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Russell, Eric Frank – Fast Falls the Eventide (1952)

04/23/2013

It wasn’t until I sat down to write out these reviews that I noticed that Russell wrote this and “I Am Nothing” – clearly, stories with a message are his modus operandi. Here, that message is that intelligence takes many forms, unaffected by surface-level physical differences, which is a refreshingly radical message for the 1950s (following in the footsteps of last year’s “Dark Interlude”).

The setting for this message is a pretty typical Dying Earth, “with a pitted moon and a dying sun and sky too thin to hold a summer cloud,” when the stars “could be seen with brilliance and clarity by day as well as by night.” Former metropolises are now home to mere dozens of residents (“The vanished numbers had long since taken to the star-trails, not like rats leaving a sinking ship, but boldly, confidently as those whose destiny has become magnified until too great for the confines of one planet.”), but a huge variety of interstellar ships continue to visit the planet, crewed by a myriad of “visitors from the glittering dark” who have no common language or even mode of communication. I do love this imagery.

Our protagonist, Melisande, is just completing her education and meeting with her tutor in order to receive her assignment to an alien planet – humanity, it seems, is in high demand throughout the galaxy as translators and educators. A computer spits out cards with the various planets available to her, and we are treated to a brief rundown about the characteristics of the intelligent race on each, until they get to the seemingly least appealing option – the backwards planet of Zelam, whose Zelamites “had a faint resemblance to erect alligators, though Melisande did not know it. All of her own planet’s lizardlike species had vanished a million years ago.” The story has a few of these out-of-place authorial asides, and I feel confident that Russell could have found a less awkward way to make these points if he had tried a little harder.

The Zelamites had been slated to recieve only one envoy from Earth, and the tutor tells Melisande they

“would rather that one were masculine.”
“Why?”
The query defeated him completely. “There is no reason at all except that we would prefer it.”

Which argument goes on until they realize no one else requested Zelam – one wishes that Melisande had played a more active role in overcoming this bit of unthinking misogyny, but at least Russell acknowledges the existence of unthinking misogyny.

“each one that went forever among the vast concourse of stars made his dying world a fraction smaller, barer, less possessed of life. It is not easy to remain with a long-loved sphere which is nearing its end, to watch the flame die down, watch the shadows creep and grow.”

Melisande’s journey provides another example of the interesting polyglot universe of this story, ending on Zelam, the last outpost before crossing the void to another “island universe” of intelligence (the “one thing in common” everywhere). Her interactions with a Zelamite, meanwhile, allow Russell to hammer home the importance of variety: what looks like a terrifying snarl is, in fact, a welcoming smile (“those with different facial contours and bony structure perforce must have different ranges of expressions”) and his “body exuded a faintly pungent odor which her nostrils noted but her brain ignored. That was another very ancient lesson: that different metabolisms produce different manifestations. How boring would the universe be if all its creatures were identically the same!</em”)

The Zelamites, it seems, have figured out what humanity is up to: history has recorded some sixty or seventy intelligent species who have gone extinct from war or cosmic accidents or, most often, a dying sun, and often no one would accept such a massive influx of refugees – so, by “using your great experience and immense wealth of wisdom to exploit the snobbery of lesser races,” Earthlings have scattered themselves over a hundred million worlds. This exploitation of cultural capital is so successful that the Zelamites are sick of hearing “What, you have no Terrans? By the stars, you must be backward!” from the other, meaner alien races. They now want to follow in the humans’ footsteps, and getting Melisande to start teaching them is their first step. She begins her first class on Transcosmic Ethic with Lesson One: “Intelligence is like candy. It comes in an endless variety of shapes, sizes and colors, no one of which is less delectable than the others.

In many ways, this is the polar opposite of “Lover, When You’re Near Me.” The plotting is pretty poor, and in fact the whole story amounts to a lot of exposition and not much else. The setting, though, is a fantastically interesting one (and hopefully a precursor to a lot more of this kind of cosmopolitan galactic settings, which have been sorely lacking so far), and it treats women as meaningful human beings.

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