Weeding Womb


Amnesty by Octavia E. Butler. I thought this was a good story, but then I made a stupid mistake. I started thinking harder.

The plot is simple. The main character, a woman named Noah, is one of the few translators between alien-speak and English. She is tasked by her alien employer (a 'Community', a collective creature with a generally plantlike appearance) with getting some humans ready to become translators themselves.

The world is simpler: Hell. Since the Community invasion (though it was seemingly a very peaceful invasion), it seems that the only career paths in life are genius, translator, and prostitute. (Though I'd like to know who's got the money to buy the prostitutes....)

The translator-wannabes (half a dozen or so) are a diverse bunch, with one exception - almost all of them (save the Moonie-ish alien-as-God cultist and the forgettable moderate-opinion person) hate the aliens. They blame the aliens for the global depression, some even wish to find a way to kill them off. They see the main character as a traitor, despite the fact that they're (for various reasons) becoming 'traitors' themselves. (But then, that could just magnify the hatred that much more.)

The entire story, excepting the setup, is a long discussion/debate between Noah and the would-be hires. It's not bad, as it reveals a lot about Noah and her past and she's initially an interesting character - she was one of the second wave of abductees the aliens took.

The main dents in the story are that it's essentially one giant lump of detailless narration (a style many dislike) and the segment where Noah talks about being 'unabducted' and then reabducted by a very 'Men In Black'-esque government group. Evidently the tortures suffered at their hands were worse than the ones suffered at the hands (er, 'limbs') of the aliens, with whom she had a lab rat/scientist relationship. It's classic human depravity, with a dash of 'this is how we treat lab animals'. Combined with the fact that it's all Noah describing things, I felt a bit like I was getting lectured along with the other characters.

And there I almost left it. A decent story, fine, sit back and rest. But then I started thinking. (Here there be spoilers.)

At the end of the story, Noah reveals something to shut up the wanna-kill-the-aliens people, something which only abductees and the government MIB-types know. When the aliens landed in various deserts seemingly simultaneously, a welcome-to-Earth nuke barrage was sent their way. All the nukes vanished. Exactly half reappeared, still armed but undetonated, in the capital cities of the countries that had fired them.

I took this at face value at first: a rather bluntly-phrased statement of 'there was a war, we lost in the face of superior technology' (indeed, Noah says almost that). Okay, fine.

But then I realized something. Noah had been talking all about how the aliens, when they first landed, weren't even sure humans were intelligent. They inadvertently killed their first wave of abductees by keeping them awake too long, not feeding them, poisoning them, throttling them, etc. They knew nothing about humanity, or even basic non-collective biology.

Okay, I can understand the whole nuke-vanishing thing. I mean, even an alien's going to understand that a large flaming spear heading for it is a threat. And presumably any race that has mastered space travel and long-range teleportation already cracked the atom and could guess enough of the mechanics render the weapons temporarily inert.

It's the nuke-reappearing thing that gets me. Say you are an alien, and you have no understanding of humanity. You land in the Mojave, and some silo in the middle of, say, Colorado launches a nuke at you. What is it about Washington, D.C. that makes you think "The order to launch came from there!"? You don't know the borders - there could be six countries between D.C. and you. And if you don't understand the concept of borders, wouldn't you assume there was one global control center and act as if the order came from that one site? To use another example from the book, what about China's expansive geography screams that Beijing is the capital?

This then feeds back on the 'they didn't know we were intelligent' comment. Cities could be misconstrued as large anthills, perhaps, but a nuke is an nuke. If they knew enough to neutralize it, they must have known what it was and realized that something on-planet was atomic age or better. The idea that they only put half back indicates that they were sending a crude but effective message - screw with us, we send the other half back, all about to detonate. A threat is communication, and a symbolic threat is complex communication. Complex communication requires (moderately) complex intelligence, or at least the assumption that said intelligence exists.

So we're left with the fact that Noah is the font from which this information flows. She's lying about the aliens not understanding humanity - giving them far more sinister motives - or she's lying about the nukes. Either way, she's lying. Since she tells her employer at the outset that she's out to pave the way for a peace between the races, I doubt lying habitually is the way to do it. Unless she's lying about that, too.

The net effect is that a story that's nothing but a character study and setting description undermines the character completely, since everything we know about her is through her words and not the neutral source of the story. I could spend an hour telling you I'm a single millionaire who adventures in lost Incan temples on the weekend, but if you find out at the end that I'm not, you're likely to assume that everything I said was a lie, even if some of it is true. (For instance, I am single. Line up, ladies.)

But if the character fails, at least that leaves the environment, right? Wrong. My logical faculties triggered, I started seeing bigger holes. How did the Community invasion cause the global depression? They abducted some people and took up some space in the deserts - Why deserts? - but were otherwise hands-off. Since they're entirely cut off from their homeworld (one-way trip), it's not like they're siphoning off resources for the Evil Motherworld. In fact, it's insinuated that they take almost nothing in the way of expendable materials except stuff humans can't get or don't need, anyway.

I can understand some economic troubles, but I can't understand why a depression the likes of which humanity's never seen before would be caused. If the war was a nonviolent one, it's not like people were rebuilding the ruins of their cities. The only answer I can think of? Because it was convenient to the plot. The story wouldn't work without a desperate humanity. But not so desperate that there was a glut of people fighting for jobs with their new masters. Nor so desperate as to be in 'death is better than this' open rebellion.

I understand that this is a short story and can't get bogged down in details, but a few lines about the whys and wherefores would've been appreciated. So would some setting spackle to patch the holes.

The Archon

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