Surfacing • 1988 • First contact novella by Walter Jon Williams


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. 

Meta: isfdb. Available online at Lightspeed Magazine. Finalist for Hugo, Nebula, Locus. I’ve read it it in the anthology Best of the Best Vol.2.


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11 Responses to Surfacing • 1988 • First contact novella by Walter Jon Williams

  1. pdtillman says:

    Cool. I have a reprint copy in an earlier collection — and I also have it in an e-ARC of his new Collected Works of all his short fiction. Look forward to a reread.
    I know Walter (slightly) from correspondence and from my time living near his home in NM. I have a couple of signed copies of [something] from Bubonicon in ABQ years ago — same con where I briefly met Gardner Dozois. I rarely go to SF cons, but was glad to make that one, just an hour away from where we lived then.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andreas says:

      ABQ has a real concentration of authors!
      I‘ve checked the Arc and the translation trees are there. But I think that’s only a selection of his short fiction (best of WJW from Subterranean)

      Liked by 1 person

      • pdtillman says:

        We both miss northern NM. The most literary place we’ve lived! You could go to an author talk pretty much every week, sometimes more. Of course, that was back when you could do that sort of thing. Zoom’s just not the same!
        Nice country, good weather (mostly), good food, reasonable cost of living. Not much downside. EXCEPT: most all of the area is over 5,000 ft elev. S. Fe & Taos both at around 7,000. Our place above Taos was at 8500 ft! My wife developed COPD & couldn’t live there without an oxy bottle handy. So we moved. Boo hoo.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Andreas says:

          I had my feet once on NM‘s ground, as I can honestly say – at the four corners monument 😁
          But that’s about it. There are other touristic targets in the US that I‘d visit before NM.


          • pdtillman says:

            Four corners: EVERYONE does that. Sometimes there’s a line!
            NM: Yeah, not flashy, but nice. Vide:
            Delgado St. garden & door, Santa Fe.
            Santa Fe, garden wall. Seen on my evening walk.

            Liked by 2 people

  2. Lexlingua says:

    Followed you over here from #VintageSciFi. I don’t read too much science fiction, and classic science fiction even lesser. But I do find first contact stories very intriguing, and “alien” quirks even more. Have you read Leckie’s Ancillary Justice series — the Presger are another fascinating alien species!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ola G says:

    That sounds like a cool story! Sounds a bit like Chiang’s The Story of Your Life – I wonder if it was Chiang’s inspiration

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andreas says:

      Both stories use linguistic as a driver for the personal development of the main protagonists. Chiang’s story is with octopus aliens, analogous to the whales – both achieve a sense of foreignness by non-human aliens.
      But Chiang played also with time travel.
      Lots of comparable elements!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Andreas says:

      Story of your Life is more similar to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed by breaking the cause-effect sequence in an alien physics.
      Surfacing didn’t achieve this – the subject-object assimilation is too weak for this.

      Liked by 2 people

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