Monday, July 15, 2013

Singularities: Across the Event Horizon by Mercurio Rivera

The event horizon of a black hole is the point of no return, the point beyond which the rules of the universe as we understand them cease to make sense. It is also one of the most popular metaphors in science fiction, lately in particular when discussing the Singularity, the time when all our technological developments collapse in on themselves to make a world we no longer understand. Mercurio David Rivera, in his new collection titled Across the Event Horizon, shows a refreshing lack of interest in trying to track where our technological development is taking us. Nevertheless, his book couldn't be better titled.  Rivera's stories tend to be "what-if" studies that imagine what will happen when we cross other kinds of boundaries to futures that are just as foreign to us.

One such boundary is the one that separates us from extraterrestrial intelligences that we imagine must exist. This is a narrative area where Rivera has found fertile ground, much more than a lot of recent scifi. At ReaderCon recently Rivera told me he was surprised when someone told him he had a lot of alien stories, though when he thought about he he realized it was true. One of the first significant writers that dealt with alien intelligences, though he's not thought of as such, was Jonothan Swift in Gulliver's Travels. In addition to the better-known Lilliputians Gulliver encountars many other species, including the intellectually top-heavy inhabitants of the floating island of Laputa and the horse-like Houyhnhnms, each of which was a foil to humanity. Recently Alastair Reynolds' aliens, such as the predatory Musk Dogs of Pushing Ice, have continued this tradition.

Like Reynolds, Rivera understands that whatever aliens exist must be inimaginably strange to us, but he also knows that we can only really imagine them by how they are like and unlike us. The avian Kawkawroons have two personalities in one body, one frivolous and one solemn; the Wergens in "Longing for Langalana" develop an unrequited crush on humanity. Like Vernor Vinge in his "Deepness" trilogy, Rivera recognizes that any contact between other species and ours will involve exploitation. But it may not be obvious at first who is exploiting whom. This theme occurs repeatedly; in "Sleeping with the Anemone," about a director of questionably consensual human/alien pornography, the victimizer becomes a victim.

Another boundary Rivera explores, and one even more rare to scifi, is the one between us and whatever gods or spriritual beings we believe in. Religion plays a large part in a number of Rivera's stories, none more than in "Missionaries," a story about a group of possibly self-destructive Buddhist monks trying to make contact with a mysterious group of uncommunicative aliens. Rivera explores the tension between faith and reason without offering easy answers. In "The Scent of Their Arrival," another alien race is divided between "naturalists" and "supernaturalists," categories that conform to their gender. This enriches a fascinating first-contact story with a terrifying twist at the end.

A pair of stories, "Dear Annabehls" and "Snatch Me Another," are ostensibly about the boundary between different universes, but really are about the boundary between who we are and who we might have been. This alternately hilarious and terrifying set of tales is based on the concept of a gateway that allows us to reach into parallel universes and snatch different versions of the same item. Not surprisingly, people soon go beyond snatching items and start snatching people as well -- copies of people who are alive, and those who are dead.

"Tu Sufrimiento Shall Protect Us," perhaps the darkest story in the book, is also the most directly political. The theme of the story has been explored before, as in "The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. LeGuin. But Rivera takes it in new directions, connecting it with race, terrorism and class inequality.

In many ways Rivera's stories hearken back to an earlier era of speculative fiction, an era more concerned with exploring ideas of what it means to be human than trying to actually predict what will happen. Many of his stories feature surprising twist endings that are worthy of a the best Twilight Zone episodes. These kinds of stories are something that speculative fiction needs more of, and I will be eagerly watching for future publications with works by Mercurio Rivera. 

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