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St. Clair, Margaret [as by Idris Seabright] – “Brightness Falls from the Air” (1951)

02/14/2013

In which Kerr, a human, is a sort of undertaker at the “tepidarium of the identification bureau,” where the bodies of dead bird aliens are placed to float about until their families come to claim them, a slow process since their extraterrestrial origin made them second-class citizens forbidden from using “ordinary means of transportation.”

Kerr strikes up a friendship with Rhysha, one of the bird people, and this melancholy, dystopic story explores his growing understanding of the unequal relationship between the races, which not only holds the “Exteys” down as subordinate citizens, but also forces them into showy gladiatorial battles (hence the dead bodies):

“After the Earthmen took our planet,” she said, “we had nothing left they wanted. But we had to have food. Then we discovered that they liked to watch us fight.”
“You fought before the Earthmen came?” Kerr asked.
“Yes. But not as we fight now. It was a ritual then, very formal, with much politeness and courtesy… The Earth people were impatient with our ritual–they wanted to see us hurting and being hurt. So we learned to fight as we fight now, hoping to be killed.”

Kerr, like any good exceptional individual at the heart of an old science fiction story, takes it upon himself to fix this problem, trying to increase public awareness and going to the governing council to enact some sort of reform – only he fails at both counts, and after he is sidelined by illness for a while, Rhysha has to return to battling in order to support herself, and is killed in the process. So much for the heroic hyper-individual.

Outside, one of the vast voices that boomed portentously down from the sky half the night long began to speak: “Don’t miss the newest, fastest battle sport. View the Durga battles, the bloodiest combats ever televised. Funnier than the bird people’s battles, more thrilling than an Anda war, you’ll…
Kerr gave a cry. He ran to the window and closed it. He could still hear the voice. But it was all that he could do.

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