Thursday, August 4, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #14

As a way of promoting my forthcoming Alien Contact anthology (Night Shade Books, November), I posted a sort of introduction on April 25, and then beginning on May 6, I have been blogging about one story each week -- in the order in which the stories appear in the book. I've now revealed the first 13 stories in the anthology, which is the halfway point; 13 more stories and 13 more weeks to go. To date, the complete text of three of the stories have been posted here on this blog (with a link to a fourth story online elsewhere), with more to come. If you are new to these blog posts, you may want to begin here.

"Sunday Night Yams at Minnie and Earl's"
by Adam-Troy Castro

This story was originally published as the cover story in the June 2001 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. This is the longest story in the anthology at approximately 20,900 words. (The cover artist for that June 2001 issue was none other than Frank Kelly Freas -- the "Dean of Science Fiction Artists" -- who passed away in 2005.)

When I first began my online research for this anthology, I found a blog, Variety SF, by Tinkoo Valia, from Bombay, India, that contained a post entitled "Stories about first human contact with aliens." There were 39 entries in the list. Some of the entries were for novels, which I couldn't use, and some of the short stories listed were oldies but goodies, by the likes of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, H. Beam Piper, and Eric Frank Russell. But a few of the stories were contemporary, and I followed up on all of them. One of those stories was Adam-Troy Castro's "Sunday Night Yams..." and, much to my delight, the blogger included a link to the full text of the story online. At the time [alas, the story is no longer available online], the story was hosted on Analog's website; I saved the file to read later; looking at that file now, the creation date was August 31, 2008, nearly three years ago, which is indicative of how long I have been working on this anthology.

In this story, Max Fischer, one of the last surviving astronauts who pioneered the terraforming of the Moon, returns to Luna in what he feels are his final days, determined to learn the whereabouts of Minnie and Earl, whom he lost contact with over the ensuing years. The story moves seamlessly between the present and the past -- Max searching the old Luna project archives, listening to recordings, trying to talk to others who might have just the piece of information he needs, while reminiscing about the past, including the first time he met Minnie and Earle. The story begins thusly:
Frontiers never die. They just become theme parks.

I spent most of my shuttle ride to Nearside mulling sour thoughts about that. It's the kind of thing that only bothers lonely and nostalgic old men, especially when we're old enough to remember the days when a trip to Luna was not a routine commuter run, but instead a never-ending series of course corrections, systems checks, best-and-worst-case simulations, and random unexpected crises ranging from ominous burning smells to the surreal balls of floating upchuck that got into everywhere if we didn't get over our nausea fast enough to clean them up.... But that's old news now: before the first development crews gave way to the first settlements; before the first settlements became large enough to be called the first cities; before the first city held a parade in honor of its first confirmed mugging; before Independence and the Corporate Communities and the opening of Lunar Disney on the Sea of Tranquility. These days, the Moon itself is no big deal except for rubes and old-timers. Nobody looks out the windows; they're far too interested in their sims, or their virts, or their newspads or (for a vanishingly literate few) their paperback novels, to care about the sight of the airless world waxing large in the darkness outside.
To a memory of the past:
That's when the barge reached the top of the rise, providing us a nice panoramic view of what awaited us in the shallow depression on the other side.

My ability to form coherent sentences became a distant rumor.

It was the kind of moment when the entire universe seems to become a wobbly thing, propped up by scaffolding and held together with the cheapest brand of hardware-store nails. The kind of moment when gravity just turns sideways beneath you, and the whole world turns on its edge, and the only thing that prevents you from just jetting off into space to spontaneously combust is the compensatory total stoppage of time. I don't know the first thing I said. I'm glad nobody ever played me the recordings that got filed away in the permanent mission archives…. I got to hear such sounds many times, from others I would later escort over that ridge myself—and I can absolutely assure you that they're the sounds made by intelligent, educated people who first think they've gone insane, and who then realize it doesn't help to know that they haven't.

It was the only possible immediate reaction to the first sight of Minnie and Earl's.

"Sunday Night Yams at Minnie and Earl's" manages to get at the core of what it means to be human and to share a secret -- some might say a secret on the nature of the universe! -- within a very elite group of astronaut-pioneers. Here's one more memory; this one of Max's wife:
That was one of the special things about Claire: she had faith when faith was needed.

But our son and our daughter, and later the grandkids, outgrew believing me. For them, Minnie and Earl were whimsical space-age versions of Santa.

I didn't mind that, not really.

But when she died, finding Minnie and Earl again seemed very important.


It was tempting to believe that my kids were right: that it had been a fairy tale: a little harmless personal fantasy I'd been carrying around with me for most of my life.

But I knew it wasn't.

Because Claire had believed me.

Because whenever I did drag out the old stories one more time, she always said, "I wish I'd known them." Not like an indulgent wife allowing the old man his delusions, but like a woman well acquainted with miracles. And because even if I was getting too old to always trust my own judgment, nothing would ever make me doubt hers.

Oh, and the ending is a hoot!

"Sunday Night Yams at Minnie and Earl's" was a finalist for the Nebula Award, the Locus Award, and it won the Analog AnLab Award in the best novella category.

[Continue to Story #15]

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