Monday, June 20, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #8: "The 43 Antarean Dynasties" by Mike Resnick (Part 1 of 3)

This marks week eight in which I reveal the eighth story (of 26 stories total) in my Alien Contact anthology forthcoming from publisher Night Shade Books. If you are new to all of this, you may want to start with my rather loose introduction to the anthology, which was posted on April 25. Assuming all goes well, the contents of Alien Contact should be revealed by the November publication date.

"The 43 Antarean Dynasties" by Mike Resnick

This story originally appeared in the December 1997 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, and is approximately 5,600 words in length.

Even if you are only somewhat familiar with the multitude of short stories Mike Resnick has published, then you know that, when it comes to the theme of alien contact, there is much to choose from. But when I read this particular story, amongst many of the others, I knew this was the one I wanted to include in Alien Contact.

In this story, the author juxtaposes elements of the history of Antares III and its 43 Dynasties with the tale of an Antarean tour guide and the inane tourist family [humans, of course; we would expect no less] that hires him for a tour of the capital city Kalimetra. But "inane" is such an understatement with this family -- try racist, repugnant, and rude for a start. And yet, as the guide thinks to himself shortly after meeting this family, it is you who are paying me.

I asked Mike Resnick for his thoughts on the story:
We were traveling in Egypt -- my wife and I, my agent and her kids, and a couple of friends -- and we kept asking our private guide questions. At one point he thanked us, because the last group he took out kept getting annoyed when he would speak about the wonders of some ancient dynasty they were theoretically observing, when all they wanted to do was talk about the point spread of the upcoming Steelers-Cowboys game. I thought about that -- this dignified, highly educated, well-mannered man showing off the highlight of his country's antiquity to the latest set of bored conquerors -- and "The 43 Antarean Dynasties" practically wrote itself.
I love the protagonist, the Antarean tour guide, in this story because he has attitude -- a very sharp sardonicism -- and I'm rather a fan of stories with attitude.1 He's educated, and intelligent -- the former doesn't always insure the latter -- and a former professor, but he had to forsake academia because it simply didn't pay enough; and even though tourists tend to be stingy, he still makes more now with tips than he did teaching. (Sound familiar?) Yet, given his financial needs -- and the history of his planet -- he must also humble himself before these dreadful tourists.

At this point, as in the previous Alien Contact blog posts, I would be quoting text directly from the story. But that's not necessary this time around because Mike Resnick has graciously given his permission for me to include the complete text of the story, which will be posted in three parts due to the story's length.

Before beginning the story, I just wanted to note that "The 43 Antarean Dynasties" was nominated for the Locus and Theodore Sturgeon awards, and it won the Hugo Award, the Asimov's Reader Award, and the Spanish Premios Ignotus (given at HispaCon, Spain's national SF convention) for best short story.

The 43 Antarean Dynasties
by Mike Resnick
(© 1997 by Mike Resnick.
Reprinted with permission of the author)

To thank the Maker Of All Things for the birth of his first male offspring, the Emperor Maloth IV ordered his architects to build a temple that would forever dwarf all other buildings on the planet. It was to be made entirely of crystal, and the spire-covered roof, which looked like a million glistening spear-points aimed at the sun, would be supported by 217 columns, to honor his 217 forebears. When struck, each column would sound a musical note that could be heard for kilometers, calling the faithful to prayer.

The structure would be known as the Temple of the Honored Sun, for his heir had been born exactly at midday, when the sun was highest in the sky. The temple took 27 Standard years to complete, and although races from all across the galaxy would come to Antares III to marvel at it, Maloth further decreed that no aliens or non-believers would ever be allowed to enter it and desecrate its sacred corridors with their presence...

* * *

A man, a woman, and a child emerge from the Temple of the Honored Sun. The woman holds a camera to her eye, capturing the same image from a dozen unimaginative angles. The child, his lip sparsely covered with hair that is supposed to imply maturity, never sees beyond the game he is playing on his pocket computer. The man looks around to make sure no one is watching him, grinds out a smokeless cigar beneath his heel, and then increases his pace until he joins them.

They approach me, and I will myself to become one with my surroundings, to insinuate myself into the marble walls and stone walkways before they can speak to me.

I am invisible. You cannot see me. You will pass me by.

"Hey, fella -- we're looking for a guide," says the man. "You interested?"

I stifle a sigh and bow deeply. "I am honored," I say, glad that they do not understand the subtleties of Antarean inflection.

"Wow!" exclaims the woman, aiming her camera at me. "I never saw anything like that! It's almost as if you folded your torso in half! Can you do it again?"

I am reminded of an ancient legend, possibly apocryphal though I choose to believe it. An ambassador who was equally fascinated by the way the Antarean body is jointed, once asked Komarith I, the founder of the 38th Dynasty, to bow a second time. Komarith merely stared at him without moving until the embarrassed ambassador slunk away. He went on to rule for 29 years and was never known to bow again.

It has been a long time since Komarith, almost seven millennia now, and Antares and the universe have changed. I bow for the woman while she snaps her holographs.

"What's your name?" asks the man.

"You could not pronounce it," I reply. "When I conduct members of your race, I choose the name Hermes."

"Herman, eh?"

"Hermes," I correct him.

"Right. Herman."

The boy finally looks up. "He said Hermes, Dad."

The man shrugs. "Whatever." He looks at his timepiece. "Well, let's get started."

"Yeah," chimes in the child. "They're piping in the game from Roosevelt III this afternoon. I've got to get back for it."

"You can watch sports anytime," says the woman. "This may be your only chance to see Antares."

"I should be so lucky," he mutters, returning his attention to his computer.

I recite my introductory speech almost by rote. "Allow me to welcome you to Antares III, and to its capital city of Kalimetra, known throughout the galaxy as the City of a Million Spires."

"I didn't see any million spires when we took the shuttle in from the spaceport," says the child, who I could have sworn was not listening. "A thousand or two, maybe."

"There was a time when there were a million," I explain. "Today only 16,304 remain. Each is made of quartz or crystal. In late afternoon, when the sun sinks low in the sky, they act as a prism for its rays, creating a flood of exotic colors that stretches across the thoroughfares of the city. Races have come from halfway across the galaxy to experience the effect."

"Sixteen thousand," murmurs the woman. "I wonder what happened to the rest?"

* * *

No one knew why Antareans found the spires so aesthetically pleasing. They towered above the cities, casting their shadows and their shifting colors across the landscape. Tall, delicate, exquisite, they reflected a unique grandness of vision and sensitivity of spirit. The rulers of Antares III spent almost 38,000 years constructing their million spires.

During the Second Invasion, it took the Canphorite armada less than two weeks to destroy all but 16,304 of them...

* * *

The woman is still admiring the spires that she can see in the distance. Finally she asks who built them, as if they are too beautiful to have been created by Antareans.

"The artisans and craftsmen of my race built everything you will see today," I answer.

"All by yourselves?"

"Is it so difficult for you to believe?" I ask gently.

"No," she says defensively. "Of course not. It's just that there's so much..."

"Kalimetra was not created in a day or a year, or even a millennium," I point out. "It is the cumulative achievement of 43 Antarean Dynasties."

"So we're in the 43rd Dynasty now?" she asks.

* * *

It was Zelorean IX who officially declared Kalimetra to be the Eternal City. Neither war nor insurrection had ever threatened its stability, and even the towering temples of his forefathers gave every promise of lasting for all eternity. It was a Golden Age, and he could see no reason why it should not go on forever...

* * *

"The last absolute ruler of the 43rd Dynasty has been dust for almost three thousand years," I explain. "Since then we have been governed by a series of conquerors, each alien race superseding the last."

"Thank goodness they didn't destroy your buildings," says the woman, turning to admire a water fountain, which for some reason appears to her to be a mystical alien artifact. She is about to take a holo when the child restrains her.

"It's just a goddamned water bubbler, Ma," he says.

"But it's fascinating," she says. "Imagine what kind of beings used it in ages past."

"Thirsty ones," says the bored child.

She ignores him and turns back to me. "As I was saying, it must be criminal to rob the galaxy of such treasures."

"Yeah, well somebody destroyed some buildings around here," interjects the child, who seems intent on proving someone wrong about something. "Remember the hole in the ground we saw over that way?" He points in the direction of the Footprint. "Looks like a bomb crater to me."

"You are mistaken," I explain, leading them over to it. "It has always been there."

"It's just a big sinkhole," says the man, totally unimpressed.

"It is worshipped by my people as the Footprint of God," I explain. "Once, many eons ago, Kalimetra was in the throes of a years-long drought. Finally Jorvash, our greatest priest, offered his own life if God would bring the rains. God replied that it would not rain until He wept again, and we had not yet suffered enough to bring forth His tears of compassion. But He promised that He would strike a bargain with Jorvash." I pause for effect, but the man is lighting another cigar and the child is concentrating on his pocket computer. "The next morning Jorvash was found dead inside his temple, while God had created this depression with His foot and filled it with water. It sustained us until He finally wept again."

The woman seems flustered. "Um...I hate to ask," she finally says, "but could you repeat that story? My recorder wasn't on."

The man looks uncomfortable. "She's always forgetting to turn the damned thing on," he explains, and flips me a coin. "For your trouble."

* * *

[Continued in Part 2]


1. I previously co-edited (with Claude Lalumière) an anthology of sardonic stories entitled Witpunk (Four Walls, Eight Windows, 2003). Claude and I, and the publisher, John Oakes, went round and round for like three days on the wording of the subtitle. John finally agreed with us on the subtitle "Stories with Attitude." And yet, when Claude and I received the page proofs for review, there was no subtitle; we were informed, after the fact, that marketing decided the subtitle was unnecessary. And if you think this Witpunk cover is bad, you should have seen the bright yellow smiley face cover we were initially presented with!

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