Thursday, August 25, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #17

For details on the previous sixteen stories, including the complete text for five of them (so far), please begin here.

"To Go Boldly"
by Cory Doctorow

This story was originally published in The New Space Opera 2, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan (HarperCollins/EOS, 2009), and is approximately 7,000 words in length. [Note, too, that the author did not split the infinitive in the story title! Kudos, Cory!]

I first emailed Cory Doctorow toward the end of August 2008 about including a story of his in this anthology. The only alien contact story of his that I was familiar with at the time was "Craphound." When Cory responded, he informed me that he had just completed a draft of a new story, "To Go Boldly," which he attached to the email, that would be included in a forthcoming Dozois and Strahan anthology. One caveat: the book was scheduled for publication in July 2009, and the story could not be reprinted for six months. So I would be clear to use the story beginning in 2010. I told Cory that shouldn't be a problem, that it would probably be at least a year before my anthology was published. Well, here we are, three years later from that original email communication! Though, to be honest, I've already received a copy of the Alien Contact Advance Uncorrected Proof, and I hope to be showcasing the final cover art here "real soon now" -- seriously. And, of course, the anthology is still on schedule (as far as I know) for a November publication.

After reading only a few pages, I realized that "To Go Boldly" was a contemporary reboot (actually, I hate that term but what else is there?) of the "Arena" episode of Star Trek: The Original Series. The two main characters are Captain Reynold J. Tsubishi, commander of the APP ship Colossus II, and his B-string [second shift] commander, First Lieutenant !Mota, a member of the non-human race Wobblie -- "not a flattering name for an entire advanced starfaring race, but an accurate one, and no one with humanoid mouth-parts could pronounce the word in Wobbliese." Here is the scene in which the crew first encounters their adversary:
"Hail the yufo, Ms. De Fuca-Williamson."

The comms officer's hands moved over her panels, then she nodded back at Tsubishi.

"This is Captain Reynold J. Tsubishi of the Alliance of Peaceful Planets ship Colossus II. In the name of the Alliance and its forty-two member-species, I offer you greetings in the spirit of galactic cooperation and peace." It was canned, that line, but he'd practiced it in the holo in his quarters so that he could sell it fresh every time.

The silence stretched. A soft chime marked an incoming message. A succession of progress bars filled the holotank as it was decoded, demuxed and remuxed. Another, more emphatic chime.

"Do it," Tsubishi said to the comms officer, and First Contact was made anew.

The form that filled the tank was recognizably a head. It was wreathed in writhing tentacles, each tipped with organs that the computer identified with high confidence as sensory—visual, olfactory, temperature.

The tentacles whipped around as the bladder at the thing's throat inflated, then blatted out something in its own language, which made Wobbliese seem mellifluous. The computer translated: "Oh, for god's sake—role-players? You've got to be kidding me."

I recall reading the Fredric Brown story, "Arena," upon which the Star Trek episode is based; the story was originally published in the June 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and I read it in my copy (which I can no longer find; hmm...) of The Best of Fredric Brown (Science Fiction Book Club, 1977). So, is Cory channeling Fredric Brown and an episode of Star Trek: TOS?

I asked Cory for some thoughts regarding his story, and here's what he wrote -- which quite surprised me:
I've always been frustrated by the lack of economic coherence in stories about interstellar empires, especially those who get TWO miracles: FTL travel and transporter beams (which are really matter assembler/disassemblers). At that point, you can go anywhere and make anything, so why would you refight any of the old colonial/conquest games? Not to say that there mightn't be some game to be played, but colonies and conquest are firmly grounded in the notion of strategic location and control of resources. All locations are approximately equivalent in an FTL universe and as to resources, they get a lot less urgent when you can instantiate any molecule on demand, using only (free) energy.

These stories are indictments of their authors and their fans -- they are embodiments of the science fictional premise that "all rules are local" and "no rule knows how local it is." To assume that an FTL/transporter universe would give rise to these old games is to assume a universality of greed, conquest and xenophobia -- that is, to project your own values on the universe and everyone who might someday inhabit it.

I was expecting Cory to write something about the sardonic nature of his story, or its camaraderie with Star Trek's "Arena," but instead we get some strong words on the two cheats, or "miracles," to use Cory's word, in SF: FTL travel and transporters. But, getting back to the story and the yufo's use of the word "role-players," it appears the yufo thinks this is all a game anyhow. One more thing: this story is also an interesting exercise in the use of non-gender pronouns: "ze" and "zer."

One more excerpt from the story:
"A warning shot, Lieutenant," he said, tipping his head to Deng-Gorinski. "Miss the yufo by, say, half a million klicks."

The click of Deng-Gorinski's talon was the only sound on the bridge, as every crewmember held zer breath, and then the barely detectable hap-tic whom as a torpedo left its bay and streaked off in glorious 3-D on the holotank, trailed by a psychedelic glitter of labels indicating its approach, operational status, detected countermeasures, and all the glorious, pointless instrumentation data that was merely icing on the cake.

The torpedo closed on the yufo, drawing closer, closer…closer. Then—


"It's gone, sir." Deng-Gorinski's talons clicked, clicked. "Transporter beam. Picked it right out of the sky."

That's impossible. He didn't bother to say it. Of course it was possible: they'd just seen it happen. But transporting a photon torpedo that was underway and emitting its punishing halo of quantum chaff should have required enough energy to melt a star and enough compute-power to calculate the universe. It was the space-naval equivalent of catching a sword-blade between your palms as it was arcing toward your chest.

Cory releases most, if not all, of his work free online via Creative Commons licenses, and "To Go Boldly" is no exception. If you are a podcast junkie, or you would simply like to sit back, relax, and listen to this one particular story, StarShipSofa has the story available as part of their podcast program "Aural Delights No 110," which was released on November 25, 2009.

[Continue to Story #18]

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