Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #24

If you are a Goodreads member, please sign up for the chance to win a free copy of Alien Contact. (See the Goodreads widget to the right.) Pictured in the giveaway is the Advanced Reading Copy, but winners will be receiving copies of the published version of the book. Alien Contact is also available for preorder from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and hopefully other booksellers as well, and will be published in November by Night Shade Books. If you are new to these "Story" postings, you may want to begin here. This is story #24 (of 26):

by Bruce Sterling

This story was originally published as the cover story in the April 1982 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and is approximately 9,600 words in length. (The cover art for this particular issue was created by Carl Lundgren, who went on to create poster art for classic bands such as The Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Pink Floyd.)

"Swarm" is part of Bruce Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist world, which includes four additional stories as well as the novel Schismatrix. As I was preparing for this blog post, I dug up my copy of Schismatrix Plus (Ace Books, 1996) -- a single volume that contains the complete Shaper/Mechanist stories, and reread Bruce's introduction, written in November 1995. Here are a few excerpts:

"Swarm" was also my first magazine sale...[and] is still the story of mine most often reprinted. I'm still fond of it: I can write a better prose now, but with that story, I finally gnawed my way through the insulation and got my teeth set into the buzzing copper wire.


In those days of yore, cyberpunk wasn't hype or genre history; it had no name at all. It hadn't yet begun to be metabolized by anyone outside a small literary circle. But it was very real to me, as real as anything in my life, and when I was hip-deep into SCHISMATRIX chopping my way through circumsolar superpower conflicts and grimy, micro-nation terrorist space pirates, it felt like holy fire.


People are always asking me about—demanding from me even—more Shaper/Mechanist work. Sequels. A trilogy maybe. The schismatrix sharecropping shared-universe "as created by" Bruce Sterling. But I don't do that sort of thing. I never will. This is all there was, and all there is.

When I asked Bruce to share some thoughts on "Swarm" with readers, this is what he wrote:

I have scientists in my family, and one of my uncles is an entomologist. That was how I came to understand, as a child, that insects were not just creepy vermin in one's Texan backyard, but could be proper objects of prolonged and serious study. They were here long before us and have every likelihood of being here long after us.

Social insects have a parallel alien world. One has to like the modest way they go about their own business without attempting alien contact. If these much older civilizations levelled with us about our current dominion of the planet, we likely wouldn't much care for that conversation.

In 2008, when I had begun my research and story gathering for this anthology, I contacted a number of authors for story recommendations. Author Alastair Reynolds was the one to suggest "Swarm." Years (and years) ago, I had read the five Shaper/Mechanist stories in Bruce's 1989 Arkham House collection, Crystal Express.; I also own the 1985 first edition hardcover of Schismatrix (Arbor House). But at some point in the past (I don't recall when, but obviously after 1996) I purchased Schismatrix Plus, so that when I read the stories yet again, I wouldn't have to handle the book with kid gloves because it was just a reprint trade paperback. So I'm rereading the introduction, as I noted above, and the next thing I know I've read past the prologue and into the first chapter of Schismatrix. That's the sign of a good book -- and good writing -- when it sucks you in like that. I'm now on chapter 2, so this appears to be the book I am currently reading.

Let's see if I can suck you in with this excerpt from the story. As the story opens, Captain-Doctor Simon Afriel is en route to meet the Swarm:

"I will miss your conversation during the rest of the voyage," the alien said.

Captain-Doctor Simon Afriel folded his jeweled hands over his gold-embroidered waistcoat. "I regret it also, ensign," he said in the alien's own hissing language. "Our talks together have been very useful to me. I would have paid to learn so much, but you gave it freely."

"But that was only information," the alien said. He shrouded his bead-bright eyes behind thick nictitating membranes. "We Investors deal in energy, and precious metals. To prize and pursue mere knowledge is an immature racial trait." The alien lifted the long ribbed frill behind his pinhole-sized ears.

"No doubt you are right," Afriel said, despising him. "We humans are as children to other races, however; so a certain immaturity seems natural to us." Afriel pulled off his sunglasses to rub the bridge of his nose. The starship cabin was drenched in searing blue light, heavily ultraviolet. It was the light the Investors preferred, and they were not about to change it for one human passenger.

"You have not done badly," the alien said magnanimously. "You are the kind of race we like to do business with: young, eager, plastic, ready for a wide variety of goods and experiences. We would have contacted you much earlier, but your technology was still too feeble to afford us a profit."

"Things are different now," Afriel said. "We'll make you rich."

"Indeed," the Investor said. The frill behind his scaly head flickered rapidly, a sign of amusement. "Within two hundred years you will be wealthy enough to buy from us the secret of our starflight. Or perhaps your Mechanist faction will discover the secret through research."

Afriel was annoyed. As a member of the Reshaped faction, he did not appreciate the reference to the rival Mechanists. "Don't put too much stock in mere technical expertise," he said. "Consider the aptitude for languages we Shapers have. It makes our faction a much better trading partner. To a Mechanist, all Investors look alike."

The alien hesitated. Afriel smiled. He had appealed to the alien's personal ambition with his last statement, and the hint had been taken. That was where the Mechanists always erred. They tried to treat all Investors consistently, using the same programmed routines each time. They lacked imagination.


"It seems a shame," the alien said, "that a human of your accomplishments should have to rot for two years in this miserable, profitless outpost."

"The years won't be wasted," Afriel said.

"But why have you chosen to study the Swarm? They can teach you nothing, since they cannot speak. They have no wish to trade, having no tools or technology. They are the only spacefaring race that is essentially without intelligence."

"That alone should make them worthy of study."


There came a fluting burst of alien music over the ship's speakers, then a screeching fragment of Investor language. Most of it was too high-pitched for Afriel's ears to follow.

The alien stood, his jeweled skirt brushing the tips of his clawed birdlike feet. "The Swarm's symbiote has arrived," he said.

And so begins Captain-Doctor Simon Afriel's journey into the Nest. "Swarm" was a finalist for the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the Locus Award.

[Continue to Story #25]

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