“Terra Nullius,” by Hanuš Seiner

“Terra Nullius,” by Hanuš Seiner. Translated by Julie Nováková.
Short story. Published in Strange Horizons, March 20th 2017.

It’s Charles Payseur’s review of the piece that I found particularly intriguing, right from the premise:

This is a beautiful and rather haunting story that follows a dramatic confrontation, but only along its peripheral. The story explores the vast worlds inside of alien beings, where one human is diving over and over again to try and find the key to human survival in the face of an ever-adapting enemy. It’s a story of alien invasion, and a sort of invasion that humanity cannot hold out forever against, these aliens capable of taking their experiences and creating a sort of illusory world for their next generation to adapt safe and better, to learn how better to conquer and spread.

Christos Antonaros, at Tangent Online, writes:

An original idea, which dips the reader into the bottom of a river, and even deeper into the terrifying illusions created inside of the guts of five alien behemoths. The setting and structure of the story are attention-grabbing from the very first paragraphs. (…) At some points, especially during sections of dialog, the plot becomes confusing, but the author then gives the reader a plot-twisting conclusion that resolves any questions.

A.C. Wise, in her column for Apex, writes:

Seiner offers up a truly alien mode of being, as well as learning and communication. The story calls into question the line between reality and illusion, at times echoing the unanchored feeling of exploring a new world – neither the characters nor the reader are fully grounded, drifting and making their way through the landscape together.

Rocket Stack Rank is less impressed. The full review (spoilers!) gives the story two stars, saying “The concept is pretty cool,” but “The execution of that idea is awful, and the whole story is a confused mess.”

I’ll close with a return to Payseur’s comments, this time on the themes and resonance of the story:

It’s a hitting story about trying to break this echo-chamber of conditioned abuse that just prepares people for war. (…) What happens when people are so trained and programed just for conflict, just to believe that their illusion is real? There’s a lot going on in the story and it’s nicely built to show the depth of these illusions, how it gets into everything. (…) It’s a story that really dives into illusions and isolation and how the young and conditioned by the older generations. It’s chilling and yet not without a spark of hope. An amazing read!

What did you think? Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments!

13 thoughts on ““Terra Nullius,” by Hanuš Seiner”

  1. There’s some pretty fantastic stuff going on in this one. The journeys into the simulacrums are really eerie – the impossible detail, produced by impossible means.

    I really like the idea of needing to commandeer the simulated humans themselves. It’s deeply wrong, but well-justified in the story itself.

    And, well. “Inertial intelligence.” The idea that your knowledge and abilities are fully formed within an isolated bubble… wow, that strikes close to home. It feels very, very familiar…

    I’m not sure I’ve grokked everything that goes on. I think the fighting has “descended” a level, that now it’s the simulated humans fighting within the simulacra? Obviously one of the soldiers is the same simulated woman the narrator finds, and I think the idea of recursion is introduced in the final section, but it’s still unclear to me how they got from here to there. If their one mission was “be friendly to the young ones,” they seem to have done very poorly at it, very fast.

  2. So, here’s a question:

    Why don’t they just blow up the simulacra?

    Even if they do manage to “convert” the young ones, that knowledge doesn’t seem to propagate very far. The mature conquerors themselves will… do what, really? Eventually they’ll go and affect other, new simulacra, but… if they don’t “convert” the majority of simulacra, it’s hard to see that as much of a propagation.

    Trying to invade other people’s formative bubbles is a striking idea, but I’m not sure it actually makes sense when you look at it…

    1. I think, though, that if they can move growth in this one generation toward something other than war–toward cooperation, toward peaceful coexistence–that they hope to nudge the conflict from the slow inevitable loss that humanity is expecting and toward something else. I mean, I think they try to explain that point, that it’s not like humanity is losing tomorrow, so the point here is really to try and make some shifts to the aliens so that this balance will shift. That it will relieve some of the pressure so that either the other simulacra can be infiltrated as well or humanity will be better able to fight those that remain hostile. It doesn’t seem like an instant fix type of solution, but one that they need to work because the alternative is just destruction.

      1. I basically agree; that’s certainly what the story’s saying, pretty much explicitly.
        I’m just wondering if it stands up to consideration. There are a bunch of simulacra. Let’s say there are ten simulacra that teach juveniles “kill humans.” Let’s say the humans manage to flip half of those, so now half of juveniles’ training is “kill humans” and half is “humans are awesome.”

        …does that keep them from killing humans? Their memories, their experience, the things they bring back to the next generation of simulacra — are they going to be any better than what’s already there?

        I feel like the answer is “only if you manage to flip an overwhelming number of simulacra,” and if you can do that, it miiiight’ve been easier to just blow them up.

        (This is kind of nitpicky, because I don’t think the story needs to stand up to that kind of analysis, and I’m clearly making some assumptions here. You could also argue that infiltrating simulacra one by one is safer and will be more effective than attacking them by force. Hmmm.)

  3. The biggest problem with this story isn’t the logic (or lack thereof). It’s the way the pieces don’t really jell into a coherent whole. The author got a cool idea, wrote up some scenes to illustrate it. Fattened it up with a lot of descriptive text, and then called it a story. The narrator’s journey is just a tale; the individual steps aren’t important to the conclusion. Most of the words in this piece don’t contribute to the plot.

    Translated stories are all the rage now, but if this hadn’t been a translation, I doubt it could have got published most places.

    1. Oh, I disagree most heartily…

      For starters: I’m fine with a short story being plotless. Plot is one thing a short story can do, but far from the only one. Some of the best short stories build up an idea, a concept, a theme, or sometimes just portray a single moment or situation. That’s one of the strengths of the format — a short story can be a snapshot, in a way that would be impossible at longer length.

      Secondly, I don’t feel this is jumbled or incoherent at all. The primary scenes — the narrator exploring the simulacra — are arranged in a clear progression, which escalates from scene to scene.
      I think it’s masterfully done:
      (1) Establishes the biological premise — you don’t even understand yet that this is a deliberate simulation; the narrator constantly points out the biology, and describes the similarities as tricks of the mind, “obvious” illusions. Stars that are internal glowing pustules — weird, but OK.
      (2) The burning village drives the premise home. This isn’t random similarity, this is a constructed reality. It also drives home the invasion, the war, as a fundamental backdrop. OK, we’ve got the premise.
      (3-5) are where the simulacra are simulating life, with increasing complexity. The abandoned command room emulates human surroundings, while also being entirely sterile and nonsensical; then we see the simulation of human life; finally, we see the recursive simulation of the entire ecosystem.
      This really isn’t “random scenes strung together”; this is a clear progression of both what the conquerors are capable of, of what the humans can interfere with, and what all of this signifies.

      And twinned with the exploration — which would be nothing but worldbuilding on its own — we have the “human” soldiers, and our understanding of them progresses as well. First we take them at face value; gradually we understand what their purpose is meant to be, and how they mean to address the conquerors; finally we see them as part of an endless, hopeless cycle of isolation.

      I think that’s quite an impressive structure, and handled effectively and concisely! I do think it gets confusing, but the theme holds it together well enough for me to feel like I can fill in the gaps myself.

      1. Rich Horton agrees with you about plot, but, for me, plot is essential–even in a short story. I did see the progression you’re talking about, but since it didn’t happen in service to a plot, it only annoyed me. It’s bad when I have to ask myself “why is the author telling me this?”

        However, I’m aware that some “stories” really are just exercises in world building, and that some people are okay with that. I used to give anything with serious plot problems 2 stars at most, but I’ve changed my rules simply because I was rating too many things 2 stars. But 3 is as far as I can go for an otherwise-pleasant, plotless story.

        1. I can understand that. I do love a good plot! But, I’ll take “here is a fascinating idea for an alien culture” over “two dudes chase a mcguffin for thirty pages” any day. And “I need a plot here because otherwise how will you see my cool ideas” can seriously backfire, with the actual interesting stuff winding up being overwhelmed by the “action.”

          Just for an extreme example of “no plot, brilliant theme,” where do you stand on Borges’ “The Library of Babel”?

          1. Haven’t read that one, but I hated “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

            Note, however, that very few opt for the pure-worldbuilding story (aka “the fake Wikipedia article.”) They at least include characters who scurry around doing something. The result is more of a travelogue. Anyway, I’ll bet you wouldn’t like fake Wikipedia articles much, unless they were played for laughs. 🙂

          2. I wouldn’t write ’em off too quickly. I’ve gone as far as to play in Lexicon games, and those can be fantastic.

            (And, well, there’s always Wikihistory…)

            I do think there’s a difference, though, between “worldbuilding story” and “fake wiki essay” (or “page out of an RPG sourcebook” :-/). A story gives you a viewpoint character; a narrative voice. It lets you get in theme and emotion, not just matter-of-fact detail. The way that I think of it, a good story will have progression, movement, flow — it just might be emotional and thematic, instead of being primarily on the surface, in the literal action taking place.

            (And do give “Library of Babel” a try! It’s fantastic, and an absolute classic.)

          3. Okay, I read “La Biblioteca de Babel” by Borges. It’s mildly entertaining, but it’s not a story at all. Something he never mentions is that a library of books which contained every possible combination of letters and punctuation would be a library that contained zero information. Of course that’s not the point he’s trying to make. 🙂

            Anyway, something can be a good work but still be a poor story. In cases like that, I make a point of not reviewing them for RSR unless I feel they mislead the reader.

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