The thing about food is that it can be a substitution for so much more. Consumption is a metaphor of many parts, with teeth all around – erupting, even, from places we don’t expect. In this month’s column, I’m sticking with contemporary short stories – but stories informed by other narratives of consumption, narratives of fantastic and natural horror that have their own subtext, their own ways of eating through and looking at the world around.
This month, I’m looking at alien predation. Eating aliens, and being eaten by them. This does tend away from the more fantastic or fairy tale narratives that I’ve talked about in some previous columns. “Alien” tends to imply science fiction, the coming of another sentient species – and one that hails from other worlds, other civilisations. This isn’t the witch with a candy cottage, sugar syrup in the cauldron and waiting for kids to eat up. This is space ships and invasion, the influence of foreign biology. But major differences aside – and there are major differences, for I’ve always thought that science fiction has markedly different concerns than fantasy (although that’s a whole other series of columns) – genre comes from the same mindset: a human one, and one that deals with human concerns. Thus similarities remain, even once the differences have been stripped off.
One of those similarities is the desire to use story for metaphor. I’ve talked before in these columns about vampires and how their blood-sucking has often been seen as a substitute for sex, and they’ve not exactly been original comments on my part. That’s an argument that has been around for a long time… something creepy to get past the censors, a sensual violation of a kind that can be lit up on a cinema screen without risking too much in the way of fines and obscenity charges. It’s consumption as a substitute for sex, and a fairly well understood one at that.
Recall also the success of natural horror: bands of tourists floating through the crocodile infested waters of the Northern Territory, or splashing in the seaside waters of Amity. This too uses consumption to tell a story, and if that story isn’t concerned with sex so much as survival, it’s still anchored to biology. The creature horror narratives are nasty reminders of our place in the food chain. They assign the label of prey animal instead of lover, instead of top-of-the-heap, the chosen party, or the most successful species – the most dangerous, the one slaughtering all the others. It’s a reminder that brains aren’t all that, and that they don’t protect against teeth and appetite. Splitting the atom has no effect on a rampaging croc, and no great white shark is going to fall under the spell of any swimming Scheherazade, telling stories in her swimming costume to keep her legs from being taken off at the hips.
These aren’t the only examples, of course, but they do illustrate ways that both fantastic horror and natural horror use consumption to tell stories other than the surface one. And that subversion, as it was last month, is where the modern short story really shines.
So: aliens. Aliens and food. Aliens who want to eat us.
It’s arguable that this kind of story belongs in a subset of creature horror. Is there really that much of a difference between being eaten by a crocodile, and being eaten by a reptilian alien that has substantial crocodilian characteristics? This hypothetical alien has a natural origin, suspending disbelief as we are. That’s why it’s science fiction. It’s not some entity raised from a Hellmouth, or cobbled together out of magic and spare parts, electricity and the remnant imaginings of Frankenstein. It is, supposedly, the product of natural selection, having evolved on a difference world with different population pressures, different ecologies and competing species. A rational construct, in other words: a created, imaginary creature, to be sure, but one created according to scientific principles and subject to natural laws.
On that level, there’s probably not that much difference between a carnivorous croc from Australia and one from outer space. Maybe minor variations in tooth size and structure, but that’s not going to matter if they hold and tear and bite… at least not to the one being held and torn and bitten. Which tends to beg the question: why use alien creatures at all? There are plenty of hungry beasties on Earth which could do the job quite nicely, and actually do so in any number of stories.
The answer is, of course, substitution. It’s using alien creatures to tell a story that can’t be told using animals from this planet. The most obvious difference is sentience. A large enough crocodile could destroy a propeller, but it can’t actually pilot a boat – or a spaceship, for that matter. It lacks technical and social intelligence enough to not only traverse space, but to cooperate with others of its species to do so.
And that’s where the short story comes in. I talked last month about how today’s short SFF story increasingly values diversity, with stories by diverse authors becoming increasingly more common and accessible. Because each of these authors write stories informed by their own experiences, the resulting stories indicate a wider range of these prompting experiences, and one of the ways they illustrate this is in their relationship with, and attitude to, power.
They tend towards the subversive, is what I’m trying to say. Last month I talked about some stories that used consumption to illuminate transformation, particularly in those stories that explored changing gender relationships. This month, I’m looking at how stories can use consumption to explore other power relationships – specifically that of political structures – specifically those that address inclusivity. Using alien societies to examine this sort of structure allows them to act as a metaphor for human debate without getting too bogged down in it (one hopes – there are always those painfully thin efforts that are poor disguises for polemic, but one doesn’t have to go to the trouble of reading them when there’s jam to be made and cupcakes to ice).
“Passage of Earth” by Michael Swanwick, takes the phrase “you are what you eat” to a whole new level. It starts, however, with an illustration of exoticism. It defines the alien through autopsy, essentially. Hank is a pathologist whiling away the night shift with drowning victims and hopes of fishing. Then his ex-wife Evelyn brings him a Worm: an eight foot monstrosity stretched out on a slab and ready for the knife. The Worms are engaged in an invasion of Earth, but one of their ships crash-landed and suddenly science has a number of corpses to play with – and play Hank does. He fillets and dissects and holds open with fishing nylon, opening up this horrible creature, preparing it for the table of his morgue.
The Worm, being a Worm, has its own markedly different relationship with food. It appears to be a mud eater:
“Let me take a look at that beak again. . . . Hah. See how the muscles are connected? The beak relaxes open, aaand—let’s take a look at the other end—so does the anus. So this beast crawls through the mud, mouth wide open, and the mud passes through it unhindered.”
There’s also three stomachs, so one assumes that minerals are filtered out therein in order to feed the truly massive brain. But whatever Hank’s comments on the transformative nature of the Worm’s digestive system – “It tastes the mud as it passes, and we can guess that the mud will be in a constant state of transformation, so it experiences the universe more directly than do we” – the horror is not solely in the dissection of this once living, thinking creature.
The horror comes when Hank starts to eat it.
Don’t get the wrong impression here. His autopsy kit doesn’t come with a steak knife or a lobster pick. Hank doesn’t go in for that sort of gluttony. His consumption is automatic; his will undermined by an alien… something. For behind a stinking black gland is a “small white structure, square and hard meshwork, looking like a cross between an instrument chip and a square of Chex cereal”.
It’s this that Hank eats, with his corpse-covered, glove-covered hands – and he’s not the only one. It turns out that this is the invasion, the crashed ship a deliberate ploy to use consumption as a transformative agent. To make Hank a Worm, to eat him up and steal his memories.
And the worst of it is he suspected the Worms would do something like that. Evelyn brings him one of the crashed corpses because she has faith in his ability to be imaginative in strange ways, to see around corners and make assumptions in biology and psychology. This is the science of science fiction, fitting form to thought, cause to effect. Differences in physiology impact on how a creature perceives the world, and how they interact with it. Assessing the massive brain and the chemical conversion chambers attached to the digestive system, Hank makes a decent guess at the nature of the enemy:
“I’d say the Worms are straightforward and accepting—look at how they move blindly ahead—but that their means of changing things are devious, as witness the mass of alembics. That’s going to be their approach to us. Straightforward, yet devious in ways we just don’t get. Then, when they’re done with us, they’ll pass on without a backward glance.”
Just as they do when passing through mud, because food is something to be absorbed and excreted and left behind. But the problem with mud-dwellers excreting digested mud back into the ground again is that eventually other mud-dwellers will swim through that excretion. Like humans pissing in a swimming pool, if you’ll forgive the crudeness of the expression. And what do you know, this particular characteristic mimics the political structure of the species.
The Worms are essentially the Borg of the annelid world. A hive culture, and when one individual dies its remains are eaten by the rest. Its flesh is returned to the species, transformed into new Worms, and its memories absorbed. (“Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own.”) And there’s Hank, beating his ex-wife to death and slowly being taken over, being driven insane, as he literally drives himself to an alien ship to be eaten – only to discover that his sense-images and memory of the drive, of the whole hideous experience, are just that: recollections, because Hank is already being digested. He’s the mud in the machine, and conscious the whole time.
This is a story that clearly cannot be told with a saltwater crocodile. As briefly as one might be aware of ambush, of teeth fastening onto a torso, no-one in the stomach of said crocodile has any remaining awareness. (Because they’ve already been torn into bloody chunks, but you get my drift.) This is a story that can only be told with an alien antagonist, one with a social and biological structure so foreign, so anathema to our own that the method of eating is insult compounded. As a species we are individualists. Compared to the hive mind of the Worm, ideological conflicts as massive as, for instance, the Cold War, are as nothing. They’re the disorganisation of a minor species. Hank simply cannot tell, of course, from a single specimen, if there are racial or sexual differences between members of the Worm population. But here’s the thing: if there are, does it even matter? The collective experiences of each hive member are shared by all the members of that hive. One has to ask: what use is Worm racism then? What use sexism? (If they have sexes.) These questions are all implicit. Swanwick doesn’t explore them in the text, but they’re there bubbling up underneath. Still, there’s an uncomfortable tension between the dystopian and the utopian here; the moral state of monsters.
It’s the Borg story again, writ large over the cosmos. Eating as a means of control, of colonisation, yes – but also eating as a mirror. Star Trek, with its (grossly overused, I can’t stop myself from saying) device of the mirror universe is used to looking at society through a glass darkly. And with its foundation principle of infinite diversity in infinite combinations, the Federation is the resulting political structure of this principle. The Borg, however – they’re infinite diversity in a single (hive) form, but the value of diversity remains. They’ll assimilate nearly everything – and so will the Worms. Because knowledge is valuable, and not just that which serves the periodic table, or propulsion systems. Knowledge is individual as well, personal – and personal is political. Worms will get medical knowledge of their dinner by consuming doctors, yes – but they’ll also get knowledge of unequal pay, and female circumcision, and lynching.
If they colonise.
Because this tactic, the one designed for diversity, is fundamentally flawed, as Evelyn points out. Given the human response to the crash, a response couched in the military industrial complex of an individualised, non-hive species, consumption is limited.
“The Worms crashed it in the Pacific on purpose. They killed hundreds of their own so the bodies would be distributed as widely as possible. They used themselves as bait. They wanted to collect a broad cross-section of humanity.
“Which is ironic, really, because all they’re going to get is doctors, morticians, and academics. Some FBI agents, a few Homeland Security bureaucrats. No retirees, cafeteria ladies, jazz musicians, soccer coaches, or construction workers. Not one Guatemalan nun or Korean noodle chef. But how could they have known? They acted out of perfect ignorance of us and they got what they got.”
And I’m reading this, and maybe it’s the beer and maybe I’m just used to talking about subversion in this column but it’s hard not to see this as a commentary on the state of the SFF short story today. Food and horror is so dependent on context, on the sub rosa presentation of power, that it’s now something I expect to see kept behind teeth and tongue and gullet.
Possibly the ongoing conversation at the moment in SFF is diversity. Who gets published more, who gets reviewed more. Who ends up on “Best of” lists. Look at this table of contents. Look at that one. How did that anthology end up so skewed? Our submission guidelines are open to everyone; we’re just taking the best of what we get – says the editor (says the Worm), and you know, I reckon half the time they really do believe in the value of diverse stories but their sampling systems are skewed. Their submission system is set down in one place and it eats up every story fed into it, but the Worms don’t go looking because they seem to trust to cross-sections. The Pacific will offer up Guatemalan nuns and Korean chefs and if it doesn’t, then they don’t exist. Their stories are not the ones to be consumed, and unless the Worms crash land in a number of different places, sent Hank and his ilk out to actively sample more meals, to stuff themselves forcibly down the throats of unsampled populations, then what the Worms get is a small snapshot of a culture only.
Some groups submit stories less than others; some submit earlier than others. This isn’t news. I’m always interested in submission stats… they feed a desire to know and analyse and argue. And while it’s problematic to describe other people as alien or the other, science fiction has a long tradition of trying on different perspectives through alien masks. It’s rooted in the desire to communicate, I think, to talk about issues in what can be a less incendiary way. To slide the conversation in sideways.
It’s this communication that comes through in “Pithing Needle” by E. Catherine Tobler. Communication through consumption again, and it’s no accident that both the stories in this column are from Clarkesworld. They’re very similar in theme, so it’s no surprise that they appeal to the same taste.
“Pithing Needle” is shorter than “Passage of Earth”. Yet the subject is the same: carnivorous aliens, crashed ships, and humans being eaten up by aliens that look like hermit crabs instead of worms. As the narrator says:
“I don’t try to talk to them—they have mouths but use them only to eat. I will not be eaten—slick trigger in slick glove, I fire the way they eat: constant. Sometimes I get there before they do; sometimes I’m firing and a soldier is already inside that shell, digesting. A thousand tongues inside one hungry, angry mouth.”
It’s an understandable fear. Invasion is taking over, and there are enough narratives in the news these days of hostile intruders to make an impression on anyone’s subconscious, not matter one’s truly held political beliefs (of which, it must be said, I know nothing of with regard to the authors featured here). And media today is so concerned with consumption, with catering to particular taste as news is packaged up, that having consumption take literal form in an actual invasion of the really foreign is unsurprising.
Again, though, the alien ship is a hive.
“You never kick a hive because of what may come boiling out, but when the troops place the explosives in an effort to bring the upper levels of the thing down, they only succeed in busting open all the levels that weren’t broken open upon landing. This ship explodes with life; aliens everywhere.”
And again, this is an understandable choice. Not only is the hive an alien construct, at least on a human level, but it has connotations of faceless masses, swarming over borders and bringing changing patterns of consumption. New foods, new languages, new ways of doing things and like locusts they eat up all that is inherently different.
When the nameless narrator of “Pithing Needle” is captured by an alien and taken into the depths of the hive, eaten up and spat back out again, it’s a digestive disgorgement that comes with language, and with the potential ability for communication, for cross-species translation.
“The alien that swallowed me perches on the rim of this room, screaming. Eventually, this alien begins to calm and the scream turns into a chitter turns into a pattern, a pattern that my brain begins to dissect.
Language is patterns, repetitions; pauses and stops and resumptions, and this, this is what the alien is doing. It’s talking to me. Trying to tell me something. I understand none of the words, but the structure becomes familiar.”
When language exchange is insufficient, the alien tries a more direct approach, forcing its needle into the base of a brain in a sort of telepathic exchange of colour and sensation. Of different stories, of confinement and space, of imprisonment and freedom. And when this suddenly dual-focused individual is ejected from the hive, carrying memories not their own, relationships with other humans begin to change.
“I cannot form the proper words to tell them, about the ship and the cells, and then you are there, cradling my head, asking if I can see you.
I see you, in more colors than ever before. The color that glosses your rain-wet face has no word; the taste of the rain that slides from your nose and into my chittering mouth has no name on this world. What world—this world, but I cannot say where I am. I could reach into the drone that passes over us, could crack open the housing and show you the spill of wires, connective pathways; I could turn these colors and tastepaths into a map, could pull you inside this space and show you, but you would only ever know a fraction–a fragment, a–”
This is consumption as transformation again, the opening up of perception, of empathy, that comes from the understanding of another thinking creature. Even if that creature is a predator, even if its primary desire is to eat, to consume – and even if you’re the dinner – this is a form of knowledge without which one is lesser. I am not, I am not, please note, arguing that diversity precludes disagreement – often fundamental and, in the case of these two stories, violent.
But this is science fiction, and I am a scientist at heart. And no knowledge is wasted. No knowledge is useless.
And no stories are either.