This is the second entry of this reading project. It is also republished in the upcoming collection “Best of Walter Jon Williams” by Subterranean which I’ll review next month or so.
Synopsis: Anthony is a reclusive scientist who wants to decipher the completely foreign language of cetacean-like aliens living deep in the ocean of a foreign planet. Whales from Earth were transported there, and they help him to locate those aliens.
When he stays in port, another scientist Philana seeks him out, because she is interested in his research. Over time, a romance develops between them.
But Philana is inhabited by a god-like alien from time to time, and Anthony has problems of his own. They need not only to decipher the languages of the aliens, but their own communication.
Review: The author is very prolific, and I’ve known him as a big voice of 80s cyberpunk movement. His novel Hardwired is the basic inspiration for the pen&paper roleplaying game Cyberpunk which itself is the prequel for the new video game Cyberpunk 2077.
The novella is set some hundred years in the future of Williams’s novel Knight Moves, but works very well as a standalone.
There is a lot of discussion about madness, and Philana’s possessing by the alien can be easily read as a metaphor for split personality. That’s only one of several topics slowly creeping into the novella – immortality, and love are other minor elements.
The most important and heaviest part is about communication, and this is a feast for linguists: The whales’ syntax doesn’t know the difference between subject and object:
Anthony, I and a place of bad smells have found one another
… or in other words: Something stinks. It’s easy enough to follow those communications, though they are not translated in most cases. They need just another brain cell and concentration by the reader, and can be taken as funny riddles. While this syntax sounds strange at first glance, it is indeed a well known form of Navajo syntax who talk just like that.
Two other forms of communication are far more complicated: Anthony tries to understand the cetacean aliens’ syntax which is even stranger than that from the whales, forming a translation tree:
One possible sentence is “I am rising toward and thinking hungrily about the slippery-tasting coordinates” and another one “I and the oily current are in a state of motion toward one another”. After this, I was as clueless as before, but the whole experiment gave a nice touch of alienness.
The most interesting and highest problematical communication form is that of the two humans – Anthony and Philana have both issues and need to overcome them.
Williams carries his protagonists through the quiet and calm see, concentration on their science, through a romance with violent phases, and disturbing interruptions by their madnesses. It has many threads to weave together, and the difficult ending can be considered as open, but isn’t the story’s strength.
Recommended for readers of linguistics-oriented SF, romance, and first contact stories.