As I mentioned in my previous blog post, if there was one previously published story that I would have included in my original anthology Is Anybody Out There? (co-edited with Nick Gevers, Daw Books, 2010), that story would have been "One" by George Alec Effinger.
In a posting to Usenet group "rec.arts.sf.written" on December 13, 1998, George wrote: "...the most difficult short story sale I've ever had was a piece called 'One,' which I wrote almost twenty years ago.... It was rejected by editors who thought... it would be an unpopular idea among their readers. It was bounced at 'Isaac Asimov's' by three different editors over the years."
The "unpopular idea" to which George referred is that we are, in fact, alone in the universe. Readers want to read about aliens, and alien contact—not that the galaxy is completely void of other intelligent life, or any life, for that matter. What kind of story would that make, anyhow?
So GAE's "One" remained unpublished for nearly 20 years until it was finally purchased in 1995 by noted SF author Greg Bear for his New Legends anthology, published by Legend Press UK. And there the story remained until 2001, when Orson Scott Card selected it for his reprint anthology, Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Century.1 And, lastly, I included "One" in George Alec Effinger Live! from Planet Earth, a collection (the second of three) of his work, which I acquired and edited for Golden Gryphon Press in 2005.2 The story was introduced in the book by Barbara Hambly, George's ex-wife and executrix of the Effinger Estate.
Here is Ms. Hambly's introduction to "One" from George Alec Effinger Live! from Planet Earth:
Here is Ms. Hambly's introduction to "One" from George Alec Effinger Live! from Planet Earth:
Like a meditation returned to over and over—or a recurring dream—George revisited the image of a lone man trying his best to perform an assigned task that is both impossible and meaningless, and getting no thanks or support for his efforts. Sometimes these stories are ironic, like "King of the Cyber Rifles," sometimes bleakly funny, like "Posterity."
I suspect this was how George viewed himself and his work.
But "One" rises far above that.
I can think of no other science fiction writer who would tell a story so completely antithetical to the whole concept of science fiction. The genre is based, almost as a given, upon the fact that there is life, civilization, intelligence out there: sometimes benevolent, sometimes hostile, sometimes completely incomprehensible...but there. It is a literature of hope.
It is a literature of "What if...?"
But what if we are alone?
What does that do to hope? To sanity?
George had this story in his files for twenty years before Greg Bear bought it for his New Legends anthology, I think for precisely that reason: in the 1970s it was an almost unaskable question. George was absolutely delighted when it finally sold.
Science fiction is a genre of possibilities, of humanity meeting and dealing with unthinkable situations.
This one's about as unthinkable as they get.
And now, for only the fourth time in nearly 20 years—and with the most gracious and kind permission of Barbara Hambly and the George Alec Effinger Estate, I bring you, in three serialized parts...
by George Alec Effinger
(© 1995 by the Estate of George Alec Effinger.
Reprinted with permission.)
It was Year 30, Day 1, the anniversary of Dr. Leslie Gillette's leaving Earth. Standing alone at the port, he stared out at the empty expanse of null space. "At eight o'clock, the temperature in the interstellar void is a negative two hundred seventy-three degrees Celsius," he said. "Even without the wind chill factor, that's cold. That's pretty damn cold."
A readout board had told him that morning that the ship and its lonely passenger would be reaching the vicinity of a star system before bedtime. Gillette didn't recall the name of the star—it had only been a number in a catalogue. He had long since lost interest in them. In the beginning, in the first few years when Jessica had still been with him, he had eagerly asked the board to show them where in Earth's night sky each star was located. They had taken a certain amount of pleasure in examining at close hand stars which they recognized as features of major constellations. That had passed. After they had visited a few thousand stars, they grew less interested. After they had discovered yet more planetary bodies, they almost became weary of the search. Almost. The Gillettes still had enough scientific curiosity to keep them going, farther and farther from their starting point.
But now the initial inspiration was gone. Rather than wait by the port until the electronic navigator slipped the ship back into normal space, he turned and left the control room. He didn't feel like searching for habitable planets. It was getting late, and he could do it the next morning.
He fed his cat instead. He punched up the code and took the cat's dinner from the galley chute. "Here you go," said Gillette. "Eat it and be happy with it. I want to read a little before I go to sleep." As he walked toward his quarters he felt the mild thrumming of the corridor's floor and walls that meant the ship had passed into real space. The ship didn't need directions from Gillette; it had already plotted a safe and convenient orbit in which to park, based on the size and characteristics of the star. The planets, if any, would all be there in the morning, waiting for Dr. Gillette to examine them, classify them, name them, and abandon them.
Unless, of course, he found life anywhere.
* * *
Finding life was one of the main purposes of the journey. Soon it had become the Gillettes' purpose in life as well. They had set out as enthusiastic explorers: Dr. Leslie Gillette, thirty-five years old, already an influential writer and lecturer in theoretical exobiology, and his wife, Jessica Reid Gillette, who had been the chairperson of the biochemistry department at a large Midwest state university. They had been married for eleven years, and had made the decision to go into field exploration after the death of their only child.
Now they were traveling through space toward the distant limits of the galaxy. Long, long ago the Earth's sun had disappeared from view. The exobiology about which both Gillettes had thought and written and argued back home remained just what it had been then—mere theory. After visiting hundreds and hundreds of stellar systems, upon thousands of potential life-sustaining planets, they had yet to see or detect any form of life, no matter how primitive. The lab facilities on the landing craft returned the same frustrating answer with soul-deadening frequency: No life. Dead. Sterile. Year after year, the galaxy became to the Gillettes a vast and terrifying immensity of insensible rock and blazing gas.
"Do you remember," asked Jessica one day, "what old man Hayden used to tell us?"
Gillette smiled. "I used to love to get that guy into an argument," he said.
"He told me once that we might find life, but there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell of finding intelligent life."
Gillette recalled that discussion with pleasure. "And you called him a Terran chauvinist. I loved it. You made up a whole new category of bigotry, right on the spot. We thought he was such a conservative old codger. Now it looks like even he was too optimistic."
Jessica stood behind her husband's chair, reading what he was writing. "What would Hayden say, do you think, if he knew we haven't found a goddamn thing?"
Gillette turned around and looked up at her. "I think even he would be disappointed," he said. "Surprised, too."
"This isn't what I anticipated," she said.
The complete absence of even the simplest of life forms was at first irritating, then puzzling, then ominous. Soon even Leslie Gillette, who always labored to keep separate his emotional thoughts and his logical ones, was compelled to realize that his empirical conclusions were shaping up in defiance of all the mathematical predictions man or machine had ever made. In the control room was a framed piece of vellum, on which was copied, in fine italic letters and numerals:
N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L
This was a formula devised decades before to determine the approximate number of advanced technological civilizations humans might expect to find elsewhere in the galaxy. The variables in the formula are given realistic values, according to the scientific wisdom of the time. N is determined by seven factors:
R* the mean rate of star formation in the galaxy (with an assigned value of ten per year)
fp the percentage of stars with planets (close to one hundred percent)
ne the average number of planets in each star system with environments suitable for life (with an assigned value of one)
fl the percentage of those planets on which life does, in fact, develop (close to one hundred percent)
fi the percentage of those planets on which intelligent life develops (ten percent)
fc the percentage of those planets on which advanced technical civilization develops (ten percent)
L the lifetime of the technical civilization (with an estimated value of ten million years).
These figures produced a predictive result stating that N—the number of advanced civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy—equals ten to the sixth power. A million. The Gillettes had cherished that formula through all the early years of disappointment. But they were not looking for an advanced civilization, they were looking for life. Any kind of life. Some six years after leaving Earth, Leslie and Jessica were wandering across the dry, sandy surface of a cool world circling a small, cool sun. "I don't see any advanced civilizations," said Jessica, stooping to stir the dust with the heavy gauntlet of her pressure suit.
"Nope," said her husband, "not a hamburger stand in sight." The sky was a kind of reddish purple, and he didn't like looking into it very often. He stared down at the ground, watching Jessica trail her fingers in the lifeless dirt.
"You know," she said, "that formula says that every system ought to have at least one planet suitable for life."
Gillette shrugged. "A lot of them do," he said. "But it also says that every planet that could sustain life, will sustain life, eventually. Maybe they were a little too enthusiastic when they picked the values for their variables."
Jessica laughed. "Maybe." She dug a shallow hole in the surface. "I keep hoping I'll run across some ants or a worm or something."
"Not here, honey," said Gillette. "Come on, let's go back." She sighed and stood. Together they returned to the landing craft.
"What a waste," said Jessica, as they prepared to lift off. "I've given my imagination all this freedom. I'm prepared to see anything down there, the garden variety of life or something more bizarre. You know, dancing crystals or thinking clouds. But I never prepared myself for so much nothing."
The landing craft shot up through the thin atmosphere, toward the orbiting command ship. "A scientist has to be ready for this kind of thing," said Gillette wistfully. "But I agree with you. Experience seems to be defying the predictions in a kind of scary way."
Jessica loosened her safety belt and took a deep breath. "Mathematically unlikely, I'd call it. I'm going to look at the formula tonight and see which of those variables is the one screwing everything up."
Gillette shook his head. "I've done that time and time again," he said. "It won't get you very far. Whatever you decided, the result will still be a lot different from what we've found." On the myriad worlds they had visited, they never found anything as simple as algae or protozoa, let alone intelligent life. Their biochemical sensors had never detected anything that even pointed in that direction, like a complex protein. Only rock and dust and empty winds and lifeless pools.
* * *
In the morning, just as he had predicted, the planets were still there. There were five of them, circling a modest star, type G3, not very different from Earth's Sun. He spoke to the ship's computer: "I name the star Hannibal. Beginning with the nearest to Hannibal, I name the planets: Huck, Tom, Jim, Becky, and Aunt Polly. We will proceed with the examinations." The ship's instruments could take all the necessary readings, but Gillette wouldn't trust its word on the existence of life. That question was so important that he felt he had to make the final determination himself.
Huck was a Mars-sized ball of nickel and iron, a rusty brown color, pocked with craters, hot and dry and dead. Tom was larger and darker, cooler, but just as damaged by impacts and just as dead. Jim was Earthlike; it had a good-sized atmosphere of nitrogen and oxygen, its range of temperatures stayed generally between -30°C and +50°C, and there was a great abundance of water on the planet's surface. But there was no life, none on the rocky, dusty land, none in the mineral-salted water, nothing, not so much as a single cyanobacterium. Jim was the best hope Gillette had in the Hannibal system, but he investigated Becky and Aunt Polly as well. They were the less-dense gas giants of the system, although neither was so large as Uranus or Neptune. There was no life in their soupy atmospheres or on the igneous surfaces of their satellites. Gillette didn't bother to name the twenty-three moons of the five planets; he thought he'd leave that to the people who came after him. If any ever did.
Next, Gillette had to take care of the second purpose of the mission. He set out an orbiting transmission gate around Jim, the most habitable of the five planets. Now a ship following in his path could cross the scores of light-years instantaneously from the gate Gillette had set out at his previous stop. He couldn't even remember what that system had been like or what he had named it. After all these years they were all confused in his mind, particularly because they were so identical in appearance, so completely empty of life.
He sat at a screen and looked down on Jim, at the tan, sandy continents, the blue seas, the white clouds and polar caps. Gillette's cat, a gray Maine coon, his only companion, climbed into his lap. The cat's name was Benny, great-grandson of Methyl and Ethyl, the two kittens Jessica had brought along. Gillette scratched behind the animal's ears and under his chin. "Why aren't there any cats down there?" he asked it. Benny had only a long purr for an answer. After a while Gillette tired of staring down at the silent world. He had made his survey, had put out the gate, and now there was nothing to do but send the information back toward Earth and move on. He gave the instructions to the ship's computer, and in half an hour the stars had disappeared, and Gillette was traveling again through the darkness of null space.
* * *
[Continue to Part 2]
1. When the Orson Scott Card anthology was reprinted in 2004 in trade paperback, the book was renamed Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century.
2. On May 12, 2009, I published a very lengthy blog post on the making of George Alec Effinger Live! from Planet Earth, should you be interested in reading how this collection came together, the people involved, the process, etc.