On "The Comfort of Strangers"


Gordon Van Gelder asked me for some comments on "The Comfort of Strangers", the story I have in the latest issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. When he got it (complete with diagram), it disturbed him in some obscure way, and he didn't print it, save for an out-of-context mention of a Penrose Triangle.

So, just in case you wanted to figure out what I meant, here is a somewhat extended version of what I sent Gordon.

While "The Comfort of Strangers" seems pretty light and funny, it is also an actual hard SF story that struggles directly with the real fact that the more realistic the far-future hard Sfness of a story, the less likely it is to be emotionally engaging to a reader in the early twenty-first century. This is particularly true since this story involves the reactions of alien species evolved under conditions quite different than the ones that guided our own evolution.

But stores should  have some emotional resonance. Otherwise, they are really essays, not stories--and, yes, many science fiction stories are essays with characters, kind of like the dialogues of Plato or Bishop Berkeley's Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous or Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

So, like any writer in our genre, I bootlegged current-day emotional content back in, and translated the incomprehensible emotional connections of that future into terms we can relate to, even though the translated would make no sense to the actual beings in the story. An far-future alien sense of loss has to be comprehensible for the reader as a human sense of loss.

But it's actually worse than that.  Given the type of people attracted to written science fiction, the genre has evolved stories that are the equivalent of those ivory figurines Chinese ladies of earlier Chinese dynasties supposedly used to indicate to doctors where it hurt, since the doctor was not allowed to investigate the woman's actual body, or like a child might tell you his stuffed animal is worried about the arrival of the new baby. These stories show readers "where it hurts", while using characters and situations that are more focused and safer than real ones, and thus more interesting.

So the story is also about the biological constraints on emotional choices, told with fun alien hand puppets. I had started out writing a kind of rebuttal to stories like Kij Johnson's "Spar", which is about the emotions of sex, not the needs of reproduction. I wanted to show how you can't escape from the constraints of biology, and ended up writing something about frustrated reproduction that looks very much like a story about frustrated emotional relationships.

This is true despite the fact that the alien reproductive requirements are as realistic as I can make them--though they are mostly based on actual insects and other creatures in our own real world. I tried to play as fair within the constraints as I could--SF with the net up, as people say.

I'm not sure all of those things can be done at the same time, or at least, comprehended at the same time. It’s a little like a Penrose triangle, where every vertex makes sense, but the shape as a whole cannot literally exist.

 Diagram of "The Comfort of Strangers"

Pretty fancy underlying intellectual content for a story about sex with aliens!  That’s why I am the major literary figure that I am.