Birthday Reviews: Purdom, Richardson

How do aliens react to the possibility of their society being destroyed? How do humans react to the possibility of our world being destroyed? Read these two stories and find out!

Tom Purdom (1936-04-19)

“A Response from EST17” (Asimov’s, April/May 2011)

[This is lightly revised from a sketch of a private review I wrote 2012-08-07. (I thought I had a published review somewhere, but I can’t find it.)]

I have had some contact with Mr. Purdom on a long-defunct discussion board and I like him–he seems like a true gentleman. But this should have nothing to do with his fiction and, leaving that aside, this story was still the best in Dozois’ entire The Year’s Best Science Fiction: 29th Annual Collection. My only real complaint (and it’s probably my fault) was that I found the who, what, and why a little confusing at first.

It turns out that humans have sent an early, slower, private consortium probe to Extra-Solar Terranoid 17 and it’s overtaken by a later, but faster, more governmental probe. So there are two nanotech/smart machine probes of human design in the same system. EST17 is populated by long-lived feathered humanoids whose society is also long-lived, having a machine-determined biological ruler which rules two groups – the “serenes,” who are the traditionalists, and the “Adventurers”, who are the anarchic radicals. The one keeps the society stable – the other keeps it from ossifying. The native government bonds to the government probe while the radicals bond to the private probe and much wackiness ensues.

The overhanging sword of Damocles is “the Message.” Apparently, it’s sort of like a destructive chain-letter. After contact, civilizations tend to give other civilizations the Message, a cornucopia of the super-science of 23 civilizations, which basically produces an instant Spike which catastrophically transforms the recipient society via “Turbulence.” In response, the alien ruler, who is perhaps the least serene of the serenes – though no Adventurer – tries to feel her way into breaking this cycle by utilizing the Adventurer, who naturally goes about things in an unorthodox way.

This is complicated, pure SF, with an actual solution of sorts (if more sociological than physical), and was great fun to read. It makes a new dish of SF out of old ingredients with new flavors which, unlike much current fiction, invites a sympathetic response to all sides.

R. S. Richardson (1902-04-22/1981-11-12)

“N Day” (as by Philip Latham, Astounding, January 1946)

(This may not be the kind of story most people would want to read right now, but hopefully someday…)

This is the author’s first tale and it’s a good one. The only problem with it is the time it takes to make explicit what the reader suspects early on: this is a story about the end of the world. An astronomer is observing the sun on clear days while going through the papers of a deceased colleague on rainy days and the two things dovetail, leading him to the conclusion that the sun is about to go nova. This story works less on the basis of its plot, in which the reader wonders if the scientist is correct or not, and more through its clever take on the way people might react either way. The psychological changes in the Prufrock-like scientist, and the way some of his associates and the general public respond, are astutely depicted and produce an eschatological story which both sticks out from its innumerable companions and does so in what is perhaps a more realistic way with a particularly effective ending.