Tuesday, 19 August 2014

"Accidental Death" by Peter Baily

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

This is the first one I've looked at that was not a story in a 1930s science fiction magazine! It was presented separately on Project Gutenberg, but the bottom has a note that it appeared as a story in Astounding Science Fiction in 1959.

It's a good story, for the most part. It's the dying recollections of one of the crew of the first interstellar ship, as he lies in the wreckage of a pod back on Earth. It also seems to be a thinly veiled story of first contact - not just first contact with another species, but it is reminiscent of writing about European explorers meeting indigenous peoples for the first time.

This is mostly in the language used to describe the Chingsi, who are supposed to look more like cats than people, although they appear to be bipedal humanoids. The dying crewmember is quick to assert that they're people, though, using the following criteria:

"One, they learned our language in four weeks. When I say they, I mean a ten-man team of them.
"Two, they brew a near-beer that's a lot nearer than the canned stuff we had aboard the Whale.
"Three, they've a great sense of humor. Ran rather to silly practical jokes, but still. Can't say I care for that hot-foot and belly-laugh stuff myself, but tastes differ.
"Four, the ten-man language team also learned chess and table tennis.
"But why go on? People who talk English, drink beer, like jokes and beat me at chess or table-tennis are people for my money, even if they look like tigers in trousers."

However, although the Chingsi are technologically far behind, they may not be the pushovers the crew initially thought. The crew brings at least one Chingsi back with them, (they dub him Charley), and that's when we discover that apparently they can manipulate luck, as the ship starts to have malfunction after malfunction, after a previously flawless trip. Calculations are altered, machinery fails, people mess up.

This results in the crash landing on Earth, in which presumably the Chingsi man dies as well, although there is the detail that he was laughing as the ship went down. The crewman leaves a warning for future potential explorers, about what a whole planet full of these creatures could do. Oh, and he rescinds, their "person" status:

The Chingsi talk and laugh but after all they aren't human. On an alien world a hundred light-years away, why shouldn't alien talents develop?

Beware the hidden talents of the native! seems to be underlying message here. I'm not going to draw this review out into a long consideration of colonialism, but there are hints here. Particularly since the only way race appears in the story is in the Chingsi, who are obviously alien, but alien in the way that is often a metaphor for human experience.

There's not enough here to get into a long discussion of what the author meant, and his point of view on the whole thing. It's interesting, but it's a fairly short story.

There are no women crew on the ship, of course. Or at least, not that are mentioned as such.

This is a pretty good little story, though. The writing is decent, and builds very well towards the end.
The framing device of having it come from the lips of a dying man is effective.

Too bad, I couldn't find anything else about Peter Baily. No other stories on Project Gutenberg, nothing on wikipedia (or anywhere else easily searchable) about the author.

No comments:

Post a Comment