Weeding Womb

The Waters of Merimbah

The Waters of Merimbah by Tony Ballantyne. A story that starts fine, but progressively alters itself as it goes along. As far as having one's perceptions messed around with, this isn't quite as bad as dropping acid and then going into a hall of mirrors. Not that I'd know.

It starts simply enough - in a small city-state on the edge of the ocean, humans live in a multitiered environment, with each level devoted to one class of people. (At first it seems that logical thinking and intelligence matter, but partway through we learn there's at least two levels of elites above the scientists.)

One of these humans, Buddy Joe, is a convicted rapist. As punishment, he's been drugged into obeying orders (the drug is quite appropriately called Compliance) and sent to the scientists upstairs to be turned into a human guinea pig - they intend to turn him into an alien, one part at a time. Okay so far.

(You know a good story never follows my 'Okay so far.' comments, right?)

Soon after the feet are installed - in a mildly horrific scene in which they fit on like shoes, then dissolve his own feet away without benefit of painkillers - Buddy Joe has a run-in with one of his soon-to-be alien brethren. But that's not the weirdest thing. When he gets back home (a small room with a bed, food and water faucets, a large tv-type affair and that's about all - one level from bottom) he's confronted with a series of video-phone type calls from his family members, all of which recite similar information: When his next dose of Compliance is, and when his next alien transplant is.

This is far stranger than any alien, because each person seems to be waiting to talk to him, like his viewphone calls were queued up or something. Yet this isn't true, because the viewscreen seemingly randomly flips around, showing at one point a couple in the throes of sexual intercourse. The idea of his family members, all living in the area, all sitting in their rooms staring at the wall waiting for him to pop up onscreen so they could all recite to him the same information is downright weird, as is the concept of a viewscreen randomly switching 'stations' to show one's neighbors. The lack of explanation for this, and the odd repetitive and robotic behavior of the family members was the first flaw I noticed. The only notable thing is that the entire family is lower-class. Dull-witted and poorly-spoken.

After a dream which fleshes out the idea that the moon (might be) terraformed, Buddy Joe wakes up and gets another series of calls from the Stepford family, as well as a robotic visitor who doses him with Compliance and orders him to the lab for his new legs. We also learn that the lowest floor is for the religious people, who have to deal with being urinated upon by the uneducated but presumably atheistic people on the floor above where Buddy Joe lives.

Yeah, I know, it's sounding even weirder, isn't it?

Buddy Joe has a few more encounters, during which we learn that the entire universe, rather like that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where everyone but Beverly Crusher vanished, is composed of a sphere with the radius of about 100 meters. It isn't elaborated on why, or how it got that way, just that it was 'normal' at some point in the past. The change presumably happened after the Moon was terraformed.

Now comes a second, again rather horrific, transplant scene in which Buddy's entire body, save head and hands, is 'ingested' by the next part of his alien outfit. The comparison between Buddy Joe (unwillingly donning a suit that's decked out like an iron maiden) and the girl he raped is made. (The story is peppered with scenes which comment on the rape - this becomes relevant later, when the crime is described in detail.)

One more Stepford family moment - now they're even quoting each other verbatim, not just saying similar things - and Buddy Joe's alien body decides to take him for a ride. He ruminates on the new nature of the universe before having another alien encounter, which again ends with more questions than answers.

The reality's laws of physics take a severe hit here. Without making it sound like a metaphor, or indeed anything but a statement of reality, the alien body (apparently) stretches out to 300 meters in length. Tensile and mass concerns aside, it's a neat trick, given that the entire universe is only a third that. But soon after, it shrinks itself back to normal and Buddy Joe heads in for his next body part replacement.

A run-in with another scientist - who thinks the head of the alien creation project is a religious man who's in denial about his own faith - is of little concern. Now it's time for the hands. Evidently, despite fitting on a normal human-sized cart, these hands are also hundreds of meters long. Again, no idea of how they can be moved easily into one room in a complex situated in a universe that is smaller than that.

Now, the whole thing goes out the window. Buddy Joe confronts the head scientist about the existence of the other aliens. This confuses me. I can't remember any indication in the story that there weren't 'native' aliens, or that this experiment hadn't been done before. While I didn't think it was a daily thing, I presumed at least the whole alien outfit trick had been tried before. If Buddy Joe is the first, why do people refer to the body components as 'an alien suit' rather than 'the alien suit'? If the suit is the first of its kind, shouldn't everyone be using the definitive article? Also, it doesn't jive with the scientists and how they don't care if Buddy Joe, carrying presumed years of work on the alien anatomy, lives or dies.

(Back up a bit. The first encounter with an alien happens when it saves his life when someone tries to order him to commit suicide. He didn't want to go out in public, because the Compliance will make him obey any order, and apparently it's obvious that a person's doped up with this stuff. When he told the scientists this, they just shrugged and kicked him out because someone else needed the room. The story implies that since Compliance users are presumably criminals, regular folks who have been wronged often get their vengeance (or jollies) ordering Complianced criminals they happen upon to commit suicide or perform other dangerous/demeaning acts. Now, if you had a guy with your life's work on his feet/body walking around and susceptible to being told to throw himself into the ocean, wouldn't you want to send an intern with him to countermand any such orders?)

The head scientist, despite the alien hands starting to break their bonds and attack people, goes into a screed explaining the nature of the universe. Then we get into the real weirdness. Apparently the moon wasn't terraformed, Earthish life just started to bloom all around once humans set up a permanent shop. (WTF?)

Oh, and the head scientist says that the universe is '300 miles across', flying in the face of the story's own (admittedly absurd) 100 meter estimate.

Now, try this sentence on for size: The head scientist, in classic James Bond villain fashion, explains his plot and how the alien body was made. 'Before we had you in here we took other condemned and pumped them full of Junk and LSD and MTPH and we recorded their hallucinations. We recorded the screams of children, the thought patterns of dogs twitching in their sleep and the terror of a very bright light in a very dark room. We took all that and painted it across the canvas that makes your body so that it could be as alien as possible.'

Whatever capital-J Junk and MTPH are, I don't know. But, quite frankly, the scientist is sounding like Harlan Ellison, if he were simultaneously on a writing spree and a bender.

That ain't a good thing.

Buddy joke... er, Buddy Joe then flashes back to the night he raped that girl. Only he didn't rape her sexually, he just told her stuff she didn't want to hear - forced foreign concepts (the idea of an infinitely large universe) into her neatly-closed mind.

You do realize that, at this point, everything the story has told us has been reversed? The assumption of a normal universe is long dead, physics is out the window, the rapist isn't one (despite the implications and insinuations earlier on, like when he sees a woman with her underwear down)....

The hands attach themselves of their own accord, and now Buddy Joe's body (alien but for the head) goes on a killing spree, killing everyone (who didn't run when the hands were breaking free, I guess) and taking the doctor's head as a trophy.

The body uses alien tentacle magic to reanimate the head scientist's, er, head and ask questions of it. The head head doesn't give any satisfactory answers, and seems rather mellow for a guy who's been decapitated. (Though, perhaps 'detatched' would be a better world.) Buddy Joe, however, suddenly understands were the aliens come from - evidently the universe is intelligent, and 'pro-life' (I mean it likes life, not that it's anti-abortion). Once the idea for alien life took root, the aliens popped into existence in the void 'across the ocean', which is really the larger universe.

I say again, WTF? If this were the case, you think one sizable SF collection (or devoted fan) surviving the universe-collapse would lead to a nearby universe in which Daneel Olivaw, Speaker-to-Animals, and a Martian play gin rummy on the Death Star. (The Martian would regularly win, since he groks gin rummy.)

The alien demands to know where his head is, incidentally, so he can be complete. This despite all the aliens visible so far being headless. Guess what's about to happen to our unrapist hero! And guess what happens to logic, since the head scientist admits he had a head almost ready to go. If he imagined these critters with heads, why do the imagined ones from across the ocean all lack heads?

The alien portion of Buddy Joe - now several miles tall and growing fast - decides to tramp off into the bigger universe. It determines that, like the scientists figured, it's humanity's own perceptions that are holding them back. Accordingly, it rips Buddy Joe's head off and ditches it, so that humanity won't hold it back.

The end. But not before a cautionary item that curiosity is what got humans into all this trouble, as warned in the religious texts, which all makes sense because of the portion of quantum mechanics that states that the act of observation can change an object. Yeah, sure. And how does 'observation' translate to 'permanent moon colony', since that was the start of this whole universe-compressing fiasco?

Now, I think there's some idea of altered perceptions here - that the scientist thinks the universe is 300 miles while the story (by which I presume the author means the hero, Buddy Joe) thinks it far smaller because the scientist is smarter - despite being a fanatical loon - and therefore has a larger field of perception. But I'm reaching here, kids. This is like watching a VHS tape of Videodrome that has poor tracking and has been taped over at random spots with segments of Naked Lunch, which in turn were taped over with the image of a test pattern and the sound of a computerized voice reading Timothy Leary quotations... in reverse.

Confused as hell? Good, we're finally in the same boat.

I recommend neither this story nor psychotropics.

The Archon

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