Thursday, May 26, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #4

The rather loose introduction to my Alien Contact anthology, which I posted on April 25, would be a good place to start, if you haven't already done so....

"The Road Not Taken" by Harry Turtledove

This story was originally published in the November 1985 issue of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, which has been edited by Stanley Schmidt since December 1978. (Now that is a legacy!) The story is approximately 9,300 words in length.

When first published, "The Road Not Taken" was listed as being written by "Eric G. Iverson." According to Harry's website, his first two novels were published in 1979 by Belmont Towers, and his editor "did not think people would believe the author's real name was 'Turtledove' and suggested that he come up with something more Nordic." However, by 1986, he was publishing under his real name.

Toward the beginning of September 2008 I submitted a bit of PR to various online SF info and news sites, in which I requested that readers recommend their favorite alien contact story. As an added incentive, I turned the request into a contest: at the end of the month I selected three names at random and sent them a signed, numbered, limited edition chapbook from an earlier project in which I had been involved. One of the three winners was Steven H. Silver, whose name may be familiar to some as he is the administrator of the annual Sidewise Award for Alternate History; Steven also serves as one of the award's judges. And, it just so happened that Steven had also recommended "The Road Not Taken," for which I was quite pleased given that I have little knowledge of Analog stories, which tend to gain little recognition: they aren't typically nominated for awards or selected for year's best anthologies.

I've read quite a bit of Harry Turtledove's novel-length work, The Guns of the South being one of my favorites; I also proofed and copyedited his novel After the Downfall for Night Shade Books in 2008. So I was intrigued by this story of alien contact, from one of the premier writers of alternate history.

Each of us, at least once in our lives -- if not more often -- becomes so involved in something (or someone!), so focused -- let's call it extreme tunnel vision -- to the exclusion of all else. Now, extrapolate that to an entire culture, and then to an entire race of beings. And you have the alien Roxolani in the story "The Road Not Taken."

Captain Togram was using the chamberpot when the Indomitable broke out of hyperdrive....

...he stowed the chamberpot in its niche. The metal cover he slid over it did little to relieve the stench. After sixteen days in space, the Indomitable reeked of ordure, stale food, and staler bodies. It was no better in any other ship of the Roxolan fleet, or any other. Travel between the stars was simply like that. Stinks and darkness were part of the price the soldiers paid to make the kingdom grow.

Togram picked up a lantern and shook it to rouse the glowmites inside. They flashed silver in alarm. Some races, the captain knew, lit their ships with torches or candles, but glowmites used less air, even if they could only shine intermittently.

Ever the careful soldier, Togram checked his weapons while the light lasted. He always kept all four of his pistols loaded and ready to use; when landing operations began, one pair would go on his belt, the other in his boottops. He was more worried about his sword. The perpetually moist air aboard ship was not good for the blade. Sure enough, he found a spot of rust to scour away.
This is such a "fun" story -- the juxtaposition of centuries-old technology on a hyperdrive-capable starship -- that I have a dozen or more sections highlighted, but I won't burden you with all of them, just a couple more.
[Togram] had a decent hand with quill and paper, so Ransisc and Olgren [the ship's steerers] were willing to let him spell them at the spyglass and add to the sketchmaps they were making of the world below.

     "Funny sort of planet," he remarked. "I've never seen one with so many forest fires or volcanoes or whatever they are on the dark side."
      "I still think they're cities," Olgren said, with a defiant glance at Ransisc.
     "They're too big and too bright," the senior steerer said patiently; the argument, plainly, had been going on for some time....
     "This is your first trip off-planet, isn't it, Olgren?" Togram asked.
     "Well, what if it is?"
     "Only that you don't have enough perspective. Egelloc on Roxolan has almost a million people, and from space it's next to invisible at night. It's nowhere near as bright as those lights, either. Remember, this is a primitive planet. I admit it looks like there's intelligent life down there, but how could a race that hasn't even stumbled across the hyperdrive build cities ten times as great as Egelloc?"

Up to this point we've seen words such as "fur," "muzzle," and "stumpy tail" used to describe certain physical characteristics of the Roxolani, but when their assault craft finally lands (on the UCLA campus), we get the true human military perspective:

     "Teddy bears!" [Sergeant] Sandy Amoros exclaimed. The same thought had leaped into [Spec-1] Cox's mind. The beings emerging from the spaceship were round, brown, and furry, with long noses and big ears. Teddy bears, however, did not normally carry weapons.

One last excerpt, and then I'm outta here.... Hostilities between our military and the Roxolani have ended, and after questioning Togram, linguist Hilda Chester and scientist Charlie Ebbets share their thoughts:

     "I don't quite understand it myself," she said. "Apart from the hyperdrive and contragravity, the Roxolani are backward, almost primitive. And the other species out there must be the same, or someone would have overrun them long since."
     Ebbets said, "Once you see it, the drive is amazingly simple. The research crews say anybody could have stumbled over the principle at almost any time in our history. The best guess is that most races did come across it, and once they did, why, all their creative energy would naturally go into refining and improving."
     "But we missed it," Hilda said slowly, "and so our technology developed in a different way."

I assume the title "The Road Not Taken" is from the Robert Frost poem of the same name, which was originally published in 1916 in his collection Mountain Interval, currently available as a "Classic Reprint." The last stanza reads: I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence: / Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-- / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.

From what I've seen online, there is a sequel of sorts to "The Road Not Taken," entitled "Herbig-Haro," that was originally published in the October 1984 issue of Analog. It's interesting that a sequel story was published prior to the story it supposedly follows. I've not read "Herbig-Haro" (also written as by Eric G. Iverson), but if I understand the basic premise correctly, with the hyperdrive engine, humanity heads to the stars and is essentially unstoppable, that is, until they come upon another culture that developed similar to that of Earth's, without hyperdrive capability (i.e. the road less traveled).

[Continue to Story #5]


  1. "Herbig-Haro" is the first story and set XX years after the first contact when the Terran Federation collapsed over it's own size and "no one challenging enough to fight except ourselves". The race encountered had gone down the same road as humans and were in their expansion phase.

  2. Seagull -

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, you are correct: "Herbig-Haro," a Roxalani story, as the aliens are known, was published approximately one year earlier, in the October 1984 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact (as by "Eric G. Iverson").

    - marty