Once again I bring you my crappiest fiction. I lay before the Altar of Broken Dreams the finest examples of bad science fiction that I’ve ever created. These are my trunk stories, my rejects, the simply awful short sci-fi stories that I’ve tried to get published at major magazines in New York and elsewhere. The editors’ reactions to these stories must have been something like this:
They’re horrifically bad. By rights I should put them in a box and bury them in an unmarked grave at midnight. Why am I showing them to you? Because I want you to avoid making the same mistakes I did.
And this week it’s a real gem. Behold, “Incommunicado”! One of my longer stories at 3,300 words. It’s about two astronauts who land on an alien planet and try to communicate with what they assume to be its most intelligent life-form. Their assumptions may have been dangerously off…
And so, without further ado, I present…
Jonathan Glass hopped up and down like an idiot. He stuck his tongue out, flapped his arms, and made chirping and clucking noises. He threw himself down on the ground and rolled in the dust.
“You know,” said his copilot, Ernest Mawson, “if the scientists back in Houston could see you doing this, they’d go into cardiac arrest. If they didn’t die laughing first.”
“Shut up, Ernie,” Jon replied impassively. “All avenues of investigation, exploration, and interrogation must be explored.”
He thumped his chest like a gorilla and let out a series of hoots and roars. He dropped his arms to the ground and knuckle-walked.
“Those were our instructions, yes,” Ernie acknowledged, putting a hand over his eyes and staring at the ground. He was trying to determine whether to laugh or puke. Laughing seemed like a good idea. On the other hand, the atmosphere of GI 651d was a perfectly breathable nitrogen-oxygen mix; neither Ernie nor Jon was wearing a helmet or a respirator. Puking was therefore a viable option as well.
“But I’m hard-put to decide,” Ernie continued, as Jon leaped into the air and clicked his heels, whirling around in a sort of hornpipe, “whether you’re attempting to elicit a communicational response from this potential organism, or practicing to be a dervish.”
“Insult me all you like,” Jon panted, turning several somersaults and handsprings. “The International Space Administration’s best prediction was that we would locate sentient, crystalline life-forms on this planet. And locate them we have. Now it’s just a matter of decoding their language. To do that, we need to figure out how they communicate. And that,” he concluded, with a loud belch and a squat-thrust, “is anyone’s guess.”
In front of the two men, anchored in the stony soil of the vast purple plain which straddled the equator of GI 651d, was a large crystal. It was a three-dimensional hexagram, whitish-yellow and lustrous. It caught the light and refracted it in the manner of a faceted prism.
“So,” continued Jon, now break-dancing on a clear patch of ground and raising a cloud of gritty dust, “we must survey all avenues of communication. We’ve been here for ten Earth-standard months, partner. We’ve attempted vocal, sonic, electronic, electromagnetic, energetic, magnetic, luminous, rhythmic, tactile, percussion, and telepathic communication. We’ve poked it with sticks. We’ve thrown dust on it. We’ve even beaten it about its pointy head with a sledgehammer. Nothing.”
Ernie sat down in the dust, looked at the sky, and blew out a long, frustrated breath.
“Abraham Lincoln,” said a straight-faced Jon in portentous tones, moon-walking around the crystal, “once put it this way. ‘As our situation is new, so we must think and act anew.’ We’ve exhausted every possible mode of communication we can think of. So now we must think of some new ones.”
“Interpretive dance?” Ernie asked. There was a pleading note in his voice.
“Dance, movement, physical cadence, anything and everything,” Jon confirmed, pirouetting about on the much-abused patch of ground near the crystal. “Perhaps, in the endless, unchanging, immutable landscape of GI 651d, this species is programmed to sense the slightest motion and respond to it. Perhaps they communicate with subtle movements of atoms or molecules, or more obscure methods no human instrument can detect. Perhaps it’s analyzing my every deed—or even the intent behind it.”
“Perhaps it can’t see you at all,” Ernie suggested, “because it’s a goddamned crystal.”
“Either way, we shall soon know the results of my diligent investigation,” Jon said, now attempting some unspeakable balletic motion and sweating profusely.
Ernie sighed again. He scratched his beard. For lack of something better to do, he looked around. The plain was largely featureless. Its distinguishing attribute was a kilometer-wide debris field of rusted components, broken filaments, tangles of electrical conduits and fiber-optic cables, and the shattered, boxy hulks of miscellaneous worn-out communication devices. These were the remnants of the previous ten months’ battle to strike up a conversation with the planet’s native crystal population. There were sonic emitters, hologram projectors, luminant telephones, and ancient relics like cathode ray tubes and electromagnetic transmission receivers. There was a pair of gold-plated discs with formal greetings in fifty-five languages recorded on them, and even a pair of tattered semaphore flags and a burnt-out Morse lantern.
Behind Jon and Ernie lay the squat black bulk of their spacecraft, a Rockwell X-90, the first fully reusable and reliable craft capable of interstellar travel. It had been dubbed the Bloodhound in lieu of its exobiological mission parameters. It was round, xenodynamic, and nondescript.
So was the plain it rested on. The land here was perfectly flat, composed of uniform purple gravel, purple dust, and purple boulders, upon which the occasional yellow crystal sat. There were also isolated plants—large, ugly things that spoke of sunflowers in Ernie’s eyes. They possessed tall green stalks, long leaves, and a wide, urine-colored bloom on top, festooned with petal-like growths. In the center of these petals there was a sort of aperture, presumably where nectar collected, if the flowers of this world produced any. Ernie let himself believe so, even if there were no bees in evidence. Biology on GI 651d was vastly different than what any human had thus far experienced. There was virtually no carbon. The elemental makeup of the planet was mostly silicon. Skeptics on Earth doubted that the planet could harbor recognizable life at all.
But life most certainly existed here, and sentient life at that. Decades prior to the expedition, the SETI Institute had detected a series of electromagnetic signals emanating from deep space—a rhythmic cadence far too regular to be electromagnetic noise and too quick to be the clockwork blink of a pulsar. The signals were traced to GI 651d.
The ISA had thought the lead worth checking out. Jon and Ernie had been selected from a pool of over two thousand applicants: astronauts, cosmonauts, novanauts, nebulanauts, ethernauts, galacto-nauts, and forget-me-nauts from all over the world, the cream of the world’s space crews. They had endured hours of rigorous mental and physical training to prepare for the inherent oddity of meeting beings from another planet, beings potentially as high above humanity as humans were above the protozoa. The two men had attended hours of classroom sessions and workshops to familiarize them with all forms of communication, and to train them in the art of sending and receiving messages. They were physically hardened, drilled relentlessly in interpretive dance, mimetic movements, communicative motion and rhythms. They had studied. They had slaved. They had passed all tests and challenges. They were prepared.
And so they had endured the long, brain-numbing journey across the stars, their bodies wrapped in artificial sleep, French language tapes playing in their headsets on a continuous loop. They had awakened on schedule, pulled off a perfect landing, and set about opening lines of communication with the locals.
And it had come to this: Ernie sitting in the dust and watching Jon cavort and prance in front of an immobile, unresponsive, utterly uncommunicative piece of crystal.
Ernie sighed again. His crewmate was off his chump. Jon’s mind had choked on a hard lump of frustration and boredom and was spitting out pieces of insanity. Ten months of fruitless work could do that to a person. Even so, watching his scatter-brained partner warble operettas to a geological formation was a drain on Ernie’s morale.
Ernie wanted to go home. Training be damned. He hadn’t come across the light-years to do a bongo thunder in front of a chunk of mineral.
He looked at the sunflowers again. At least they moved, swaying slightly in the warm wind sweeping across the purple plains. Even if it was a passive, unintentional action, it was still yards more exciting than Jon reciting random bits of Shakespearean plays (and then doing some high-kicks) in front of a piece of the landscape. In spite of the plants’ inherent unsightliness, Jon nonetheless attached the name ‘sunflower’ to them. It was the most comfortable name. The things even smelled a bit like sunflowers. The nearest specimen was quite close to the crystal Jon was doing his damnedest to excite to communicative furor.
“Jon,” Ernie was finally forced to say, as the pilot began the ‘mime-in-a-glass-box’ routine, “you’re making an ass of yourself. The jig’s up. There are no crystalline life-forms here. We’ve been sent on a snipe-hunt.”
“The training, Ernie, the training!” Jon enthused, as his right hand made a puppet out of his left, utilizing invisible strings. “You’re forgetting the long hours we spent in pressure chambers and improv classes. We can’t have come all this way only to fail. Remember your training (and then get up and dance), Ernie! We must explore all avenues of investigation!”
And sadly, Ernie realized that his partner was right. He wasn’t going to solve anything sitting in the dust and moaning. He took one last look at the swaying sunflowers, heaved his backside out of the dust, and joined Jon in a moving performance of The Merchant of Venice.
By nightfall they were forced to admit temporary defeat. The two men regrouped over steaming bowls of reconstituted soup in the Bloodhound‘s small galley.
“Okay,” Ernie said, nursing sore legs and ego. “What can we try next?”
“We might need to face facts here, Ernie,” Jon said gravely. Ernie choked, spewing soup everywhere.
“It’s possible the crystal may be communicating at some level incomprehensible to the average human’s sensibilities,” Jon went on, as though nothing had happened.
“Such as?” Ernie asked, wiping his chin.
“Art!” Jon pronounced. “We have no clue as to the extent of a crystal’s aesthetic sense—”
Ernie nearly choked again.
“—and we must therefore consider the possibility that it may communicate with more avant-garde methods than mere speech, such as abstractionism or impressionism.”
“I’ve heard it said that art transcends culture,” Ernie said, laying the indulgence on thick.
“Exactly. Let’s get out there at the crack of dawn tomorrow and start sending artistic telegrams in that crystal’s direction.”
“I don’t know about you,” Ernie coughed, in a last-ditch effort to quell his partner’s enthusiasm, “but my brain’s never been eager to comprehend or create art at the crack of dawn.”
But Jon was already asleep and mumbling about impressionism, intermingling of color, and the apostasy of Paul Cézanne.
The next day they awoke and went hard at it. After a brain-building breakfast of sardines and freeze-dried toast, Ernie mixed paints and Jon fabricated canvas and easels in the ship’s workshop. They set up their makeshift studio in front of the crystal. It was a fine, sunny, windless day, ideal for their purpose.
“Erm…what shall we paint?” Ernie inquired.
“We may as well start with something that the crystal will recognize readily,” Jon decided. “A landscape.”
“All right,” Ernie said. “Let’s both do landscape scenes and then present them to the crystal.”
Compared to yesterday’s shenanigans, Ernie rather enjoyed the simple work of painting. The sun shone amiably upon the luminescent crystal and the tall sunflower beside it, the latter waving in the breeze. The purple gravel complemented the yellow-green of the sunflowers and the crystal’s white lambency nicely. Each of these disparate hues was counterpointed by the overarching greenness of the sky. Ernie delighted in selecting different colors and applying them to the canvas in a faithful interpretation of the landscape in front of him.
After several hours Ernie pronounced himself satisfied. Jon, however, took ages to finish. He stood back from the canvas, brow furrowed in concentration. He stuck out his hands, framed his subjects, slashed a brush through his paints, and applied a fresh batch of color to his easel in an aesthetic frenzy. He repeated this process over and over. Any attempt Ernie made to saunter nonchalantly behind Jon and snatch a peek at his work was harshly rebuked.
Two hours later, Jon stepped away from his canvas with an air of finality.
“Look at it, Ernie. Behold my masterpiece. We’ll see if it doesn’t get through to that crystal!”
Ernie cast an eye over Jon’s easel. He stared blankly for about ten seconds, then fell to rubbing his chin. It was a reflexive, involuntary motion.
“Jon,” he said, “is this a landscape?”
“Why, yes, of course,” Jon replied. “A labor of long hours and careful study!”
“I see,” Ernie answered. He rubbed his chin some more. Then he spoke, tentatively.
“Why are there monkeys in it?”
“To show our origins, Ernie. They represent humans as we once were: pure, un-evolved, immaculate.”
“I don’t see any monkeys around here, Jon.”
“Remember why we’re doing this, Ernie. This is a communicative landscape I’ve created.”
“A communicative landscape with dancing Pepsi-Cola bottles and decapitated polar bears?”
“I’ve taken the unvarnished landscape in front of us and populated it, Jon. I’ve enriched this alien land with anthropic figures, evocative illustrations drawn from all facets of life on Earth. This painting is filled with didactic forms, emblematic of human history and existence. It’s a tapestry that will instruct the viewer in the human condition. Perhaps it will stimulate the crystal, allowing it to learn about us in the same way that cave paintings and hieroglyphics taught modern humans about the ancients.”
“How is a painting of a bunch of Tahitian islanders in bowlers and knee socks dancing around a burning effigy of Steve Jobs going to teach the crystal about humanity?”
“It’s symbolic, Jon. The Tahitians represent humans at their vibrant, savage core: primal beings, full of life and passion and movement. The bowlers and knee socks represent the trammels of civilization, the thin veneer of civility and class with which the anthropic animal has clothed himself in the latter age. Steve Jobs is the consumerist, materialist, technology-crazed human paradigm, consumed by the inevitable fires of its own self-destruction. The dance represents an escape from all three. It symbolizes the desperate attempt by the human race to rid itself of ignorance, savagery and materialism and seek new horizons.”
“Uh-huh. And what does Marilyn Monroe stand for?”
“Love, in all its forms—mental, emotional, physical, ecumenical, epistemological, geological, metaphysical, and sexual.”
“Is that why she’s standing naked in a bathtub filled with grape jelly?”
“Precisely. The bathtub represents the transience of physical and sexual love, while the jelly, couched within the physical, remains unalterable and immortal.”
“Or just really sticky.”
“That’s a good synonym.”
“And it’s actually boysenberry jelly, not grape.”
“This is a piece of shit,” Ernie commented, unable to contain himself any longer.
“Art is in the eye of the beholder, Ernie.”
“Yeah, well, the beholder sees a piece of shit.”
“In saying that, you’ve proven that you’re a victim of the materialist paradigm, and unable to escape from it.”
“Well,” Ernie sighed, “I suppose the only thing left to do is present our respective works to the crystal, and—”
He swallowed hard.
“—let the crystal decide for itself.”
“Excellent idea, Ernie!” Jon shouted, leaping to his feet. “We can make this an experiment in extraterrestrial objectivism as well!”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking, Jon.”
After allotting a suitable amount of time for the paint to dry (and Jon to give an introductory speech for his entry), both men turned their easels about and bestowed the wonders of their creations upon the crystal.
Ten minutes went by.
“D’you think he’s had enough time to peruse and reflect?” Ernie whispered to Jon out of the corner of his mouth.
“Shhhhhh!” Jon silenced him vehemently. “Quiet, Ernie! Let the crystal muse in peace!”
A breeze sprang up and sighed over the rough ground. The sunflowers swished lazily to and fro. The big one next to the crystal gave a faint rustle. Jon and Ernie were standing so close to it that its shadow flung its long, cooling fingers over Jon’s shoulder. The clouds slipped through the sky. Ernie reflected on how nice of a planet it was, or had been until he and Jon had come along and started painting it.
He hadn’t done a bad job. He’d captured the white crystal’s faint luminosity well, and the greens of the sky contrasted realistically with the sunlit edge of the clouds. The purple plains were a solid foundation, emphasizing the crystal and the sunflower beside it. The latter was the most vivid thing in the painting. Ernie had created the illusion that the petals were flapping a little in the omnipresent wind. In his fervor, he had given the sunflower a little extra luster in its yellow petals and green stalk, selecting more vibrant colors to better match his own mental image of terrestrial sunflowers.
Objectivity could go spit. He was a human spacer, and if he had to embellish a painting in order to cheat homesickness, he was going to damn well do it. He looked up at the sunflower again to judge his work against the original model.
He looked back at his painting again.
Then he looked at the original.
Then he looked at his painting.
They were the same color.
A few moments ago the sunflower had been the same dark green and dull yellow as every other sunflower on the plain; now its hues were brighter, effervescent, the same as the sunflower on Ernie’s canvas.
“Jon,” Ernie said, straining to keep his voice quiet, “look.”
“What is it, Ernie?” Jon asked, sounding annoyed.
“The sunflower changed color.”
“What do you mean?”
“I painted it a little brighter and better-looking than it originally was. It didn’t look like that in real life. I’d have sworn it didn’t. It was plainer, drabber. Now all the sudden the colors are the same.”
“You’re imagining things,” Jon said, abandoning his own farcical work to peer closely at Ernie’s.
Ernie hardly felt that Jon had the right to tell him he was imagining things, particularly since Jon had spent the past three days attempting to communicate with a crystal by doing vaudeville acts and Afro-Cuban rumbas. Nonetheless, Ernie held his peace and let Jon examine the painting.
“You’re right; there’s no difference between the two,” Jon pronounced after a few moments’ close scrutiny. “But if you look at the other flowers out here—”
Jon’s voice trailed away as he and Ernie gazed over the plains. As far as they could see, there were crystals and flowers. The crystals were the same whitish-yellow hue, faintly lambent beneath the sun’s rays. The flowers were the same dreary green and yellow that they remembered. The flower in front of them had definitely grown brighter.
“By George, you’re right,” Jon breathed. “It changed color.”
Then, as they watched, the other flowers transformed as well. Like an octopus manipulating its camouflage, the flowers became vibrantly colorful in the span of a moment. Shades of green and yellow sharpened and heightened. The flowers practically exploded from the purple plain in their chromatic effulgence.
“They’re all changing color,” Jon said, in religious tones. “Ernie, you don’t think they’re doing it—they couldn’t be doing it because of your painting, could they?”
“I’m not sure what else it could be,” Ernie answered, just as awestruck. “I mean, it’s an external stimulus, and they seem to be responding to it in kind…”
“But how can that be?” Jon asked, tugging his beard in distraction. “The scientists were sure of their findings. There were intelligent signals coming from this planet. We were supposed to find intelligent crystalline life-forms here. But these—these plants…”
Out of the corner of his eye, Ernie saw the big sunflower by the crystal, glorious in its newfound radiance.
Then it bent over, leaned down, and slapped Jon upside the head with an aureate appendage.
“Wrong life-form, genius,” it said.