Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #13

You may want to begin here....

"The First Contact with the Gorgonids"
by Ursula K. Le Guin

This story was originally published in the January 1992 issue of Omni magazine, and is approximately 2,800 words in length.

I had a subscription to Omni in the late '80s, and I had also obtained random issues from the mid '80s and from the early '90s. Some of the absolutely best genre fiction was published in the pages of this magazine during the course of its lifespan.1 I couldn't find my copy of the January 1992 issue (if you saw my workroom you would understand; maybe one of these days, when I'm not feeling too self-conscious, I'll post a pic), so I pulled this Ursula K. Le Guin story from a copy of her collection, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (HarperCollins, 1994).

As I was planning this anthology, I set out to include this story by Ms. Le Guin. She has mainstream name recognition but, unlike some authors who write SF, Ms. Le Guin actually admits to being a science fiction writer. In my June 6 blog post, I quote from (and link to) a two-part essay Ms. Le Guin wrote on "genre" vs. "literary" fiction.

Toward the end of 2008 (that just shows you how long I've been working on this anthology) I learned that Ursula K. Le Guin would be attending Potlatch 18 in Sunnyvale, California. Her book, Always Coming Home, was one of the convention's two Books of Honor. (Potlatch doesn't have Guests of Honor, but rather Books of Honor.) Also on the con's membership list was another author whose story I had wanted to include in the anthology as well. (However, she shall remain nameless for now, but all will be revealed in story #23.) So I attended Potlatch2 on February 28 and March 1, 2009, with hopes of being able to speak to both authors personally, to introduce myself and to request permission to use their respective stories in this anthology. Opportunity was with me as I was able to speak with both authors together as they entered the lobby of the hotel, having just returned from lunch. Ms. Le Guin granted permission and said to contact her agent (with whom I had already been in contact) to let her know that we had talked; the other author also granted the use of her story, and provided me with her email address so that I could contact her directly. At that point all was right with the world.

I had been sharing my progress on this anthology with my friend, the author Judith Moffett. I would mention authors' names, but I hadn't as yet provided her with any specific story titles (or at least not very many titles). On February 19, I received an email from Judy in which she wrote: "...I just read the Le Guin story 'The First Contact with the Gorgonids' and thought, what a perfect little story, is that the one Marty's trying to get into his anthology? And then of course I couldn't find the list. Anyway, is that the one? ...I saw the story in a little story collection I got out of the library, called A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Stories, all by UKLeG." And, of course, I responded that it was in fact the story that I had acquired for the collection.

Judy's five words: "what a perfect little story" says more than I could have in a lengthy paragraph. "The First Contact with the Gorgonids" is sardonic wit at its finest. I'll set the scene in the story: Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Debree -- he's a businessman, she's a businessman's wife -- are on vacation in Australia with hopes of taking in a corroboree, an Aborigines ceremonial meeting. Unfortunately, Jerry is far from being impressed with what he has seen so far, and he's quite expressive about it, too. So a couple locals, both named "Bruce," talk Jerry into going to a place called Grong Crossing, "way out in 'the bush' where they were certain to meet real abos really living in the desert." "Few hours' drive, that's all," one of the Bruces said. The story doesn't actually state how long they drove but we get a sense that it was far longer than a "few hours' drive." In fact, it's possible that the Bruces were simply jiving Jerry in the first place and that Grong Crossing may not even exist -- but the exchange between husband and wife during the long drive is priceless. Finally they spy a huge rock out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by what they initially believe to be "bushmen," and stop the car.

From the story:
"Jerry, I wonder if we should ask them," she said.

"Ask who what?" he growled, having trouble with the [camcorder] cassette thing.

"The people here—if it's all right to photograph. Remember at Taos they said that when the—"

"For fuck sake you don't need fucking permission to photograph a bunch of natives! God! Did you ever look at the fucking National Geographic? Shit! Permission!"

It really wasn't any use when he started shouting. And the people didn't seem to be interested in what he was doing. Although it was quite hard to be sure what direction they were actually looking.

"Aren't you going to get out of the fucking car?"

"It's so hot," she said.

.... So she just sat in the car and kept the engine on and the air-conditioning on, although the window on her side was open.

Jerry had his camera up on his shoulder now and was panning the scene—the faraway hot red horizon, the queer rock-hill-thing with shiny places in it like glass, the black, burned-looking ground around it, and the people swarming all over. There were forty or fifty of them at least. It only dawned on her now that if they were wearing any clothes at all, she didn't know which was clothes and which was skin, because they were so strange-shaped, and painted or colored all in stripes and spots of white on black, not like zebras but more complicated, more like skeleton suits but not exactly. And they must be eight feet tall, but their arms were short, almost like kangaroos'. And their hair was like black ropes standing up all over their heads. It was embarrassing to look at people without clothes on, but you couldn't really see anything like that. In fact she couldn't tell, actually, if they were men or women.

I hope these few paragraphs are enough to pique your interest in this perfect little story... "The First Contact with the Gorgonids" is one of 26 stories included in my anthology Alien Contact, forthcoming in November from Night Shade Books.

[Continue to Story #14]


1. All my issues of Omni magazine -- from the mid '80s to the early '90s -- were during the editorship of Ellen Datlow. The fiction published in Omni was a literal Who's Who of science fiction at the time. In addition to Ursula K. Le Guin, a quick check through my copies revealed stories by (in alphabetical order, and this is far from being a complete list from even the issues that I have) Greg Bear, Michael Bishop, James P. Blaylock, Pat Cadigan, Jonathan Carroll, Gardner Dozois, George Alec Effinger, Harlan Ellison, Richard Kadrey, Marc Laidlaw, Tom Maddox, Richard Christian Matheson, Pat Murphy, Bruce McAllister, Lucius Shepard, Lewis Shiner, Dan Simmons, Bruce Sterling, Michael Swanwick, Howard Waldrop, and Walter Jon Williams. Whew!

2. On March 9, 2009, I posted a Potlatch 18 con report. Some secrets are contained therein.

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