Thursday, May 19, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #3

The introduction to my Alien Contact anthology, which I posted on April 25, would be a good place to start, if you haven't already done so....

"Face Value" by Karen Joy Fowler

This story originally appeared in the November 1986 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited then by Edward L. Ferman, and is approximately 5,000 words in length.

I first read "Face Value" in Karen Joy Fowler's short story collection Artificial Things (Bantam Spectra, 1986), which is, sadly, out of print, but can easily be purchased from the secondary market. I believe that Artificial Things was also Karen's first book -- a rarity in publishing, to have a genre collection as a first book, particularly from a New York publisher. Genre collections as first books are quite common among small/independent publishers -- e.g authors Paul Di Filippo, Andy Duncan, M. Rickert, to name but three -- but, again, not so with NY publishers. This obviously speaks to the quality of Karen's short fiction.

I recall my writing class in college... The instructor was discussing humor in fiction, and how difficult it was to write a truly serious humorous story, if that makes sense -- i.e. not slapstick, not zany, not "doh!" humor, but serious humor. And, of course, our assignment was to write such a story ourselves. At the next class session I brought in a copy of Karen Joy Fowler's story "The Faithful Companion at Forty" (a finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula awards), handed it to the instructor at the end of class, asked her to please take it home and read it, and then let me know next week what she thought of the story. The instructor was so impressed with the story that the following week she read it out loud to the entire class. You have to understand, too, that the instructor was not a fan of science fiction/fantasy, and was rather vexed to learn that that was my interest when I introduced myself during the first day of class. Again, the instructor reading this SF story to the class is simply a testament to the quality of Karen's writing. I felt absolved in the class from that point, through to the end of the semester. [Thanks, Karen!]

Though I had been a reader and fan of Karen's work for many (many) years, my first professional encounter with her occurred in 1999: she wrote the introduction to the very first book I acquired and edited -- Richard Paul Russo's collection Terminal Visions (Golden Gryphon Press, 2000). Richard and Karen went way back in their writing careers, and he had requested that she write the introduction to his first collection.

Given all that, I was determined to include a Karen Joy Fowler story in this anthology. I chose this particular story because of the intersection of art and communication, a theme you will find in at least one other story in the anthology. With regards to art and communication, Karen has this to share about the story:

"Face Value" is a story I wrote shortly after my stories began to sell and I began to imagine that I might actually have a career as a writer. It's probably no coincidence then that it deals so directly with issues of art and of privacy and of the difficulties of trying to communicate anything with mere words. I have written a lot about how hard it is for men and women to talk to one another. My current novel-under-construction is about that childhood dream, never achieved, of talking to (non-human) animals. With that as context, to think we might someday understand and be understood by anyone with whom we share no DNA and no history is as great a leap as any a science fiction writer could take. My story is about what happens when we meet members of an alien species who share every thought perfectly and effortlessly. As we try to talk with them, which will matter more -- will it be their abilities or will it be our limitations?

The aliens to which Karen refers are called the "mene," after Hans Mene, the leader of the group that made the initial contact. The mene are winged beings, but they do not fly; the backs of their wings have a "symmetrical arrangement of dark spots which marked their wings in a pattern resembling a human face." More from the story:

Was the face really there? Or was this only evidence of the ability of humans to see their own faces in everything?... "Do they see it, too?" she had asked Taki, but there was as yet no way to ask this of the mene....

Taki is the xenolinguist, sent to this planet to study the mene; "she" is Hesper, a poet, who joined him in this expedition so that he would not be alone, but also for reasons of her own:

Hesper had warned him there would be no art [among the mene] and he had asked her how she could be so sure. "Because their communication system is perfect," she said. "Out of one brain and into the next with no loss of meaning, no need for abstraction. Art arises from the inability to communicate. Art is the imperfect symbol. Isn’t it?"


"Don't patronize me." Hesper returned to the table, looked again at the plate which held her unfinished breakfast, dusty from handling [by the mene]. "My critical faculties are still intact. It's just the poetry that's gone." She took the dish to clean it, scraped the food away. "I was never any good," she said. "Why do you think I came here? I had no poetry of my own so I thought I'd write the mene's. I came to a world without words. I hoped it would be clarifying. I knew there was a risk." Her hands moved very fast. "I want you to know I don't blame you."

The key to the story, the key to the ending is in that one sentence of 5 words: Her hands moved very fast. This story is not to be missed.

[Continue to Story #4]


  1. I just finished this story as I am preparing for a science fiction exam tomorrow, my question is simply this.... How do/did you interpret the ending of this work? Thank you for your article and for any response. Tyler from Texas

  2. Hi, Tyler,

    I'm probably not going to answer your question in the way you had hoped.

    Your question reminds me of my English Lit class when I was in high school; we could never just read a story and immerse ourselves in the reading experience, in the poetry of the words the author chose to write. No; we had to tear the story down, looking for all the bloody symbolism and underlying meanings that were supposedly inserted throughout the work. This was one of the reasons I detested Lit class, and spent what dollars I had buying Cliff Notes to help me get through the school year.

    Which brings me back to Ms. Fowler's "Face Value." If you ask a handful of people what the ending of this story means to them, you would probably get a handful of different answers. [As long as you aren't a high school teacher who "knows" the answer, the only correct answer by the way. But I digress...]

    I would ask that you immerse yourself in the story; feel what Hesper is experiencing: the reason she came with Taki to the planet -- a sincere gesture but for all the wrong reasons; Hesper's frustration in not being able to write anymore, her anger at the lack of privacy she and Taki have because the mene are always present. Do you think that the mene sense Hesper's skill with words, her sensitivity? -- and maybe that's why they are always picking on her, so to speak, getting into her belongings? Do you think that Hesper's inability to write the longer she's on the planet just may be due to the menes' interference with her, with her psyche?

    It's interesting (for lack of a better word) how Hesper can no longer write, and yet it is through her that the mene are finally able to communicate with Taki.

    Good luck on your exam.
    - marty

  3. I am still don't get the theme. I try so hard to think of it. Do you know what the theme(s) is? I am really want to know, please tell me.

    Thank you.

  4. Hi, Momo,

    Thank you for your query. As I said in my response to the previous comment above, if you ask a dozen readers what the "theme" of this story is, you just may receive a dozen different answers.

    This story, in my opinion, has to do with personal fulfillment -- or the lack there of. Taki has come to this planet to make contact and communicate with the mene. Contact has been made but he has been unable to communicate with them. Hesper has come with Taki to the planet for love, and also to have the time and space to write her poetry. Because of Taki's involvement with the mene, she hasn't experienced much love; and because the mene are ever present in their lives, she hasn't had the time and space to write her poetry, either.

    The mene finally use the relationship between Take and Hesper to make contact.

    But that's just one interpretation. Regardless of the "theme," I truly hope you've enjoyed the story.

    - marty