Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Short Fiction Month: All That Touches the Air - An Owomoyela
Humanity has spread through the galaxy and colonized numerous planets. Not all attempts are equally successful. On one planet, they encounter a sentient and very dangerous species. An understanding is reached with them. The humans are allowed to stay in their closed habitats. The ones that touch the open air can be taken by the local species. A fate worse than death, or so some feel.
Structurally, it is a very well thought out piece. The tale opens with a scene where a member of the colony is deliberately exposed. The cruelty of the act and the impact it has on the main character who witnesses it, are not entirely clear to the reader right away. Owomoyela takes the time to explain the full impact of that event. By the end of the story, the leap the main character takes is clear. In a way we are back where we started, but looked at from another angle, the roles are reversed. It's very clever really.
The story is told in the first person, from the point of view of a character with some pretty severe mental issues. It reminded me of Emma Newman's novel Planetfall (2015). The character's fear of being exposed to air leads to some pretty strange behaviour. Fear of the alien species permeates the narrative. The author uses that to make the climax of the story an overwhelming experience.
The alien species in All That Touches the Air is suitably alien. They don't think in legal terms like we do. The understanding they reached with the human colony implies the threat that they could change their mind at any time and take them out. The relationship with the aliens is very much about power. They do not feel it necessary to demonstrate that power though. Once the main character overcomes their fear of them, the dynamic of power changes. The aliens realize this before the main character does. Power, not law or ethics, is the key to their behaviour.
I liked the way the story deals with fear and the power that can be derived from overcoming it. There is a darker side to the story as well though. Power is to be feared, a struggle to take over power from the aliens is considered the only way for the colony to survive. The main character doesn't think about it in those terms but both the colony government and the aliens take an almost Darwinistic perspective to the interaction between their species. They can't both occupy the niche of dominant species. Liberation of one, goes at the expense of the other. It is a well executed science fiction story indeed. I am impressed by Owomoyela's work.
Title: All That Touches the Air
Author: An Owomoyela
Originally published: Lightspeed Magazine, April 2011
Read in: Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams (2011)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 7,100 words
Available online: Lightspeed