Monday, August 15, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #16: "Texture of Other Ways" by Mark W. Tiedemann (Part 1 of 3)

Following is story #16 from my forthcoming anthology Alien Contact, to be published in November by Night Shade Books. For more information on this anthology, and to see the first 15 stories, please begin here.

"Texture of Other Ways"
by Mark W. Tiedemann

This story was originally published in the September 1999 issue of Science Fiction Age1, and is approximately 5,700 words in length.

In my first blog post on the Alien Contact anthology on November 23, 2010, I asked readers -- and authors -- to recommend stories. Mark W. Tiedemann was one of the responders, and in addition to recommending a Philip K. Dick story, he also, thankfully, recommended his own story "Texture of Other Ways."

I wanted a story for the anthology that focused on human-alien communication. I've read enough stories in which the aliens easily communicate with humans because they've been studying our language for years, or decades, or even centuries. And though I read quite a few stories that approached the human-alien communication issue differently, I selected "Texture of Other Ways." I asked Mark to share some thoughts with us on the story:
One of the problems I've always had with alien-human interactions in stories is the whole language barrier. Quite a few excellent stories have been written dealing with this, but a significant body of science fiction just assumes it's less of a problem than it really would be. Our language is based on assumptions rising not only out of sociology and psychology but basic biology and to assume "simple" translation will suffice in these scenarios is, well, wishful thinking. The other element in "Texture of Other Ways" is my consternation with telepathy as a standard SFnal trope. I just don't accept it. If it could be done, I see no reason to assume it would be in any way preferable to simple spoken communication. The mind is a morass and thoughts, as pure form, don't conform directly to speech, so "reading" a mind would not be easier but probably harder. Nevertheless, I thought it would be fun to play with these two elements and see what would emerge. The language barrier might be so difficult as to guarantee failure in relations…so let's cheat and bypass language altogether. Naturally, that would create a whole different set of problems.

So how is this story different in terms of human-alien communication? The humans selected to meet with the aliens are "telelogs." As the narrator states later in the story: "We aren't psychics in the traditional sense. That's why we're called telelogs rather than telepaths. At infancy we were implanted with a biopole factory, a device called the logos. The logos transfers a colony of biopole, which seats itself in the recipient brain, and starts setting up a temporary pattern analyzer. Very quickly—I'm talking nanoseconds—the colony establishes a pattern, sets up a transmission, and within moments the contents of the mind are broadcast to the primary logos." So we have this unique group of humans able to communicate amongst themselves as telelogs. And, by the way, these humans will be meeting with multiple alien species representing five primary language groups. But then, as the author states, let's just bypass language altogether.

Read the story for yourself here on More Red Ink, which I am posting in its entirety, in three parts, with the kind permission of the author. Enjoy.

Texture of Other Ways
by Mark W. Tiedemann
(© 1999 by Mark W. Tiedemann.
Reprinted with permission of the author.)

The media followed our course from colony to colony all the way out to Denebola, where the conference was held. Our ship moved magisterially into and out of dock at each port, unnecessarily slow. At first it amused us, but after ten such stops it became ridiculous. We wanted to huddle in our quarters, close together, and ignore the hectoring questions, the lights, the monitors, the enforced celebrity.

Merril, our liaison, did his best to mollify us and satisfy them, but in the end his efforts always came up short. It occurred to me that the public nature of the project was a mistake, but when I gave this notion to the rest they shrugged together and said it wasn't our mistake.

Earth to Median, halfway to the Centauri group; on to Centauri Transit Station; then to Procyon and on to Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti. We bypassed Eurasia, the colony at 40 Eridani. We were never told why. But we stopped at 82 Eridani, the colony of Eridanus. Aquas, Fomalhaut, Nine Rivers, Millennium, and Pollux.

Pan Pollux proved the worst. We felt like curiosities under glass for the wealthy patrons of the resorts. Till then I'd always believed people had a finer appreciation of the difference between the merely unusual and the special. We gathered together in the lounge and formed a cluster in the center of the floor and communed with each other, playing games of dancing from mind to mind, chasing ideas back to their sources, switching perspectives, and seeing how many we could be at one time. In the middle of this probes managed to sneak in past our security. I'm still convinced this was allowed to happen. The Forum counted on a rich political reward from our mission and the temptation to exploit us through any media outlet available was irresistible. Poor Merril, he believed in his job, tried ardently to meet its requirements, but there was only so much he could do in the face of the great need of human polity. We were ostensibly the saviors of humankind, it was necessary that our march toward Golgotha be witnessed.

All the probes saw, though, was a group—thirty-three of us—sitting tightly together on the floor of our lounge, eyes closed, heads bobbing slightly, here and there drool from a mouth, the twitch of a limb, perhaps an occasional tuneless hum. What the viewing public must have thought of its savior! Their fate in the hands of—what?

* * *

When they changed me there was no question of choice. Seven hundred days old, you don't even realize that the world isn't part of you, much less that it doesn't care. Understanding that only discreet parts of it care is something that comes much later, if at all. It's a sophisticated distinction, this sorting out, a concept constantly threatened by the fact that even the caring parts probably don't care about you. But in time we all learn that everything around us, everything that happens, is organized into packets of information and those packets can be assembled by consciousness into something that has order and meaning. A fiction, perhaps, and it's a question whether the boundaries that keep everything apart are internal or external. An academic question, of no real consequence.

Unless those boundaries disappear.

When they changed me—and the others, all thirty-three of us—several of those boundaries vanished and had to be replaced by something else, a different method of perception and ordering. At seven hundred days old I didn't "understand" this—none of us did—all we could do was react. There is a murk at the bottom of my memory that intrudes from time to time into my dreams, but which I assiduously avoid contemplating most of the time. I tell myself that this swamp is the residue of my reaction. I tell myself that. On the rare occasions when I conjure enough courage to be determinedly self-analytical I think—I believe—that it is the residue of thirty-three reactions. Then I wonder how we all sorted ourselves out of the mix. Then I wonder if we ever did. Then I stop thinking about it.

* * *

Our ship met with a convoy halfway from Pan Pollux to Denebola. You never really see ships at dock, each one is berthed separately in the body of the station. Once in a while another ship leaves dock at the same time you do and you get to see one of them against the stars. I sometimes think these vessels are the most beautiful objects humans ever built. Elegant, powerful, freighted with every aspect of our natures—hope, pride, ambition, curiosity, wonder, and fear. When the convoy gathered around us we stared at the two dozen ships.


"No, methane floaters."

"A school of armor."

I listened to the ripple of comparisons, trying to decide which one fit best. None really did. Whales in space? Too many lines, dark masses, geometries. Methane floaters drifted with the currents of their atmospheres, virtually helpless to control direction. These moved with power, purpose, a logical order to the way they arranged themselves around us, protecting us.

"Admiral Kovesh's task force," Merril announced. "They'll be our escort to Denebola."

"Will there be seti task forces there, too?" I asked.

Merril frowned slightly, clasped his hands behind his back the way he did when something made him uneasy. "I expect so."

I looked back at the Armada ships, excited at the prospect of comparing human and alien.

* * *

There was a reporter from the Ares-Epsilon NewsNet that kept up with us from Sol to Nine Rivers. He must have interviewed every one of us by then, some twice. On our last interview I decided to go for shock, to see how he'd react.

"The development of telepaths is a radical step in human evolution," he said. "According to scientists, we've been capable of such a step for a long time but we've refrained. Why do you think it took a First Contact situation to push us into it?"


"Fear? In what way?"

"They couldn't talk to the seti, so the Armada started planning for war. It's that simple. Say something we understand or we'll shoot. The Pan Humana wanted to believe the human race was beyond ancient formulas for defending the cave, but it's been centuries since words failed to convey meaning, so the old ways had been forgotten."

His eyes brightened. This was better than the prepared statements we'd been delivering all along.

"Then the seti showed up and the race panicked. Not one word made sense. You're right, we've been capable of producing telepaths—actually, the term is telelog, there's a difference—for a long time. But people are afraid of the idea. That's the only real area of privacy, your thoughts. But when the Chairman, the Forum, and the Armada realized that the most insurmountable problem confronting them with the setis was language, they seized the opportunity. It was a question of weighing competitive fears. Of course, fear of the alien won out."

"Yes, but in a very fundamental way, you're alien, too."

"But at least we look human."

I don't think his report ever made it onto the newsnets. He didn't continue on with us after Nine Rivers.

* * *

Denebola is a white, white sun, forty-three light-years from Earth. It shepherds a small herd of Jovians and two hard planets, none of which is hospitable to human life without considerable manipulation. As far as I have learned, no plans have been made to terraform.

I always wondered why Denebola. Well, it is right out there at the limit of our expansion. There are a few colonies further out, but in the pragmatic way such things are judged by the Forum they don't count because they're too tenuous. But we didn't pick Denebola. They did. The setis.

Stars have many names and now that we've met our neighbors I'm sure the number will increase again. Denebola has three that I consider ironically appropriate. Denebola itself is from the Arabic Al Dhanab Al Asad, the Lion's Tail. But there's another Arab name for it, Al Sarfah, the Changer. I like that better, it seems more relevant to my own situation, to our situation. The place of changes, changes wrought by the place itself.

The third name? Chinese, Wu Ti Tso, Seat of the Five Emperors.

* * *

[Continue to Part 2]


1. Science Fiction Age was a very fine SF magazine that got away... It was started by Sovereign Media in November 1992 and ran through May 2000. Through the magazine's entire run, Scott Edelman served as the editor. Though profitable at the time of its demise, SF Age, unfortunately, wasn't sufficiently profitable for Sovereign Media. By the way, Sovereign Media also published Realms of Fantasy magazine, beginning in October 1994, and then canceling the magazine with the April 2009 issue due to "plummeting newstand sales." However, RoF was purchased by a new publisher who, at the end of 2010, sold the magazine to yet a third publisher. SF Age was not as fortunate, which led to Scott Edelman's Second Rule of Publishing: "Make sure you retain the rights to your magazine." [Note: I have been copyediting Realms of Fantasy magazine since the October 2009 issue.]

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