Old Reviews

First Judgement:

Reviews of "Even The Stars Know" by Tom Dovek and "The Kindness of Strangers" by Nancy kress


As of this writing, NASA, the Russian Academy of Science and SETI are investigating a “strong signal” from a star named HD164595 in the Hercules constellation (1). This star is about 95 light-years from earth.  The principle scientists working on this project are not yet making a conclusion, but Dr. Claudio Maccone claims that there is a 2x10^-4 probability of generating this signal from a known source of background radiation (2). When it comes to my own data I am happy with any a p-value of less than 0.05. Thus, the HD164585 signal be could the first lead in the discovery of an alien civilization. But an advanced civilization, because the energy it would take to produce a wave that could travel 95 light years with that strength would require technology and an energy source we do not currently possess (3).  

This is where the Sci-fi writers enter the picture.  Let the hardcore scientists entertain questions of power sources and the feasibility of moving those distance, the writers need to imagine what an encounter with an advanced race will be like.  Will these aliens be like H.G. Wells’s genocidal conquerors with weak immune systems, will aliens see humans as little more than pests squatting on valuable ore as L. Ron Hubbard imagined, or will our first encounter be with a down on his luck travel writer with a fish in his ear and towel under his arm. I’m hoping for the last scenario, even with the Vogons, because I'm unashamed about not finishing the first two books.  I did however recently read a story of humanities' first contact with an alien species.  The story is titled “Even the Stars Know”. This very short story is authored by Tim Dovek and is available on Amazon.

“Even the Stars Know” takes place on deep spaceship manned by a crew of five astronauts and a talkative supercomputer named Victer. (One aside, Victer is described as sounding like Ron Perlman.  While I like Ron Perlman, I have not envisioned a distant future when the phrase “sounds like Ron Perlman” is going to carry a lot meeting.)  The deep space shuttle Armstrong is humanities first interstellar journey. The shuttle encounters a large pyramid floating in space. After stopping in front of the pyramid the crew begins their investigations only to be knocked unconscious by a loud noise.  The crew wakes up an hour later some distance from the pyramid.  

Spoilers Follow

When they awaken, they are in their individual bunks and have no memory of what happened during the last hour.  The crew decides to backtrack towards the last known position of the giant pyramid.  It is on this return journey that things start to go bad for the crew.  First the computer, Victor, begins to act funny.  He starts talking about God and calling people by their first names. Then each crew member has a hallucination that exposes some inner psychological scar or repressed desire.  

Most of the hallucinations take the tone of a traditional gothic-style bodice ripper.  The second officer is confronted by a seductive and naked vision of his long-dead lover and his grief manifests when he “looks at the dark V between her thighs”.  He then recognizes that “He’d done things with her that he couldn’t imagine doing anyone else.”  From the context, we have to assume that this is a sexual reference.  He is not described as missing her laugh, her wit, or anything more than her body. Love is only sexual in this story and sex is dangerous in this story. In a later section, a member of the female crew encounters an unknown and aroused man in the sonic shower.  She shortly recognizes that this man has the voice of the computer Victor, but swoons anyway as she “…twine her hands into his hair and direct that glorious mouth where she wants it to be”.  The story paints female sexuality as a source of weakness.

Then after the five hallucinations are completed and one crewmember has committed suicide the aliens appear (Literally). They acknowledge that they were the source of the hallucinations and they are sorry cause they were just attempting to communicate.  They conclude that humanity is not ready for contact because of the flaws that each human suffers.  The alien then explicitly points out what should have been learned from each hallucination.  The aliens leave saying that perhaps they will meet again once the humans have grown up a bit.  

The story is effectively written, does move at a good clip and I was drawn into the story. However, once the story was finished I was left unsatisfied.  The ideas in the story were undeveloped and derivative, and the characters were weak.  The story is as much about being comfortable with one's own weakness as it is about first contact, but it does not address human failings in a meaningful way.  For example, the most complicated character kills himself rather than deal, and since the story ends after all the weakness is explored we don’t get to see much of a character evolution.  Furthermore, there is no real consideration on the part of the characters or the narrator that the aliens might be wrong about humanity.  However, to be fair to the aliens in this story, I found all the characters one-dimensional and the portrayal of women bordered on offensive. Perhaps we can forgive the judgmental aliens this once. These five people were not the best of humanity. If you do read the story, play a thought experiment and reverse the genders of Kimber and Chase.  I wager that you’ll find a male Kimber’s behavior inappropriate and bordering on sexual harassment.  

Finally, the conclusion of the story leaves several things unresolved.  We never find out why there is a lost hour.  We never find out if there is something up with the computer, and he is still talking about God in the end. (It is never good when the computer starts to have an existential crisis.)  I suggest you avoid "Even the Star Know".  But if you're gagging for a story about an isolated spaceship in which people are confronted by hallucinations of their long dead lovers, a creepy kid from their past or fire in space then you might give “Even the Stars Know” a chance or rent "Event Horizon".

However, if you do want a great piece of short fiction about first contact and human weakness I recommend Nancy Kress’s excellent short story “The Kindness of Strangers”. (Available in “The Best of Nancy Kress”).  In Kress’s story, a librarian is having a doomed affair with a married man when the aliens attack earth and start destroying entire cities at a time.  “The Kindness of Strangers” hits all the themes of “Even the Stars Know”: human weakness, personal truth, the need to be loved, and first contract with hyper-powerful judgmental aliens.  But Kress manages to do with just one character what Dovek couldn’t do with five.  Kress’s protagonist presents a mix of shame, need, and fear as the root of human self-deception, and Kress doesn’t need aliens to make that point.  But Kress does have aliens.  When Kress’s aliens confront the main character it is not used as an opportunity to bookend a tale of human weakness, but rather it is used to highlight human strength and dignity in the face of power.  

So if the intelligent aliens we finally meet are the type to stand in judgment of humanity, should we stand for that judgment? Tom Dovek's characters accept it. Nancy Kress's characters resist it.  What would Ron Perlman do?