Our third themed review exchange. This time: ALIENS.
Arkady’s Speculative Fiction Rec List:
There is so much work about aliens in science fiction that my early attempts at this rec list were a bit all over the place – but that sheer excess of production also let me think about how rec lists are a form of curation: a good rec list, I suspect, does not only stick to a topic, but provides both thematic coherence and a progression of ideas that lead from one story to the next. The rec list as mixtape, if you will.
In that light: three stories about aliens, love, and loving the alien. Best read in the order provided, which is why I haven’t given much by way of specific notes on each one – this is an unfolding argument.
“The Glad Hosts”, Rebecca Campbell, at Lackington’s (https://lackingtons.com/2015/07/29/the-glad-hosts-by-rebecca-campbell/)
Parasitism, memory, euphoria. Communion.
“Planet Lion”, Catherynne Valente, at Uncanny (http://uncannymagazine.com/article/planet-lion/)
Collectivity — or corruption. Encounter and blur.
“Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death”, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), reprinted in Lightspeed (http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/love-is-the-plan-the-plan-is-death/)
Perhaps the archetypal ‘loving the alien’ story. Also Tiptree at the absolute top of her game. Devastating. And hopeful, in a sense.
Cat’s Interactive Fiction Rec List:
As Arkady indicates in her list, I also found a plethora of aliens in IF these days. (Many excellent alien-themed works are paid; I want to nod here to Dietrich Squinkifier’s “Tentacles Growing Everywhere” and Andrew Plotkin’s “Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home”.) My curation here is slightly different, I’d imagine—what I’ve done is chosen three very different games about alien interaction centered around a core theme. Since these are all long games, I’m going to tip my hand and mention that my organizing principle is games of exploration: all of these works involve a protagonist placed into a situation in which they don’t wish to be, and offer very different possibilities for working through that constraint.
Coloratura, Lynnea Glasser (http://blog.maderealstories.com/2013/07/coloratura.html)
You play as an alien creature unwillingly taken from its rightful place by a human crew, and your goal is to return to the Song. Coloratura won IF Comp, the interactive fiction community’s largest showcase, in 2014. Originally a parser game, it’s been converted into Twine as well. It features one the most alien aliens in IF, and this incomprehensible protagonist dovetails well with parser interface controls for those who aren’t familiar—it may be difficult to know what to do from a player perspective, but it is for the PC as well.
With Those We Love Alive, Porpentine and Brenda Neotenomie (http://aliendovecote.com/uploads/twine/empress/empress.html#.41)
A Twine game which sharply polarized IF Comp voters when it was debuted but which has since been lauded as a classic, it’s an immersive experience that borders on poetry. You are an artificer, apprenticed to an alien empress, and your choices are constrained by both narrative and mechanics. The alien queen is not the only alien, though; the experience of gameplay is wholly unique. Keep a sharpie handy.
Superluminal Vagrant Twin, C. E. J. Pacian (https://pacian.itch.io/superluminal-vagrant-twin)
C.E.J. Pacian, along with Chandler Groover, makes some of the most accessible “limited parser games” being produced in contemporary interactive fiction circles. His latest game, Superluminal Vagrant Twin, centers around a ship captain whose sibling is being held for a ransom of five million credits. A variety of characters and cultures make up the large world which you explore, trading and traveling to buy back your twin, but the overwhelming sense is of alienation—of connection and disconnection as you move forward. It involves money and resource management, and is deeply if not broadly implemented.
Cat’s Review: Campbell, Valente, and Tiptree Jr. (Sheldon)
Curation and palimpsestic texts are two of my underlying obsessions, so when I got a mix-tape list, I had to read them all, in order. Taken together, there’s a sense of a conversation; not an argument on which each story is taking a side, but a different lens on a very similar preoccupation. Alien stories are always about humans, in a way; by showing us the unfamiliar, they delineate what is ours. These stories in particular are about reaching across a divide to an unknown or unfamiliar consciousness, about integrating with something or someone beyond ourselves. They’re about borders, and boundaries, and what can happen when we try to merge. There’s still a cohesive progression to the stories, at least in my reading: every one deals with very alien aliens–very nearly incomprehensible aliens–but the linguistic structures, how the authors choose to convey that incomprehensibility, start off strange and get even stranger. The deliberate alienation from the protagonist’s experience is always grounded, in some degree, in a strangeness of language, where expression itself bends to stretch at concepts it is not made to contain.
“The Glad Hosts”, Rebecca Campbell
This is one of those stories I jokingly call a Rorschach story; the implication being that my recommendation tells you a great deal about me, perhaps more than you’d like to know, perhaps more than I’m even aware of. In this story, Mai, an eager colonist on the alien world of Shanti, is infected with a parasite. The infestation takes her over entirely; her feelings and neural networks completely rewired by the alien creatures roosting in her flesh. The process is slow; much of the story’s middle unfolds the transformation, the question of how much this person, this amalgam, this host, is still Mai. She (they?) must decide what and how much to tell her mother, back on Earth, about what’s happened. This version of Mai considers how to minimize her pain in a way that ante-merge Mai might not have considered important.
The word I would use for this story is “sublime”. In the way that the planet’s name denotes “the peace that passes understanding”, “The Glad Hosts” transcends, for me, the appellations “body horror” and “deeply unsettling” and even “beautiful”–into something beyond all three; it infects me the way the creatures infect Mai.
Structurally speaking, there’s a neat correlation in the relationship between Mai and her mother, who has been hurt by Mai’s self-absorption, and the relationship between Mai and her parasite. Mai is destroyed–violently consumed–by these creatures, who love her in their own way, or who at least produce the sensation of love or dopamine release to secure compliance and loyalty. It’s not a direct parallel, and I don’t think I’d like the story as much if it were: but it does raise questions about what love is, and where we draw our boundaries around identity. This version of Mai is, in her opinion, a better daughter; but she also knows that’s influenced by the very parasites making her kinder, more thoughtful, more empathetic. How much of this is Mai? How much does this matter?
“Planet Lion,” Catherynne Valente
“Planet Lion” tells a story about a different kind of merge entirely. Where “The Glad Hosts” involves a physical parasite using its host to grow, this story involves a memetic parasite: specifically, a kind of alien sludge which offers a variety of permutations. In this particular instance, however, it brings telepathy to a pride of lion-like creatures inhabiting a planet in territory which humans have decided has strategic value. The lions end up devouring the humans, but become infected–after a pace–with the years of history and specific hurts and wounds which we all carry. It’s a story about collective vs. individual, in my reading, and about how encounter can end up being far more fraught, and have lingering ramifications well beyond the expected. In the end, the lions, consumed by the memories they themselves have consumed, set against each other in a perpetual reenactment of a conflict which is not theirs. One of the hallmarks of a well-written alien story, in my mind, is a deeply foreign surface distinction, which the reader must strive to understand and empathize with, coupled with a description of a very precise human experience. I don’t want universal in my alien stories–there’s no such thing, as “Planet Lion” suggests. Only the specific, the real, the individual fissures enacted over and over again.
“Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death”, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon)
This is a classic of SFF, and after reading it, I understand why. I’m actually glad for the opportunity to read achronically here: I think, had I read this first, I’d have filtered the first two stories in the collection through it, which would have diminished them. Instead, I have a story that’s stranger and possibly (only possibly) kinder than the more recent ones, that’s linguistically denser with strangeness than the other two—which are themselves plenty strange. The protagonist, Moggadeet, recounts the story of their love to its mate, Lilliloo, while concerned with their ability to subvert the Plan, their biological programming which would impel them to injure the other. Despite Mogadeet’s best attempts at fighting the Plan and nurturing their partnership, Lilliloo devours Mogadeet in a continuance of the cycle. But it’s unclear if it is a full continuance–if what they’ve been through will allow their offspring more autonomy.
All three of these stories are about encounters with the alien; but more crucially, they’re about what happens when we find something we don’t recognize, that exists outside of our existing schema. Each of these works touches on, in their own way, desires that are destructive, which are quite literally consuming. As a list, a series of texts laid over each other, the pattern that emerges is about longing and loss: that it’s impossible to fully comprehend the consequences of what we desire. And maybe–perhaps–if we’re very lucky, sometimes that might just be okay.
Arkady’s Review: Coloratura – Lynnea Glasser
What better for a theme week about aliens than a game where you play as an alien? Coloratura is a narrative-based puzzle game – it is absolutely a game, with successful and unsuccessful conditions of victory – about an alien intelligence’s attempts to return home after being inadvertently captured by a human-crewed spacecraft. It won first place in the 2013 Interactive Fiction Competition and the “Best Game” award in the 2013 XYZZY awards, so I’m certainly not the first person to enjoy it – but I certainly did.
To my delight, you play as the alien, and your goals are extremely inhuman – in fact, they can be downright inhumane. The game will allow you to do rather dreadful things to the humans on the ship – burn them, irradiate them, subsume their individuality into a blissful group mind, take them over entirely, convince them to die for you (and these are only the options I found! There are probably more!) – and it does not morally condemn you, or relegate you to a ‘bad’ ending, for doing so. In short, Coloratura not only drops the player into an alien sensorium, it places you within an alien morality.
Coloratura is able to achieve this via how it limits player options in interacting with the environment. I played Coloratura in its Twine version (there is also an Original Text Adventure version), and much like the Twine-based subject of my last review, Birdland, what marks Coloratura out as special is its use of Twine’s limited-option player choice text: the choices which Coloratura offers place the player squarely in the mentality of the alien protagonist, and confine the player to the alien protagonist’s morality. Thus, Coloratura relies on voice and on narrowness of player choice to induce the experience of playing within an alien sensorium.
Last time, when I wrote about Birdland, I suggested that the success and replayability-value of the more gamelike IF pieces written in Twine was likely to be entirely dependent on the immersiveness or lack thereof of the narrative voice – having played Coloratura, I am fairly confident that I was right. While Birdland‘s narrative voice is authorial, however, Coloratura’s is character-based: the available choices are locked to what an alien intelligence, whose deepest desire is to be able to rejoin a mindless, all-encompassing Bliss, and who thinks in colors, might come up with as possible solutions to its rather pressing problems.
Mechanically, Coloratura offers both navigational/locational choices (you can move around the spaceship relatively freely) and manipulative choices, where you can influence various humans by helping them/forcing them to experience different ‘colors’ of emotion. The navigational choices derive from a parser-game model of a direction-based map (it is entirely possible to build a schematic map of the spaceship the protagonist is trapped on), and the choices available are fairly narrow: you can only move from one location into particular others. This is old-school — to me, at least, who last encountered this sort of mobility in MUSHes. By contrast, the manipulative ‘color’ choices have an enormous range of player choice. This adds to Coloratura‘s replayability, certainly – but more significantly, the effects of choosing one color/emotion are quite unpredictable, which helps to reinforce the alienness of the protagonist. While the player, locked into the alien’s sensorium, may think that ‘green/curiosity’ will be helpful in convincing a human character to perform a task, humans respond in ways which are not in the slightest expected – reminding the player that the protagonist is not, in fact, very good at reading humans at all. Or understanding them.
So what Coloratura accomplishes, through layering a Twine-specialized choice mechanic over a parser-style puzzle navigation system, is to give the player enough distance from what choices they themselves might make in the situation the protagonist finds themself in to create a truly alien schema of morality.
And that, I suspect, is why this game won as many awards as it did.