Friday, August 12, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #15

You could always begin here....

"A Midwinter's Tale"
by Michael Swanwick

This story was originally published as the cover story in the December 1988 issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and is approximately 6,000 words in length. (For the curious, Terry Lee did the cover art for that particular issue.)

Besides the fact that "A Midwinter's Tale" is yet another very fine story by Michael Swanwick, I selected this story for the anthology because of its structure: the telling of a story within the telling of a story -- nested stories, I guess you could say. I asked Michael for some thoughts on his story, and he shares with us an impressive array of influences that helped him form this tale:
So many different things went into "A Midwinter's Tale" that I despair of listing them all. The chiefest of them, and the trigger for my writing the story, was a Marc Chagall retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Chagall's art is so fabulous—in both senses of the word—that I immediately saw there was a story to be found in it. I went through the show several times, taking notes, and many specific paintings appear in the story. If I hadn't misplaced the catalog, I could list them by name. One became the birth scene, another the narrator's vision of death, and a third, (this one I remember; it's called The Soldier Drinks1) showing a soldier and a samovar with himself in miniature sitting happily with a peasant woman on his knee, provided the story's frame. The narrative structure I borrowed from Jack Dann's autobiographical essay "A Few Sparks in the Dark," which described how, almost dying of an infection, he hallucinated wandering through wastelands of ice, how afterward the fever had left him with partial amnesia, and the strange forms that amnesia took.

The prose style was not an attempt to pastiche Gene Wolfe but I did use his work as a kind of model in order to emulate a kind of narrative richness which I felt would go well with Chagall's vision. Similarly, the Christmas section was written with Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales" firmly in mind. The larls are distant ancestors of Coeurl in A. E. van Vogt's "Dark Destroyer," which later became part of The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Their means of serial immortality came from a now-discredited experiment in the Sixties, which I unsuccessfully attempted to replicate in high school, showing that planaria could acquire knowledge by eating other planaria. The harshness of the winter landscapes is rendered from life. Nobody who has ever gone hiking in the Green Mountains of Vermont when it is forty below will ever forget the experience.

The word "larl" I invented forty years ago when I was working in the loading docks of a furniture factory and, out of extreme boredom, took my first halting steps toward publication. Proof positive that a true writer never throws anything away.

In "A Midwinter's Tale," the narrator tells of a particular Christmas Eve during his childhood when he was told a story by one of the family's larls, sentient creatures indigenous to this planet on which these humans reside. But it appears that this boy -- now an adult -- is the only one who knows that these creatures are sentient, that they can speak. From the story:
Something coughed.

I turned and saw something moving in the shadows, an animal. The larl was blacker than black, a hole in the darkness, and my eyes swam to look at him. Slowly, lazily, he strode out onto the stones, stretched his back, yawned a tongue-curling yawn, and then stared at me with those great green eyes.

He spoke.

I was astonished, of course, but not in the way my father would have been. So much is inexplicable to a child!

"Merry Christmas, Flip," the creature said, in a quiet, breathy voice. I could not describe its accent; I have heard nothing quite like it before or since. There was a vast alien amusement in his glance.

"And to you," I said politely.

The larl sat down, curling his body heavily about me. If I had wanted to run, I could not have gotten past him, though that thought did not occur to me then. "There is an ancient legend, Flip, I wonder if you have heard of it, that on Christmas Eve, the beasts can speak in human tongue. Have your elders told you that?"

I shook my head.

The larl refers to himself as a "Person"; his kind as "People"; and this story reveals how the People first made contact with humans:
—When the great ships landed, I was feasting on my grandfather's brains. All his descendants gathered respectfully about him, and I, as youngest, had first bite. His wisdom flowed through me, and the wisdom of his ancestors and the intimate knowledge of those animals he had eaten for food, and the spirit of valiant enemies who had been killed and then honored by being eaten, even as if they were family. I don't suppose you understand this, little one.

(I shook my head.)

People never die, you see. Only humans die. Sometimes a minor part of a Person is lost, the doings of a few decades, but the bulk of his life is preserved, if not in this body, then in another....

The ships descended bright as newborn suns. The People had never seen such a thing. We watched in inarticulate wonder, for we had no language then. You have seen the pictures, the baroque swirls of colored metal, the proud humans stepping down onto the land. But I was there, and I can tell you your people were ill. They stumbled down the gangplanks with the stench of radiation sickness about them. We could have destroyed them all then and there.

Your people built a village at Landfall and planted crops over the bodies of their dead. We left them alone. They did not look like good game. They were too strange and too slow and we had not yet come to savor your smell. So we went away, in baffled ignorance.

That was in early spring....

The "stones" referred to above, upon which the larl stretched out, were the stones in front of a fireplace, and the larl's tale is definitely one of those that should be told on a cold winter's eve, curled up in front of an open fire. "A Midwinter's Tale" is one of 26 stories included in my Alien Contact anthology, to be published in November from Night Shade Books. This story was nominated for the Locus Award, and it won the Asimov's Reader Award in the best short story category.

When I read this story recently, it brought to mind something I had seen on television when I was much (much) younger. I don't recall whether it was a movie or an ongoing series, but the storyline employed this very same myth -- that at midnight on Christmas Eve, animals can talk. What I do remember about the show is that a young boy is unknowingly in danger (from bad guys?), and that evening, Christmas Eve, the animals (in a barn?) speak to the boy to warn him of the danger. There's an even vaguer memory that the boy has a younger sister, too. Unfortunately, that's pretty much all I can recall. [But if anyone recognizes this, by all means please leave a comment. I daresay I'm dating myself on this one.]

[Continue to Story #16]


1. The Marc Chagall painting, The Soldier Drinks, can be viewed at the Guggenheim Collection Online.


  1. There was a movie like that called "Annabelle's Wish", although I don't know if it's the one you're thinking of. It came out in 1997.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I looked up _Annabelle's Wish_ per your suggestion: I have no memory of the movie/show being animated, and I also think it was much earlier than 1997 -- but I will check it out in more detail just to be sure. Thanks again.
      - martyh