Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Clapping Hands of God

Novelette by Michael F. Flynn
Read for Starship Sofa by Mike Boris
2005 Hugo Nominee

Hassan leads a team of explorers through a gate onto another world. He is a devout Muslim, in charge of an international exploration/science team with a near-future level of technology. They don't really understand how the gates work, but they open semi-randomly onto many populated worlds. Basically they've developed an international Stargate program.

They set up camp on a mountaintop to study the indigenous people, following a prime-directive-like philosophy of non-interference. They observe the mid-19th century-level aliens with stealth drones and microcameras. One day, the aliens' behavior changes suddenly, and Hassan is forced to wonder if they've been discovered, and how long they can afford to stay. It turns out he has a much more difficult decisions to make.

As someone mentioned elsewhere, it seems Hassan is a science fiction reader, as he encounters and avoids all the standard first contact pitfalls and idiot plots. Throughout the novelette, he reminds his team that the aliens are not human, and we can't ascribe human traits to them or jump to conclusions based on imagined narratives with scant evidence. All the team members are well drawn and interestingly differentiated, and Mike Boris provides different accents and voices for each of them. I was quite impressed with his talent for accents here.

Just as we think the story is going to wrap up in an expected way, the entire situation changes for the more complex. And just when that situation is about to wrap up, it doesn't go how we expect either. The last quarter of this story is excellent, some of the best first-contact storytelling I've ever seen. The whole thing reads like a deconstruction of the standard first-contact tale. The ending is sad, thoughtful, and pragmatic.

4 hands clapping out of 5.

Originally published in Analog, July/August 2004
Anthologized in Dozois' Year's Best Science Fiction 22

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