“Touring With The Alien,” by Carolyn Ives Gilman

“Touring With The Alien,” by Carolyn Ives Gilman.

Last year I read Gilman’s “Dark Orbit,” which had a fantastic High Concept (though execution was more debatable). Jumped at the chance to read a new short piece by Gilman. This, too, is a story of an encounter with a fundamentally alien form of being.

Also recommended by Rocket Stack Rank.

Read the story:


7 thoughts on ““Touring With The Alien,” by Carolyn Ives Gilman”

  1. There’s LOTS of very cool ideas in this one.

    Intelligence without sentience.
    Humanity being used as a drug.
    "Interpreters" as a distinct species, neither here nor there.
    Telepathic conduits, who can’t even tell to what extent they’re thinking for themselves.

    Those are some fantastic, chewy premises, and I really enjoyed the story for them. It did a great job setting them up, cluing us in, tying things together, making everything work.

    For all that, the story did feel a bit slow, and lacking in plot. There’s tension all along, but what this story mostly does is present its various interesting ideas about what these aliens are and what unusual interactions with humanity they might have, and there’s not much actual *story* there. Avery gradually learns all these things, and then the alien dies, and that feels like an ending — but, an ending to what plot arc, really?

    Not that that’s a huge problem. Plot isn’t the focus here; what the story is aiming at, it does really well. I mostly want to see these cool ideas developed and played with further.

  2. The plot, such as it is, is Avery’s progress to full acceptance of the alien.

    There are a number of elements to this story and even after reading it twice I’m not sure how they all fit together. Besides the slow revelation of the nature of the alien, and Avery getting to know and sympathize with Lionel, there is the depiction of Avery’s character, always running away from her old grief; and the setting, where population, media, and government are suspiciously trying to make sense of the aliens and the translators.

    Maybe the connection is that when Avery wonders if it would be good to be "free of her self — of the regrets of the past and fear of the future", her story illustrates the regrets and other people illustrate the fear.

    I’m not sure what function the constant emphasis on government surveillance serves — maybe just to create an atmosphere of paranoia that puts ordinary fearful humans in a bad light.

    In the end, the alien invasion is irrevocable, but Avery thinks that while living with the aliens will be different than life so far, it won’t be worse, and being as they, too, will be greatly changed, she doesn’t feel like there’s an imbalance of power between the two species.

    Avery may be rather uniquely suited to have a sympathetic reaction to the aliens because of her habitual feeling of being detached from ordinary life. That would help her consider the human condition from a bit of a distance, aided by her empathy with Lionel, the other outsider.

    But also, she has transferred a strong parental feeling to the alien. She thinks, if you shared a mind that intimately with another being you’d love them, and she strongly wants that kind of close love.

    I’m not sure I like the idea of sharing my brain with another organism but by the end of the story Avery had just about made me see why it came to seem reasonable to her.

  3. By the end of the story I still don’t feel like I understand much about intelligence without consciousness, and I don’t see how the aliens can be "smart" without the ability to plan and imagine. I don’t really agree with Lionel’s view that consciousness is pleasurable and useless. But I get some glimpses of what simpler forms of life without consciousness might be like. It’s fun to ponder.

    1. I agree that the story didn’t go very far beyond positing the concept. I kind of wish it had. But, on the other hand, as you say, it certainly leaves a lot of food for thought 🙂

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