a science fiction story by Michael Fowler
When we think of science fiction, do we think of aliens and stars and futuristic societies? Those all have a place in the genre, along with many other common scenes and tropes.
However, the short story below follows a long and illustrious history of science fiction set in an almost-familiar world, but rather than getting lost in the wonder and what-if, using the opportunity to explore the human condition and philosophical discussions.
This, I think, adds a new layer to the genre, and opens wide the door of introspective thinking to people who may otherwise miss out. Continue reading after the photo, and don’t forget to share and comment!
by Michael Fowler
It was a world slightly less hospitable than Kent’s home of Earth. Though smaller, its gravity was greater; his feet and head felt weighted. The air was thinner and less invigorating; the sun a blot larger, and the moon a sliver smaller. A thin layer of mist rising from an unknown origin tended to dim the stars at night. There were pleasing vistas to behold, some as fine as home’s, but nondescript hills, unremarkable plains, and uninviting streams rendered humdrum a vast unpopulated landscape.
To walk in the woods was to brush against the beguiling Hiya vine, the looping tentacles of which gave one the unmistakable impression of being tapped on the shoulder by a tall stranger; the enticing fruit of the Slunk tree was too pulpy: the slangy names were of recent vintage. Crops would grow here, but required extra time and nurturing. The fish and game, while largely edible, tasted bland and required hard chewing. Heavy equipment and construction material would arrive later, but to build towns and cities as accommodating as those he had abandoned would take months or years.
Yet the planet, tentatively named Second by Kent’s people, was now a likely new home, for both his people and the Sil, whose world, like his, was doomed. While Earth was made desolate by a fading sun, the Sil’s planet lay in the path of a predictable but unavoidable onslaught of asteroids. Kent’s exploratory vessel and that of the Sil had arrived almost simultaneously, each bearing a team of fifty to scout out a replacement residence. By a treaty of long standing, the two peoples cooperated with each other, and most of the Sil on the mission, including Trt, spoke Kent’s language.
Trt’s official functions were as liaison officer and translator for the Sil. He was Kent’s counterpart and newfound friend. Trt told Kent that Second, as the Sil too had taken to referring to the host planet, was quite like his ancestral home when one disregarded the doomsday asteroids. And Kent mentioned the close similarity that Second held with Earth, discounting the darkening sun. Nevertheless, both took stock of the planet’s obvious shortcomings, each adhering to his individual viewpoint.
It developed that while Second was tolerable for Kent’s folk, it was tragically inapt for the Sil, who regarded any drawbacks, no matter how slight, as anathemas. Second, said Trt, resembled a nice house with a fly buzzing in every room, or more realistically, with an armed assassin lurking behind every curtain. Trt discerned no distinction between houseflies and assassins. He confessed to not knowing how long he could survive here, where conditions would be livable if only they were a little improved, even though they were by no means life-threatening in the near term. Trt also affirmed that his frame of mind was representative of all the Sil. He didn’t sound sad about this, only matter-of-fact. In explanation he cited the influential Silian thinker Prth, whose pessimistic ideas had enthralled him, as they had all his kind.
“You must understand,” he told Kent, “that Prth speaks straight to our hearts when he says--and I paraphrase him so as not to misquote him--that if life were the least bit harder, all conscious beings would commit suicide. He takes his line of thought from the ancient philosopher Schopenhauer of your Earth, whom he read in the original German. I was with him at university not long ago, before he became famous, and together we studied the European languages, old and modern, as well as the current American dialect. But German is his favorite tongue, and the dour Schopenhauer his favorite of Earth’s thinkers.”
Kent heaved a deep breath of fresh if somewhat insubstantial air. “You would become suicidal in this fairly decent place?” he queried his companion. They were sharing a morning cup of hot tea outdoors. Both of them, but particularly Trt, regretted the lack of sugar and cream.
“If I remained here, yes,” said Trt. “And so in time would all the Sil, though we acknowledge that the locale isn’t noxious by most measures, and certainly not as hazardous as being rained on by crushing space rocks. But we are those of whom the lucid Prth speaks. This place, though favorable to life in general, is fatally off-putting for us. The single, almost redeeming feature is the quiet. Nothing makes a sound here.”
Every arrival on Second had remarked the stillness. Cloudbursts occurred without thunder; no animals bayed at night and the birds chirped as if muted. The wind passed silently through the trees; the insects, though there were several pesky species, did not buzz or whirr. It was as if every sound were muffled by an invisible snowfall. The Sil, who were particularly sensitive to noise, loved this peacefulness, which surpassed even the cherished silence of home.
“We too feel the faults of Second,” observed Kent. “In the six weeks we have been here, we have had two serious accidents related to unfamiliar surroundings, and one suicide, though I believe the suicide may have been prompted by a romantic affair. Still, we’re willing to grind it out. It isn’t easy for us to let go of existence. Though a few of us want to keep looking, our commander has already sent word home to bring our people here, and our transport craft are expected within days. They’ll bring enough material and equipment to start improving Second straight away. In time, with a clearer sky and cleaner waterways and more succulent fruit, the site might meet your needs.”
“Perhaps,” conceded a somber Trt. “But while you have had one suicide and two accidents among your fifty passengers so far, we Sil have had four suicides, perhaps none due to love, and five bad accidents that turned fatal--all, I don’t doubt, due to disgust with this not-quite-felicitous orb. My people are all too willing to kill ourselves under duress; it’s our preferred way of handling such feelings. The looming asteroid collisions, as you may imagine, have wreaked havoc on us before a single one has occurred. Unless we find a comfortable new home quickly, we will likely self-terminate.”
Trt struggled to look less than devastated. “But our transport vessels are on hold for a while longer,” he continued with an air of hope. “Our commander has heard from the Scts, a civilized folk welcoming us to their world only a few weeks’ journey from here. They say there is plenty of room and resources for all us Sil, especially since our population is not expected to grow and has been static in the low hundreds of thousands throughout our history. The invitation, I understand, extends to your millions as well, should you have a change of heart and decide to join us. It sounds promising and our vessel leaves tomorrow for a look-see. I’ll go along.”
They were joined for tea by Trt’s sister Ada, a medical doctor. Though largely silent, she impressed Kent greatly. She was graceful and dignified like Trt, and the siblings were noticeably taller than most Sil, who tended to be hunched and short. She also exuded a resolve and thirst for life apparently lacking in her brother. She greeted the two others with a demure smile.
“With your consent,” Kent said to Trt, “our Captain Lewis will accompany you. “He will serve at your command but report back to us his findings on the Scts’ home.”
“I’ll stay behind,” Ada announced. “I have reports to conclude on the unsuitability of Second as a home. I wish the best for your voyage and for us, brother.”
That evening Kent dined with Trt’s perplexed commander, who spoke his language breathlessly but with precision, to become better acquainted, and to discuss future cooperation between Kent’s people and the Sil on the planet the Sil shared with the Scts.
“Trt tells me,” the commander said in an aside, “that you have been discussing the thinker Prth, and the question arose as to why prospects on Second, somewhat harsher for both of us than our former lives at home, would drive we Sil to commit suicide, but not you, or you not so drastically as us.”
The commander expressed his own theory in a strained voice: “There is a nervousness and irritability hardwired in people, yours and mine,” he said, “inherited from lower lifeforms. But we Sil are edgier, and more irritable than you, so that we require less provocation to terminate life, which is only a lengthy process of dying in any event. I suspect our earliest forbears had a rougher time of it than yours, though I admit I lack the historical knowledge to justify this conclusion.”
Unnervingly, and perhaps unconsciously, the commander spun the cylinder of an antique pistol as he spoke, and two or three times held the barrel to his temple and pulled the trigger. Fortunately, no shot blasted the silence. “I haven’t traveled to Earth,” he went on, “but it’s well documented that your home planet is a close duplicate of ours, and certainly you and I resemble each other, though I have far the handsomer mustache. How I wish that Earth had remained safe for your people and mine. Perhaps we Sil would now be welcome to locate there and live contentedly among you.” With a grim smile the commander again handled the revolver, with the same lucky result.
Feeling forced to reply, Kent said, “If I ask myself, why are we not the same regarding suicide, I must add two tenets to your hypothesis: First there is our proscription against self-slaughter, as proclaimed by our greatest poet, and second our commandment not to kill, as taught in our religion. That doesn’t grant us much leeway.”
The commander emitted a dry laugh. “I guess you’ll have to stick it out, if you can,” he said. “But you’re right, for us it’s much easier. Suicide is honorable under every circumstance, and were I to ask a fellow Sil to kill me, he would do so without hesitation, even if I were not his commander.”
“You might try this as an antidote to Prth,” said Kent before his dining partner thought once more of playing pistol roulette. He placed a paperback he had brought along on the table. “It’s Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The author is quite a celebrant of life.”
“Some sort of gardener, is he?” asked the commander, scarcely glancing at the book. “I don’t think I know the name. But then many of your writers are unknown to me. If time permits I’ll give it a look.”
With the riddle of self-termination still on their minds, the two parted early so that the overwrought commander could try to sleep before his departure the next day. Kent felt relieved to get away. Still apprehensive, he was on hand for the leave-taking of the Sil’s scouting team, as were all his people. Along with Ada, he watched the Sil’s ship hover like a huge metallic bird in the sky, and then vanish. Kent walked with Ada to her dwelling, one newly fashioned for her along alongside those of his crew. Later that night, the two stood savoring the unsatisfactory stars and skimpy moon that somehow managed to be romantic.
In three weeks, the scouting vehicle was back with all its personnel, including the bodies of two who had committed suicide en route. Word had already reached Second that the mission had failed and that the home of the Scts was untenable. When they were alone, Kent asked the weary and downcast Trt what had gone wrong.
“The lands made available to us by the Scts are overrun by countless barking dogs. There is no conceivable way to decrease their population or their noise.”
Though he had anticipated some such objection, Kent refused to settle for this. “But otherwise?” he asked.
“It gets worse,” said Trt, staring at the ground. “The Scts are fond of setting off firecrackers in the street, and everywhere we go, they go too, exploding firecrackers beside us, ceaselessly.”
Though he sensed the steadfastness of Trt’s viewpoint, Kent refused to be convinced. Seeing this, Trt added, “There is also much singing and drinking of beer in public taverns.”
“But surely the gracious Scts will afford you distance and privacy, if you demand it of them.”
“There’s a hum,” Trt replied to this. “The whole planet chimes with an annoying tone, like a great bell rung in the remote past but continuing to vibrate forever, not piercingly but audibly, despite every earplug and insulation. I don’t think you would hear it, since your Captain Lewis did not perceive it once during our sojourn. But we Sil could never live with such a din, though the planet in most respects is more temperate and lovelier than our natural home. And now we must prepare to leave you.”
“You will live with the Scts after all?” Kent asked.
“We return home to perish with our people in the asteroid disaster there, now due to begin in less than a month. Our leadership has decreed this is the best solution, and I agree. Don’t mourn us, and yes, Ada may stay with you if she wishes. It’s entirely her decision.”
Two days later, Kent and Ada watched the Sil’s vessel depart, bearing her brother and everything the Sil had brought with them to Second. She alone and her few possessions remained behind. Attempts to dissuade Trt and his harried commander from this fateful step had proved unavailing.
“It isn’t noise, or the minimal hardships of Second, that drive us home to die,” Ada told Kent. “Those after all are only inconveniences, and any haven for us, even one as secure and pleasant as a mythical nirvana, must to some extent be imperfect. It was the asteroids that destroyed us before a single one struck, and not from fear. Were those monstrous fragments never to appear for some reason, but we went on living in terror of them, we would survive, or some of us would. Life to us isn’t worth the discomfort of leaving our beloved home, and that’s what finishes us.”
Kent knew that she expressed the Sil’s will, and judged the strength she mastered to resist its pull. He dedicated himself to consoling her.
Suicide is a touchy subject and for good reason. We view it as tragic, discouraging, heartbreaking, depressing, and as a terrible loss. Are we wrong? I don’t think so. And yet, the story here isn’t so much about that question, but rather accepting that others may not be in the same headspace as ourselves. If we can allow for that, we can go a long way to living more harmoniously.
Tell us what else you would like to see given this treatment. If you were to imagine a similar species to humans, what is one major difference you would give to them? Comment below!
Meet the author:
Michael Fowler is a science fiction and humor writer living in Ohio. His story "The Homecoming" looks at the underside of home, showing how different people react to the loss of their first home, the home of their birth, and go about selecting a second.