Very Big Questions and Very Small Epiphanies – more of why I love sf/f

A cover of a later paperback reprint of the 1977 Annual World's Best SF anthology edited by Donald A. Wolheim.
A cover of a later paperback reprint of the 1977 Annual World’s Best SF anthology edited by Donald A. Wolheim. (Click to embiggen)

Some opening lines are better than others. “Something very large, something very small: a galactic museum, a dead love affair. They came together under my gaze.” Those are the opening sentences of Brian W. Aldiss’ short story, “Appearance of Life” and they’re one of the better examples. The opening tells you, thematically, where the story is going, without giving anything away.

“Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss is another story that I first encountered in the pages of the 1977 Annual World’s Best SF anthology edited by Donald A. Wolheim. So I was a junior in high school, 17 or 18 years old, when I discovered it. The story is narrated in first person by a character who is on their way to a museum. The character never gives us their name, identifying them self only as a Seeker, which is either a job title or avocation.

The Seeker tells us first about a long lost alien race, the Korlevalulaw. We don’t know what they looked like and virtually nothing about their culture. Because they had vanished by the time humans reached the worlds they once colonized. And the aliens left behind only empty buildings. But they are vast empty buildings. Our narrator is traveling to one such building, which is a single structure that completely encircles a planet exactly on its equator. The building it over 1600 kilometers long, and at different parts of the equator, it is between 15 and 22 kilometers tall. It is called a museum because humans have decided to start filling the empty space with artifacts they have gathered from around the galaxy. Not artifacts left behind by the Korlevalulaw, but artifacts left behind by previous human civilizations.

The story slowly reveals that by the Seeker’s time humans have changed a lot. The Seeker makes references to both the First Galactic Era and Second Galactic Era as distinct long periods of interstellar civilization. He or she makes references to how much smaller humans were at the time, and to other limitations of human bodies. But the Seeker never describes what humans look like, now. The gender of the Seeker is never given… the narrator does refer to every android they interact with as she. And there is a point when a reference computer points out that current human engineered breeding produces a ratio of ten women to every man, which is why “modern humans” don’t understand the importance more primitive humans placed on being husbands and wives.

The Seeker has been commissioned by several academic institutions to explore the museum and look for evidence to shed light on various questions these academics have. The Seeker spends several days exploring the museum.

The Seeker finds a holocube in one of the exhibits which contains a recording of the personality of a long dead human woman. When activated, she informs him that she is only for use by her husband, and to please put her back on the shelf rightside up. A while later the Seeker finds more holocubes, and one of them contains a male memory recording that says he is only for his ex-wife.

The Seeker notices that the names are similar, and so tries an experiment. Placing the cubes next to each other, the Seeker activates them and observes as the two holograms have a discussion. During the exchange of messages, the Seeker has an epiphany about the place of humans in the galaxy, and what the ancient disappearance of the Korlevalulaw means about the fate of human society.

The Seeker is so disturbed by the epiphany, that they abandon their mission, flee the museum, and find a mostly uninhabited world to hide out on, lest they accidentally reveal the epiphany to others and hasten the end of current civilization.

I was a little bit disappointed in the ending. The epiphany as described by the Seeker didn’t seem that alarming or profound, to me. I had been enjoying the story up to that point. It was very interesting to recognize how my image of the narrator and the situation kept changing as certain details were casually revealed. In the beginning, I was imagining a person much like myself. By the end, my imaginary version of the Seeker was only vaguely humanoid, and neither male nor female. Similarly, at the beginning of the story I assumed the human civilization was a kind of standard space opera interstellar empire, or multiple competing federations, something like that. But by the end I was trying to imagine a civilization that barely understood the idea of nations and political systems and even the concept of ownership.

I don’t know if Aldiss meant for the reader to think the Seeker’s epiphany only made sense because we didn’t, still, fully understand the Seeker’s frame of reference, or something else. I thought the way Aldiss built up the idea of this very alien culture, and how they didn’t really understand us, and therefore how we likely don’t understand previous generations, either, was really well executed. I didn’t realize that’s what was happening until I reached the end and was trying to figure out if I misunderstood the ending.

The story is very cerebral, with the conflict being something that the narrator doesn’t even realize is happening until the end. The Seeker wants the answers to particular questions, and doesn’t realize that he/she lacks the frame of reference to understand most of the evidence being examined. So you could describe the plot as Man vs His Own Ignorance. And the resolution is that the Seeker gains just enough insight to realize that none of the answers are pleasant ones.

And though I have been reminded of this story from time to time while reading other sci fi tale, I never realized until I was writing this post that it has more in common with a classic Lovecraft horror story than a science fiction tale. The Seeker gets a glimpse of a much bigger truth about their place in the universe, and that glimpse destroys their sense of self. It’s just a bit less melodramatic than a typical Lovecraft tale would have been. I don’t know if Aldiss was doing that on purpose, but it’s an interesting question.

The story left me pondering and debating with myself how I might have tried to tell the story better. Except I think the best part of it isn’t the traditional form of a story. The best part of the tale is how the writer made me slowly deconstruct my own assumptions about who the narrator was and what his/her world was like and the way the story made me uncomfortable to give the narrator a gendered pronoun.

It didn’t translate as a big epiphany for me. But it did change the way I viewed many stories afterward. It affirmed my suspicions that much of what we thought we knew about our own history, and about ourselves, was way off. And reminded me that we should never be satisfied with the easy answers.

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