomplish their goals of a growing empire or interstellar hegemony? Would we fight back or acquiesce to the inevitable? If enslaved, would we bide our time, establish an underground resistance, and work toward a lengthy (generations? centuries?) overthrow? Or, after generations or centuries of occupation by our interstellar conquerors would we come to accept our subservient position, with each succeeding generation less inclined to revolt, content with the only life they have ever known? To avoid such a scenario, should the human race, reluctantly, but with the knowledge that the universe is a harsh and cruel environment, arm itself with the most devastating weaponry it can assemble or devise in order to insure its independence and survival? After all, if we as a species fail to take into account that we cannot argue or negotiate or compromise with harsh reality (in whatever form it may take, be it natural or from alien invaders), what good are our philosophies, morals, or ethics in the face of such—if we do not exist? Reality trumps any philosophy that does not include it as a primary tenet, every time.
While dusting off the old Way Back Machine in my library recently I came across quite an odd assortment of short stories (chosen pretty much at random, as I happened across them) dealing with the theme of alien invasion. They run quite a gamut—from the pro-militarist to the pro-pacifist viewpoints, and everywhere in between—and are fascinating glimpses into not only how the authors view our reactions/responses to alien invasion (or in some cases, potential alien invasion), but into the minds of the alien invaders as well. Discussing a few of them will serve a dual purpose: to illuminate the variety of treatments of the alien invasion theme, and to provide context toward my understanding of Carolyn Ives Gilman's novelette "Okanoggan Falls" from the August 2006 F&SF, which I found to be a highly interesting treatment of the theme.
A third reason for taking a look at some of these older invasion stories is that it is fun for me to do so, and I hope fun for you as well. It has been said before, but I will say it again: There are many reasons for reading SF, and reading for fun is certainly high on my list.
One of the books that had been sitting on my shelf for years but which I had never read was the SFBC edition of Simon & Schuster's 1962 collection of reprint stories edited by Damon Knight. Titled A Century of Science Fiction, it is divided into thematic sections, each story replete with notes and commentary by the editor. Section V is subtitled "Aliens Among Us," and includes a story from the French edition of F&SF. According to the header notes, the French F&SF was founded in 1953 by Maurice Renault. He called his magazine Fiction. Translating from the English, over half of its stories were from F&SF, the remainder comprised of original French SF stories. (It was recently revived by Andre-Francois Ruaud: http://www.moutons-electriques.com/serie.php?s=nr). Taken from the May, 1960 issue (and translated from the French by Damon Knight), we have Claude Veillot's "The First Days of May." Claude Veillot was, at the time, "a young Parisian journalist and film critic."
Veillot's invasion story initially runs along the lines of Wells's classic, in that we have been invaded (this time) by giant praying mantises as big as kangaroos, and there seems there is nothing we can do about it, such are their overwhelming numbers and the nature of their weapon. The Shrills (as humans call them, for the sound they make) have come to earth in these giant machines, and are slaughtering us right and left---not only with their ultrasonic shrilling (which they have learned to amplify mechanically) which kills almost instantaneously, but with the old crunch and munch technique on an individual level. It has been a mere four days since they arrived en masse and began their blitzkrieg devastation. While searching desperately for his wife in the ruined and deserted streets of his French village, our protagonist is captured by a fellow human whom he tries to befriend. Little does he realize that this man, in order to save his own skin, has turned traitor to his species and is in charge of rounding up survivors for the aliens' bloody entertainment. These few survivors are herded into a Roman-type arena where, when chosen, individuals are pitted against a warrior Shrill for sport. While precious few survive, much less kill a Shrill, our protagonist does, but with dire consequences.
And this is where the story takes a very dark turn. Along with others, he is forced into the back of a truck, heading he knows not where. Images of the Nazi holocaust, internment camps and the like, are now too easy to ignore, though those cognizant of the German invasion and the quick collapse of France during the early days of World War II would have noted the parallel much sooner:
"It's May, and I'm rolling across the countryside, but it's in a truck that stinks of fuel oil and sweat, packed in with strangers, dejected men and women, their eyes empty.Rather than being shot in an open field after digging their own mass graves, or being crammed into a "relocation" camp, our survivors are destined for a far different fate. They are to be bound alive as food for the mantises/aliens' larval offspring, to be eaten from the inside out while still alive. It is here that our once-wandering protagonist finally finds his wife, Maria, after being herded through the tunnels joining the many "gelatinous masses, like heaps of yellowish cocoons, piles of insect nests," which cover the surrounding fields of the farmhouse, now deserted. The closing lines of the tale are chilling:
"Two guards take me by the elbows. I point with my chin toward the shadow from which the wide-open golden eyes [of my Maria] still stare at me.Thus we begin with a standard alien invasion tale, literally including pulpish Bug-Eyed Monsters (BEMs), and see it quickly turn to a tale of horror, where the weakness and cowardice of our own kind are shown to be the real horror, more horrible by far than the inhuman Shrill. Where, in a recasting of the Nazi atrocities of World War II we are again reminded that we are our own worst enemy. On the plus side, however, and to our credit, we are shown that in facing death it is love (this time for an individual) that gives us the strength to face it with at least some measure of dignity.
Our Objective Reality meter must, perforce, give this tale a qualified Minus. In the harsh, cold, cruel light of objective reality, we still lose against the aliens. Or do we? Obviously, at first, we have. But where there is life there is hope. And who are those among humankind most assured of survival? Those herded into the nests as food, or those who are doing the herding? As cruel and inhuman as it sounds, it is the herders who have at least a chance—at the outset of the invasion where all are hunted and destroyed save for the few willing to cooperate as guards/herders, for whatever reason—of learning all they can about the aliens and how they work, think, and operate. They are the only ones among our scattered remnants with a possibility of exploiting any weakness the aliens may have from the inside. The question then becomes: is it worth a possible payoff down the road for these "double agents," who must until such time play an active, albeit despicable role in helping the aliens in exterminating their own kind, their brethren? Can they live with themselves knowing full well that even should they succeed, their consciences will eventually make ultimate cowards of them all (to paraphrase Shakespeare)? I would hate to be placed in this ultimate situation.
Of course, as happened in Real Life (and in the story), many of the traitors became so only to save their own necks. But what of those few who, in Real Life, did so with the aim in mind of overthrowing the Nazis, or in the hypothetical case of "First Days of May," those who might have become "double agents" as it were, in order to destroy the aliens from within? Tough, very tough, questions. What strength of character, not to mention selflessness, would it take for someone to assume such a thankless role, where he is hated by his own kind as a traitor almost as much as he must surely in times of mental depression and darkness hate himself for the choice he has made. I'm sure there must have been such unsung heroes during the Nazi occupation of France (and elsewhere) during WWII. I wonder if their stories were ever told, and how they came to live with themselves afterward.
All such speculation aside, the theme explored in "The First Days of May" obviously focused on those who would betray their own kind out of weakness, cowardice, and fear, and how one man found a measure of dignity in facing his own death. A powerful, horrific tale where alien invasion is used as metaphor to re-examine real life events. Lest we forget.
Many of the first alien invasion stories assumed the aliens to be our enemies, bent solely on our destruction. This spate of stories over the years inevitably gave rise to a backlash, where the automatic assumption of alien evil was replaced with the thought that maybe, just maybe, they were friendly and were merely exploring the cosmos in search of like-minded friendly species with which to connect. And that therefore we shouldn't automatically react by attempting to blow them out of the sky, or, in other words, shoot first and ask questions later.
Such an assumption of the friendly alien species come to visit (and this is where alien contact stories sometimes overlap with alien invasion stories—where we don't know the intention of the outsider, but must react as if it was a possible invasion) can be found in Judith Merril's novelette "Whoever You Are," from the December, 1952 issue of Startling Stories. It is reprinted in her collection Out of Bounds (Pyramid pb, April, 1960; intro. by Theodore Sturgeon).
In this one, one of our planetary outposts registers a craft attempting to enter the solar system. We have thrown up a shield around same, which is described as an "electro-magneto-gravitic Web of force that surrounded the Solar System."1
In any case, our observation outpost and the Powers That Be it has notified of the incoming unidentified spaceship are cautious in the extreme, not knowing whether the aliens are friendlies or not. At present we have them "held" in our force shield. We soon make contact due to the bravery of a few hardy souls who meet the aliens, and every report sent home says that they are telepathic and friendly. The military types in charge are still skeptical, offering that the aliens may just be trying to fool us, and with their telepathic abilities would be able to discover our military secrets should we let them through the defense barrier; that it would be too dangerous to trust them on their word alone. The story then concerns itself with the reasons, both pro and con, for letting them physically meet us or not.
The eventual reason the aliens have come our way is given earlier in the story when one of those attempting to ferret their motives comes up with this: "T'sin reminded me, during the conversation, of a story I have always considered rather bathetic: that of the little orphan girl, in the days before the crèches, who threw a note over the high wall of the 'orphanage' saying: Whoever you are, I love you." It is never revealed whether any passerby picked up the note, or attempted to contact the little girl. But it eventually turns out that this is all the aliens desire. To make contact with someone else who could show them the outside world (i.e. a glimpse of another culture). Merril portrays them sensitively through messages sent by the scout team as sincerely friendly and quite harmless, but the paranoia (justified yes? no?) of those in charge of protecting us wins out. Just as proof of the kind of love they have for us is coming through in a final message, the Commander makes a tough choice, gives the code word to destroy them, and they are history.
In the evolution of the alien invasion story I suppose one could say this is at least a half-step forward. Or if not forward, at least in another direction from the automatic assumption that all aliens are out to get us. In "Whoever You Are" the possibility is entertained that the aliens are friendly, though our biologic imperative toward caution and preservation wins out and we (wrongly as it turns out) destroy the aliens and assure our survival. Our Objective Reality meter must, perforce, give this story a qualified Plus. The alien philosophy of non-violence, coupled with their inability even to protect themselves defensively, all in the service of reaching out in a friendly gesture of love and friendship, got them killed. We survived, though we killed innocent creatures. The burden of guilt is on us as a species, but at least we are alive to learn from our mistakes. What if, what if the aliens were deceiving us? Maybe the only weapon their species had at its disposal was the use of its telepathic abilities, but they needed close contact in order to use them to our eventual downfall? Could we afford to take that chance in order to prove our higher nature? We may want to take that chance, but can we afford to? What good our better nature, our strong desire for friendship and comradeship and understanding of another species, if it gets us killed? Nuttin' matters if we're toast in space. Or, if you prefer: If a high falutin' moral philosophy falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it crash (i.e. ceases to exist, along with those who believed in it), does it make a sound? (With apologies to some philosopher or other, for that one.)
Speaking of ethics and philosophies as rendered in SF stories, whether in the foreground or background, I'd like to preface the next story with the following:
"We have two situations, mutually exclusive: Mankind surviving, and mankind extinct. With respect to morality, the second situation is a null class. An extinct breed has no behavior, moral or otherwise.Further along, after the author goes through his hierarchy of levels of morality, from the individual, the familial, the national, to that of species morality:
"I must pause to brush off those parlor pacifists I mentioned earlier . . . for they contend that their actions are on this highest moral level. They want to put a stop to war; they say so. Their purpose is to save the human race from killing itself off; they say that too. Anyone who disagrees with them must be a bloodthirsty scoundrel—and they'll tell you that to your face.–excerpt from Expanded Universe by Robert A. Heinlein, from the article "The Pragmatics of Patriotism" p. 466 (Ace mass market pb, 1982). First appeared in Analog, 1973.
With the above in mind, let's take a quick look at Isaac Asimov's "The Gentle Vultures" (Super-Science Fiction, 1957. Reprinted in the collection Earthmen & Strangers, ed. Robert Silverberg, Dell pb, July 1968). Asimov sets it up where a space-faring race uses the self-destructive tendencies of other races to its advantage. It waits patiently in some nearby solar system or moon or wherever, and monitors races until they self-destruct in any number of ways, then they pounce like vultures on the planetary leftovers. Their moral code prohibits them from actively causing any destruction themselves; all they are allowed to do is wait, and then move in and exploit what they will from each dead world. They do nothing aggressive or warlike, such is their high moral code.
When they come to observe earth, just as our Cold War is heating up and it appears we may be on the brink of nuclear destruction, they see that we have of a sudden stopped the nuclear arms race for fear of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). After years and years of patient waiting, they are now thwarted, as it seems we will not self-destruct after all. One among them suggests launching a bomb from space so that each of the nuclear powers on earth will assume the other power has started a war, and then the all out retaliation will begin. This idea is nixed, however, from higher up, as being immoral and against their core philosophy. Heavily vexed and frustrated for all the time they have wasted on earth, they prepare to withdraw to the deeps of space and to other booty. The kicker to the story is given in the final lines when one of the aliens opines:
"We ought to have dropped—" and did not finish.Just prior to the lines above, one of the aliens expresses the fear that eventually the large-primates would head outward among the stars and then what would his race do if this warlike species ever found them. With their ethical code tying their hands the tables would then be turned, and the large-primates would then be the swooping vultures. Leave it to Asimov to show how a non-interference philosophy could also seal a race's fate, and tell the story from the alien viewpoint and without a homo sap in sight!
I think it safe to draw the conclusion, in light of Heinlein's definition of morality, that Asimov's alien race was not a moral one, for it acted against its own survival. It was their ethical code, coupled with our apparently militaristic and potentially violent one, that we are given to believe will be their downfall somewhere in the future. Their philosophy seals their extinction, we survive because of it.
Our Objective Reality Meter must, perforce, give this story an unqualified Plus. We didn't have to do anything to survive: threaten, fight, or kill. We were just being ourselves and we drove a more ethically restrained race from our door—a race that had the power to annihilate us if it so chose. In fact, it was more of a case where they lost, rather than we won. But the implication at the end of the story is a strong one: the ethics of the aliens prevented them from taking care of a problem they would eventually have to face down the road—a problem upon which their very survival might well depend.
Moving up the SF timeline some 23 years we find a first sale by one Gary Woolard titled "The Four" (New Dimensions 11, ed. Robert Silverberg and Marta Randall. Pocket Books, July 1980). Woolard's aliens are now more subtle, more sly, in their approach to earthly dominion. In short, with some minor cosmetic modifications, they appear human. They write poetry, but of a kind attuned to the human psyche such that they open up whole new ways of thinking, broaching whole new vistas of human thought so strange and beautiful that they become rather addictive, for want of a better word. The four poets become famous, the toast of the literary town, their followers are growing in leaps and bounds . . . until they are exposed and forced to leave before their exposure becomes public. Near the very end of this short story, the theme is revealed:
"I keep thinking, nowadays, about something Plato said of the poets—how you have to watch them. They get you marching along to a certain rhythm, a certain way of going, he said, and then they'll change the scansion on you. You can't trust them.
Yes, indeed. Woolard's aliens seem to have learned that the pen is mightier than the sword. That, if patient enough, a conqueror need not shed blood (or substantially less blood) to attain the desired goal. That, if clever enough, and appealing to the proper emotions, a people can be beguiled into believing that night is day, that evil is good, and any and everything in between. That, if words are used cleverly enough and uncritical minds and public opinion swayed, the conqueror need only walk into an already internally conquered country (or planet, in this case). Thus can a current ruler in what once was called Persia (who studied the words of another ruler who began a world war some 65+ years ago) claim that he and his people are peace-loving and reasonable people on the one hand, yet call for the utter destruction of another people on the other, and have millions of people of a certain religious persuasion believe him. Our own history reveals countless examples of this sort of deadly rhetoric, the slow poison of subtle sophistry that has proved (at least temporarily, though it never seems to die out) quite effective—mostly, though not always, in lands where the populace is kept uneducated and desperately poor, where the inhabitants will, through their utter desperation, believe anything tossed at them. Or, where a people are secure in their arrogance and complacency, do not take such words, or said threat seriously [see Jack Vance's 1967 Hugo winning novelette "The Last Castle" (Galaxy, 1966) for a perfect example of this latter]. All the would-be conquering "poet" (i.e. poet being a generic term for writer, journalist, orator—or anyone able to persuasively bend the collective ear of the populace) need do is find the intellectual or emotional weak spot in the enemy—rich or poor and in any land or on any planet—and exploit it.
And so Mr. Gary Woolard's first sale proves to be quite a most insightful tale. One to which we should pay heed. Truth in fiction, and all that.
Our Objective Reality meter must, perforce, give this story an unqualified Plus. Woolard's aliens are exposed, their sly scheme to influence our very thoughts is thwarted, and we survive because of our awareness of what they are attempting to do. Whew. This kind of alien takeover scares me more than a full frontal assault, because it contains the potential for alien victory that we might never see coming until it is too late. Think back to the Veillot story where the guards, empty-eyed, can say only "We're not responsible."
A short story of a very different kind of alien subtlety is Theodore Sturgeon's "The Other Celia," from the March, 1957 issue of Galaxy (reprinted in Aliens Among Us, ed. Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois. Ace pb, June 2000). In this character-driven story it is Man's innate curiosity which kills the cat, er, alien.
Slim Walsh lives in a rundown rooming house in the big city. He is on medical leave from his job for several weeks due to the fact that one of his co-workers conked him on the head with a large wrench. He is bored, and his lifelong obsessive curiosity, which has gotten him into trouble since childhood, has taken over. He is determined to find out more about one of his fellow tenants, one Celia Harton. While she is at work he breaks into her apartment by jimmying the door without leaving a trace. He rummages through her belongings. On returning to his own flat a floor up, he goes so far as to cut a whole—a peep-space—in his closet floor, so that he can spy on her from above. What he discovers is astonishing. Celia is an alien, disguised as an earthling. When home from her work, Celia strips out of her human "suit," goes through a ritual with it, and then another daily ritual of necessary renewal involving her own alien body to insure its continued functioning. Long story short? Slim doesn't care if she's an alien or not, it's none of his business. It's just that he has this curiosity thing he can't control. He pays another visit to Celia's apartment, finds and messes around with her other skin, then swipes it, so that when she gets home she's screwed. She can't renew herself, and quickly dies in a final burst of spontaneous combustion. The authorities will never know the truth, for though rare, spontaneous combustion does happen. End of inquiry.
Now, let's be clear. This is more a story of urban alienation ala the mainstream than anything else. You know, the kind of story where we find that the closer people must live to each other, the more alienated, lost, and lonely they become. A worthwhile theme, perhaps, but one that the mainstream has worked over endlessly for a long time. The alien Celia doesn't wish to conquer our planet, but has simply found a world upon which, and in which, she can live her life. She has been displaced from her own planet for whatever reason; doesn't matter. It is a character study of a lonely, single man, with his own very human idiosyncrasies and quirks, and how his strange little life plays out in a low-class rooming house where he must have contact with other lonely, alienated people. He wished no harm to Celia, though his compulsive meddling (simple curiosity to him) has caused great harm. To illustrate how people can become mere throwaway objects in a crowded city, where one's identity is easily swallowed and lost, Sturgeon has Slim throw the already smelling second skin in the garbage the next day, pack up his meager belongings, and move with the money he has received from his medical lawsuit. Slim gives the episode with Celia not a second thought.
Our Objective Reality meter must, perforce, give this story a very weak Plus. On second thought, we give it nothing, for our criteria doesn't seem to apply to this story. There is an invasion . . . of sorts (can Celia be the only alien in such circumstances?). But if so, the aliens only wish to assimilate quietly and unobtrusively into our culture---not conquer it. They want nothing from us except a home. So there is no threat to the survival of the human race. If anything can be drawn from this story, at least as far as its being an alien "invasion" story, it is that it is of the full-blown kind where it is clear that the aliens are not out to harm us, that they are not of the evil sort as portrayed in the very earliest invasion stories. Sadly, it resonates with the Merril story. Again, while it is clear that the aliens mean us no harm, in both stories they are killed. In the Merril, on purpose and out of a reasoned, if misplaced, fear; in the Sturgeon, by accident, and out of a curiosity gone awry.
Before tackling the intriguing "Okanoggan Falls," I'd like to point you to one more alien invasion story; and boy is it a doozy. Titled "Day of Succession," it originally appeared in the August,1959 issue of Astounding (now Analog). Written by Theodore L. Thomas, it also was chosen for the Damon Knight edited collection A Century of Science Fiction. It directly follows the Claude Veillot story "The First Days of May," discussed above, and also pays homage to Wells's The War of the Worlds.
Much like the Wells's invasion, Thomas's invaders come zooming in and crashing down willy-nilly all over the place, in the process destroying the countryside; houses, buildings, and people. At first, we find their ships impervious to our weaponry, but eventually a weakness is found and we begin destroying them, though it is difficult. Not only do we meet resistance from the invaders, but from our own people. The general in charge of our defense is accused of butchery, and slaughtering the innocent aliens. The President even holds to this view, calling a temporary halt to his actions. It turns out that the general is right in his assessment of the aliens' intent, when they begin laser-beaming everything in sight, with horrific results. The President, chagrined, admits his error and orders the general to resume his defensive measures. Only now the situation has worsened, and it will take many nuclear missiles to eliminate the aliens—in the process destroying much of our eastern seaboard. Amazingly, the President says he won't go along with this, the price being too high, not realizing that if he fails to act we will be exterminated and earth conquered. The final chilling lines of the story are:
The general nodded. "Yes, everything from Richmond to Pittsburgh to Syracuse, I think, possibly more. Fallout will cover a wider area. There's no help for it."
Damon Knight, in his header notes to the story, observes that while once there was a stereotype in SF where aliens were thought to be evil, and then there was a reaction to this where stories were told of superior but benevolent aliens, we may have come full circle, where this story is a reaction to the reaction. Knight ends by remarking: "It is a compact, brutally powerful piece of work, and in its own terms I think you will find it unanswerable." 'Nuff said.
Our Objective Reality meter must, perforce, give this story an unqualified Plus. In a do or die situation, where even our highest elected leaders fail to act for our survival, the military comes through with the right choice. Remember, this was a unique situation where our very survival was at risk. This is perhaps the only scenario where such drastic action as the general took might conceivably be justified.
Carolyn Ives Gilman's novelette "Okanoggan Falls" from the August 2006 F&SF is an odd amalgam containing elements of several types of alien invasion scenarios. The aliens have conquered us militarily, but they do not desire our annihilation. They allow us to continue with our lives pretty much as before, but when push comes to shove and they want something from us, or our planet, they are firm in their resolve and use force if necessary to get it. Yet they are at the same time restrained in their use of force, giving us every opportunity to comply with their wishes on a voluntary basis—unless force is eventually required. So, they are neither totally evil nor totally benevolent—but they have conquered and do rule us, make no mistake.
Alien Captain Groton's forces are in charge of the sector in which the small rural town of Okanoggan Falls resides, which is southwestern Wisconsin. Tom Abernathy is the town's mayor, his wife Susan a nurse. The story centers on the relationship between Susan and Captain Groton, during the time the alien Wattesoons tell the folks of Okanoggan Falls that their town, and several other nearby towns, will be demolished and turned into a strip mine for the underlying silica the aliens need. The local Wattesoon forces, led by Captain Groton, bend over backwards to make this process as easy on the native humans as possible, but there is, of course, resistance. A few of the neighboring inhabitants in nearby towns resort to a grassroots insurrection of sorts, shooting a few of the aliens. This resistance is quickly put down. Tom and his wife decide to opt for a non-violent approach, hoping to change Captain Groton's mind, convinced that violence toward their conquerors would serve no practical purpose. Given the realistic facts of their situation, their decision seems wise and apropos.
It is important to understand the sociology and biology of the Wattesoon's as they are important to the interplay between Captain Groton and Susan. The Wattesoon's natural appearance is that of a lump of rocky cement. Their biology: They have the ability, through physical contact, to gradually morph into whatever alien race they are conquering, in order to make their conquests easier. They have never encountered a race like ours, however, which so mirrors their own on a psychological and emotional level. They wear gloves, and make every effort not to make direct physical contact with us. Their sociology: They have family units much as we do, with two sexes. They feel love, pain, and loss. When one of their females has chosen a mate, and physical contact is made, the female transmits to the male her physical and psychological ideal characteristics, and he is transformed into same. She gets what she wants, and he gets what he wants (a mate). Following childbirth, the female dies, which is something their race realizes cannot continue, but which their science has not been able to overcome.
Through one of many conversations with Susan Abernathy, who is trying to learn as much as she can of Groton and his way of life while showing him ours, she learns that Groton is grieving for his dead wife, but duty is duty, and as a soldier, he must continue to perform his duties, despite his pain—or ours. Along the way, he makes physical contact with Susan when she is dressing a small cut on his hand, which he has acquired on a wine glass while at dinner at the Abernathy's. So he begins to change physically into one of us, by stages. Soon he is tall, handsome with a touch of gray in his hair, and to all eyes a striking human male—Susan's unconscious ideal man. As Groton assumes our physical form (he thinks that by doing so we will be more compliant to his orders) he also is becoming more human in a less obvious sense, realizing how traumatic it is for the townsfolk of Okanoggan Falls to leave their lives behind when their town is summarily leveled. But he is still bound by his duty, and intends to carry it out, despite his newborn feelings for his new friends. He is still very much an alien soldier in his duty.
On the flip side of the relationship, Susan finds herself drawn to him more and more because he is so perfect. She loves her husband Tom deeply, but there is some more . . . ideal sort of connection with this now more human Captain Groton. But as Groton learns of human sensibilities from her, and grants more and more leniency to the folks of Okanoggan Falls—much to the chagrin of his commanders—she learns what duty means from him, and so draws back from him in order to resume her duty to her husband, family, and town, and doubles her resolve to win Captain Groton to her point of view that destroying her town (and the others) is unjust, a concept Groton seems not to understand.
Groton and Susan each become a little of the other in their attitudes and understandings of each other. In fact, Captain Groton has been found remiss (i.e. too soft) in his methods of readying the land for the strip mines, and is relieved of command. He has become too much like a human in his commander's estimation and is no longer fit for further duty. He is to face a court martial proceeding. It is a danger the Wattesoon's have learned about the hard way in their previous conquests and had taken steps to prevent, but they have never met a race so close to their own psychological makeup as ours. They cannot risk a scenario where human and Wattesoon children play side by side—of becoming those they have conquered.
So, in "Okanoggan Falls," while we have an alien invasion where the aliens have us in their grip, and a military option in response is impossible, Gilman opts for a quieter, more one on one option: that of changing the minds of the conquering aliens to our views of what is just and unjust. Not the specifics, but the general approach, is more akin to Gary Woolard's 1980 story "The Four," where the powers of persuasion are used to accomplish one's goals. Alas, as long as the Wattesoon commanders are on top of the situation (and they appear to be from what is given in the story), Susan Abernathy's approach, while effective with Captain Groton, would seem to be a pyrrhic victory. Pyrrhic in the sense that if Groton's psychological transformation had gone unchallenged and been allowed to spread, again unnoticed, to other officers, there may have been a chance way down the line for a revolt of some sort or other by the Wattesoon military. As it stands, Groton was exposed and the Wattesoon commanders will now crack down even harder on such behavior in the future.
So what was really gained, and what lost? Earthlings are still conquered on a global level. Okanoggan Falls and its surrounding towns will still be leveled, and Captain Groton is to be court martialed, his career ruined. So it looks like the only good to come of this is that Susan Abernathy feels good about what she has achieved with Captain Groton, and though his career is over, Captain Groton is left feeling good that he now understands the concept of what something means when it is said to be unjust.
Sigh. I really wanted to like this story in its well rounded totality. The author has captured the local color of a small Wisconsin town admirably. She has thought out the sociology and the biology of her aliens so that they work with the story she wanted to tell. But in the end nothing in the larger real world of the story is changed; only the thinking of Captain Groton, who is punished for becoming too much like the "enemy." I'm sad to say this is just another well written "feel good" story, that, at its core, settles nothing, and elevates feeling over thinking. It is typical of this sort of story that its intentions are more important (and seemingly more revered in certain literary circles and cliques) than any results. In a superficial sense only, this is the sort of story F&SF through its history, has sought. An intelligent character story, with characters who grow and in some way change from story's beginning to end. But it is the execution of these ingredients, or elements, that is the proof in the pudding; and where, in this observer's judgment, the story fails.
If the message of "Okanoggan Falls" is meant to be that quiet persuasion gets better results than violence in winning over the enemy, then the story fails. One, and only one alien is won over, and he is punished and removed from the scene. The plan, whatever its intentions, has failed on the small scale (by the time you read this there will no longer be any Okanoggan Falls), and on the large scale (we're still enthralled by the Wattesoons).
Our Objective Reality meter must, perforce, give this story a solid and unqualified Minus.
If, however, the message of the story is one of a conquering culture not only being assimilated (but retaining its own identity) into the culture conquered over a long period of time, but actually losing its own identity and becoming just like the natives it has conquered, then Susan Abernathy's plan is unnecessary, for time itself will answer whether our culture is to be the stronger one. I'm no historian, but isn't it usually the case that the conquering race leaves its heavy cultural footprint on the conquered, rather than the other way around? If so, would it not be more likely that we would in time adopt more of the Wattesoon culture than they ours? If this is the case, then I'm not quite sure what the Wattesoons have to fear. After all, they own us. They can do what they want with us, including gradually imposing their way of life on us where it suits them (hell, they've even lowered taxes as one of their first actions—can you believe that? I'm not sure what this line was thrown in for, but if nothing else it shows just how much in control the Wattesoons are, if they're in charge of the gummint).
Ah, well, enough. Lest you think I wax tedious over certain aspects of stories, I confess I cannot help myself. My only defense is contained in the following, which I borrow from an article by Professor James Gunn titled "The Academic Viewpoint." It ran in Nebula Winners Twelve, edited by Gordon R. Dickson (Harper & Row, 1978). While discussing the teaching of SF. Dr. Gunn poses the question:
"What is not immediately observable to a casual reader of science fiction? The best way to answer that question might be to list aspects of fiction that a good teacher looks for.I cite from #3, the Application of the Premises:
"A good reader challenges the writer at every point, debating the working out of the author's thesis, his arrival at the conclusions, checking back continually against what he already knows, theorizing that any discrepancy must be significant. This is not a tedious process but one that, once recognized, becomes automatic with the alert reader."
Very often a writer makes unconscious assumptions in his2 work which play out (or are in some way brought to light) in unexpected ways in his stories. I enjoy trying to find them. Very often it can be these unconscious assumptions (i.e. the very foundations of the tale) that make a good story an excellent one, or break an otherwise terrific story off at the knees.
An (almost) final thought. For those who may object (and believe me, direct evidence has proven this to be the case) to any attempt to understand fiction through a political lens—especially in an opinionated essay such as this, though in critical reviews as well—I offer the following, which a certain one-time reviewer for F&SF wrote in a column in answer to some complaints from readers:
"1. Don't shove your politics into your reviews. Just review the books.
Inasmuch as I have always taken the science fiction reader to be of intelligent, inquiring mind; a cut above the average non-genre reader—and such has been my experience, with minimal exception—I feel it behooves the enthusiastic SF reader to ask any and all questions implicit in a piece of fiction relevant to its core assumptions, toward a better understanding of same. But first, the involved reader must acknowledge that underlying assumptions are always made in any given work (i.e. that they in fact exist). Second, endeavor to determine what these underlying assumptions may be to the best of his ability. And third, to examine them in light of the story the author has presented to him.
Thus critically armed, not only will reader enjoyment be heightened, but trends and patterns will inevitably emerge the more stories one reads. These patterns, based on (more likely than not, unconscious but shared) auctorial assumptions or beliefs, will amaze and delight some, or conversely, disconcert or shock others. But initial awareness of any such hidden assumptions is a crucial first step toward lively dialog and discussion.
That said, I end with a truism I am fond of quoting, and do so again here:
". . . When any category of science fiction writing has become dull and repetitive, there is always a brilliant story waiting to be written by giving up the assumptions that made the story easy to write."
1 Don't ya just love it when SF writers try to be scientifically plausible with a scoche of pseudo-science to make their stories seem realistic? This is no big deal and no slight to Ms. Merril, but does give one pause to chuckle from time to time. None other than the legendary John W. Campbell, Jr. perpetrated some real whoppers of like kind in his time, believe me. Try scanning some of his outlandish explanations for the super-science he used in his early interstellar romps. I remember with great fondness reading the 1960's Ace pb editions of his classic trio of novels (The Black Star Passes, Islands of Space, and Invaders From the Infinite—1930, 1930, 1932, respectively) featuring the brilliant Earth scientists Arcot, Wade, and Morey as they traipsed around the universe using an "out-of-space drive" they invented (supposedly the first space-warp drive), and in another novel how he attempted to explain a "revolutionary new concept in space mechanics." I recall as if it were yesterday going into my high school chemistry class one afternoon just after finishing one of these novels (The Mightiest Machine, 1935—a non-Arcot, Wade, and Morey novel—perhaps?) and trying to explain to the teacher how light could be bent and used for some sort of space-drive much as a pencil in a glass of water was bent/displaced to the eye because of the refraction of light . . . or somesuch nonsense Campbell had convinced me of the night before. He merely chuckled kindly and asked me to take my seat so he could begin class.
I call Gethenians "he," because I utterly refuse to mangle English by inventing a pronoun for "he/she." "He" is the generic pronoun, damn it, in English.
Dave Truesdale began the short fiction review magazine Tangent in 1993. Since then, it has been honored with 4 Hugo nominations and 1 World Fantasy Award nomination. For several years in the 1990s, he was deeply involved with the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and in 1998 was a World Fantasy Award judge. He edited the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America from 1999-2002. Tangent Online can be found at www.tangentonline.com.
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Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide