Weeding Womb

In Fading Suns and Dying Moons

In Fading Suns and Dying Moons by John Varley. Anthologists Cramer and Hartwell are two for two so far. In their opening blurb for this story, they give away the end. Normally I'd be ticked off, but the end in question matches Arthur C. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God", which itself borrowed from old legends about the Purpose of Man and what would happen when someone managed to fufill that purpose.

(Spoilers ahoy! Close your eyes or something.)

"The Nine Billion Names of God" is a story which, in my mind, only needs to be written once. Clarke did it, good for him, let's move on. While Clarke added a modern spin to an old eschaton legend - "modern spin to old legend" being one of the mainstays of SF - this just ads a multidimensional and butterfly-collecting entity to the mix. The end is even really similar to Clarke's work, the only difference being that where Clarke's God "turned off the lights" starting with the stars, the Varley aliens start with the planets and the sun. (A strange thing - since the author is writing this after the fact, on a planet where the sun just vanished, how'd he live long enough to write 20 pages of text? Surely the greenhouse effect wouldn't let you last that long. And don't talk to me about a heater - when it's 250 below zero outside, your wood stove ain't gonna do jack.)

Certainly, the references to Flatland to explain multidimensional physics by analogy were cute, if nothing particularly new. However, subtle points were missed that any reader of my math rants (cough cough) would catch. Namely, a human in the story does something wrong and gets "mirrored" as punishment, so his left is his right and his right is his left. He's also made insane by the aliens, who apparently read a bit of HP Lovecraft in addition to Flatland. Yet life goes on - a later update mentions that he's being researched by military scientists yet there's no reports that he's starving to death. (Because amino acids and other chemicals we need exhibit chirality, if we were mirrored we wouldn't gain nutrition from normal food anymore. We'd need mirror food.)

(If Flatland sounds familiar to you videogamer types, there's a nod to it in Deus Ex. Anna Navarre's kill-phrase is "Flatlander Woman" - the women in Flatland being notoriously deadly, much as Navarre was until the main character managed to bump her off.)

Er, tons of digressions. Okay, plot in brief: Aliens created the Earth, maybe. Aliens come back and collect all the butterflies by hand. Aliens talk about Flatland a lot. Aliens occasionally mirror or turn inside out anyone who tries to hurt a butterfly or moth. Aliens mention something about stuff they're collecting from other planets. Aliens also mention that they admire creatures that thrive on cold planets. They talk about subterranean Mercury, the gas giants, and so on. At the end of the story the author realizes they didn't mention Pluto. Though I can't make the connection, apparently because they like the cold but didn't mention Pluto they destroy or otherwise make the Moon, the other planets, and finally the Sun vanish. It gets cold. Author starts writing. The end. No, I don't get it either.

The Archon

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