Weeding Womb

The Hydrogen Wall

The Hydrogen Wall by Gregory Benford. Note to self: If the anthologist says something like "It often seems to amuse (the writer) to portray something politically offensive, perhaps to evoke outrage and argument, or perhaps to weed out those who aren't there for the hard SF.", skip the story.

Admittedly, I questioned the logic of the phrase 'politically offensive', since it seems that the Liberal Ideal is politically offensive to a conservative, and the Conservative Ideal is equally offensive to a liberal. And both ideals are offensive to innumerable other groups. Saying something is 'politically offensive' without elaboration is almost identical to saying something exists.

However, accuracy aside, the anthologists (my regular victims Hartwell and Cramer) are right this time. Now, perhaps I'm a soft-skinned simpering twit, but I don't read to be offended. And I find that anything political tends to either drag down the story or force the writer into nasty corners. As an example, Stephen Baxter's 'The Great Game', a good story until two peripheral characters take center stage.

(Digression time: A mini-review of 'The Great Game'.)

When they do, they have an argument (via hologram-link doodad) stripping bare the machinations and puppetry of those who really control the empire. In front a bunch of peons and two soldiers of the empire. I could see trying times when need-to-know goes out the window, but they weren't even on the same damn planet as the peons and soldiers, who didn't need to know what was going on anyway. Neither one stops to say "Maybe we should continue this discussion elsewhere." or hit the 30th century equivalent of a 'hold' button or anything of the sort.

While I appreciate that a peon or grunt can't do much to damage an empire, it strikes me that if you're running a massive galaxy-spanning conspiracy, telling it to just anyone without carefully checking their propensity for blabbing is probably a very bad idea.

So, the story ground to an illogical halt to go into a digression that ultimately said "War is bad, and people in power lie about their reasons for starting them." Er, thanks for turning my reading experience into 1/3 of the weblogs in existence. Now write one about how war is great and glorious and holy and get another 1/3 of the blogs, okay?

(End digression.)

Perhaps the offensiveness in 'The Hydrogen Wall' is supposed to be in the amount of sex in the story, which isn't much. Perhaps it's due to the nonhuman sex, which isn't much. What could it be, then?

The rape scene? Maybe.

The fact that the rapist and victim later have something that includes the most cliched rapist-to-victim line in the history of man? That might be it.

In all fairness, though, it could also be the implication that jocks get all the easy sex. That would inflame the entire 'geeky lonely male' contingent of SF fans.

But, let me start at the beginning. Our intrepid cast is headed by Ruth Angle, an Earth-born woman who's just become a 'translator' in the lunar libraries. In reality, she's (as is slowly revealed over the span of the story) just bartering with alien AIs. (Evidently the capstone of SETI was finding that various alien cultures have made AIs and broadcast the plans for them to the universe. Reverse-engineering is presumably out, so humanity just built the things and proceeded to try negotiating, coaxing, and cajoling information out of them.)

Two other new translators are Catkejen, Ruth's female free-spirited new roommate from a Ganymedan colony, and Geoffrey, who hails from a high-gravity orbital and has a habit of pulling feats of strength and skill in the relatively weak lunar gravity. Incidentally, this grated on me a bit when he started it, especially when I realized it was through benefit of his place of birth, not any particular obsession with keeping fit. Seems like a lazy way out. It would be like me going to a grade school and impressing children with my grasp of long division.

The other main character is Siloh, a 'Nought'. Siloh runs the place, as its lack of sex organs/drive apparently makes it ideally suited for both management and academia. I should have known that sex would be a big deal, given that there's a genetically-modified gender-neutral subspecies of humans in the story. Since short stories are by their nature very compact, such a plot point couldn't possibly be flavoring. (Though I'd like it if it was. You know, something just to throw the reader off, remind them that the future's just a little more complex than they think.)

Siloh's agenda is simple - to use whatever information can be extracted from the AIs to deliver humanity from the disaster du jour, a field of killer charged particles (or something) the solar system is moving into. More on that later. Rather annoying is the habit to switch from neutral to male pronouns for Siloh, once even over the span of a paragraph. Even more annoying because the character's regular arguments with Ruth seemed almost catty to me, which would imply female pronouns. Siloh's one of the few Noughts who keeps some hair, as well. Baldness is - for us, anyway - only acceptable amongst males, so the whole hair thing also implies femininity, even if none is present.

The other main character is the Sagittarius Architecture, the biggest, most complex, and cagiest of the AIs.

A note on the particle field o' death: The movement of this field seems alternately painfully slow and intensely fast; at one point in the story, Ganymede is lost, apparently so quickly that no one expected it. No evacuation, no refugees, no nothing. Even recent transplant Catkejen didn't seem to expect it, what with her whole family still there and her supposed shock and grief after hearing that they're all dead. (She's informed off-camera, so we're informed about the initial shock and only experience a small bit of the aftermath.) Yet the rest of the Jupiter system's colonists survive until the story's end, when they build the gizmo that saves humanity. Er, pardon?

Another mild annoyance is the use of a Wingding-style font to represent unfiltered alien speech. While the sweeping curls and filigree that's normally used for borders made an excellent pseudo-language, the sailing ships and hourglasses mixed in are jarring. (This could be a typesetter glitch, I admit.) Imagine your favorite alien-speech scene of film or TV, except with every 10th word replaced with a random exclamation of "BOAT!" or "EIGHT-BALL!" or something of the sort.

I'm getting rather deep on the annoyances, aren't I? Well, hold on, there's more. I once complained about this writer's 'The Voice' as part of my original book review, because it cribbed its plot from Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. Well, this one is more original but cribs a few minor plot elements from another classic, Ender's Game. To wit:

Neophyte becomes junior member in something meant to save the world.
Neophyte does better than anyone else.
Neophyte saves the world.
Neophyte, in saving the world, is betrayed by his/her superiors, who withheld critical information to improve the neophyte's performance.
Alien uses neophyte as puppet as well, partly for its own survival/propagation.

Only that was kids and this is adults, so the violence of Ender's Battle School days has been replaced with sex. (This is perhaps the least intentional and most amusing commentary in the story. Just like films, extreme violence is okay for kids, but sex is reserved for the adults.)

Well, since I've spoiled the plot, might as well give you the full treatment.

Ruth does better at getting the Sagittarius Architecture to chat than any human has in centuries. Somehow it sees the problem humanity's caught in and provides tidbits about how to overcome it.

Meanwhile, Ganymede dies and the only Ruth/Catkejen interaction on this front is when Ruth goes to console her roomie and finds Geoffrey's already consoling her, only his penis/vagina method of support is something Ruth's neither considered nor could do, given her lack of the needed hardware. Geoff and Cat's physical relationship is a surprise to Ruth, which the story implies Ruth missed because of her busy schedule pulling information out of the Architecture. But a new theory evolves soon enough. Wait a few paragraphs and you'll learn it.

(Were I Geoff, I'd pass on the grief sex. Catkejen's rutting noises are described as a mix of grief and ecstasy. Personally, I don't think I would be crazy enough to make a move on my girlfriend when she was crying over losing her parents to a hail of electrons or something. Hell, I don't think I'd be able to get it up even if she wanted it. I mean, can you imagine attempting to stay aroused while your partner was plainly thinking about her parents and other family members?)

After dropping countless hints, the Architecture offers to provide a detailed plan for getting humans out of the fix entirely. Only there's a catch. It wants to have sex with Ruth. Well, not quite sex, since it's an AI and lacks the male hardware as much as Ruth does. More of getting into her skull through her neural implants and having a field day on her nervous system and cerebral cortex. Mmm, sexy. There's one good scene from this, where Siloh orders Ruth to go bump uglies with the AI and Ruth refuses. When Siloh's "Close your eyes and think of England Earth" argument fails, the two get into a fight in which Ruth neatly throws Siloh's lack of sex drive (and attractiveness) back at it.

Siloh gets its revenge though, as it presumably second-guesses the AI's next move and doesn't tell Ruth. Namely, the AI cracks whatever protection is on Ruth's cybernetic neural interface rig and mind-rapes her. While it's in her skull having its way with her, it implants the needed info on creating a solar-system-wide particle shield using Jupiter's heavily electric atmosphere as a power source, then slinks back into its casing to presumably smoke the AI equivalent of a cigarette.

Well, that was fun. (For the record, she sort of enjoyed it, but didn't. It's rather confusing. And very icky.)

Ruth's first reaction when she squirms out of the AI's grasp? To find Geoffrey and have sex with him. Er, okay, yeah, I'd love to follow up forced cold unfeeling alien sex with hot unfeeling human sex, sure. So comes my theory: Almost all Geoff's onscreen moments are either overtly sexual or flirtatious. He's not a character, he's Grief Sex Incarnate. Avatar of some phallic god in one of the odder polytheistic religions. Parents die? Go bang Geoffrey. Been raped? Go bang Geoffrey. The months between these two events were presumably filled with a throng of young female translators who, in their deeply personal pain, decide to impale themselves on the altar of Geoff.

Er, so, what's left? Oh, yes! "Alien uses neophyte as puppet as well, partly for its own survival/propagation." The AI hands over the plans for a gizmo to turn Jupiter into an arbitrarily-big magic particle field. (So does it encompass Earth? Is it that big? What about when Jupiter's on the far side of the Sun from Earth? Maybe these questions were answered, but the alien rape scene was just getting to me.)

But, the plans have got a few easter eggs hidden within. As a side benefit, Jupiter's been turned into a planet-sized rebroadcaster of the Sagittarius Architecture's AI coding, and you can't turn off one feature without turning off the other. (So Ruth's brain/cybernetic rig is complex enough to hold a whole AI, the most complex AI in the universe, plus the hardware plans it's built into? WTF?)

Oh, and now the finale. Ruth, after much moping about, confronts the AI. I quote the AI itself: "We render thanks. We gather it is traditional among you to compliment one's partner, and particularly a lady... afterward. We became something new from that moment."

Ruth is angry, yet proud. Evidently it's okay to be violated if you're a really good lay. Still, she says she didn't want to have sex. The AI's response? "We do not recognize that party (her conscious mind) alone. We recognize all of you equally. All your signals, we do receive." Which sounds to me a lot like, "You said no, but I know you wanted it."

The rest of the story's basically the two settling into a suspicious, but pleasant, relationship for the foreseeable future. Rather like one of those disturbing hentai rape games and porn films Something Awful reviews, where the only way to make a girl love you is to tear her underwear off and brutally sodomize her.

Still, I fear that Mr. Hartwell and Ms. Cramer are right, and this unpleasant story is just to spook non-dedicated hard SF fans away. But, if that's the case, are the ones left so desperate for their kind of SF that they'll put up with a story full of severe ugliness and characters who exist only to be violated?

If so, then it's not just the characters who are being victimized.

The Archon

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