Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Lovely Ugly

Short Story by Carol Emshwiller

This doesn't feel quite like anything I've read before, and that makes it interesting. But it doesn't do as much for me as I'd hoped.

A group of human explorers touch down on an alien planet and set up camp. Told through the eyes of an alien linguist who doesn't quite get humanity, we see them play with and love their dogs and fall too easily for the alien's ruse of being tame and not much smarter than animals themselves.

These are aliens who achieved spaceflight, by the way, pretending to be friendly and only semi-intelligent while at the same time disabling the lander so as to have more time to study us. They even make up a low-vocabulary pidgin language to teach us as if it were their own, lest we learn too much about them from language.

The bat-like aliens are legitimately friendly and joking and have a great love of humor, which adds some humor to the story itself, but their deception eventually goes too far, and while the humans underestimate them, they also overestimate their own understanding of humans. Relations head south when our viewpoint alien crosses a line he doesn't realize can't be uncrossed.

An extremely interesting take on first contact, although the aliens themselves are (necessarily) implausibly mammalian. But that, along with the inclusion of dogs on the space expedition, makes the story work in terms of what insights the two species can have about each other, and how similar-yet-different they can be. The story wouldn't have worked with less mammalian aliens.

The climax is emotional and well-written, and things wrap up with no twists or turns, surprisingly neatly. We aren't cheated of emotional payoff, but neither are we rewarded with any dazzling insights. The reader is left to think about how far ignorance of wrongdoing can be accepted as a defense, and how hard it is to keep working with someone when you can't forgive them.

A very good story, but it didn't move me to calling it great. 3.5 out of 5.

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