Monday, June 13, 2005

And then you fall through....

Robert Silverberg wrote a wonderful story about the nature of perception and reality. Like most of Silverberg's works, it is a subtle almost-parable that plagues your awareness long after you've finished it. The story is "Sundance." I'll try to summarize it in a few words.

It's set on an alien world, where a group of people is trying to eradicate an alien life form to prepare the planet for colonization. One of the members of the group is an American Indian, who is plagued by thoughts of the extermination of his own people in history, and his complicity in the elimination of a species on this planet. The creatures themselves are innocuous: they eat the poison pellets the humans spread, die, and neatly dissolve, leaving no mess behind. But are they intelligent, or are they cockroaches? That's the central question of the story. And it turns out the protagonist, the American Indian, suffers from delusions, from "psychological problems," so his perceptions of reality are not exactly trustworthy. He imagines (or does he?) that the creatures (:eaters") are sentient, that they worship the sun, the creation, that they share an appreciation of life with him. He dances with the creatures, or imagines he does. He gets drunk on the plants of the planet, plants which provide rich oxygen, perhaps too rich. He ends up searching for realities:

Again they find you and bring you back. They give you the cool snout on your arm to take the oxygen-plant drug from your veins, and then they give you something else so you will rest. You rest and you are very calm. Ellen kisses you and you stroke her soft skin, and then the others come in and they talk to you, saying soothing things, but you do not listen, for you are searching for realities. It is not an easy search. It is like falling through many trapdoors, looking for the one room whose floor is not hinged. Everything that has happened this planet is your therapy, you tell yourself, designed to reconcile an embittered aborigine to the white man's conquest; nothing is really being exterminated here. You reject that and fall through and realize that this must be the therapy of your friends; they carry the weight of accumulated centuries of guilts and have come here to shed that load, and you are here to ease them of their burden, to draw their sins into yourself and give them forgiveness. Again you fall through, and see that the Eaters are mere animals who threaten the ecology and must be removed; the culture you imagined for them is your hallucination, kindled of old churnings. You try to withdraw your objections to this necessary extermination, but you fall through again and discover that there is no extermination except in your mind, which is troubled and disordered by your obsession with a crime against your ancestors, and you sit up, for you wish to apologize to these friends of yours, these innocent scientists whom you have called murderers. And you fall through.
Robert Silverberg, "Sundance," The Science Fiction Century, ed. David G. Hartwell (New York: Tor 1997), p. 692-93.

Listening to NPR this morning, listening to stories of contractors being abused by Marines and reasons for some of those stories, these conflicts between the military and civilian contractors, I wondered how many people were beginning to feel like they, too, were looking for a room where the floor is not hinged.

And everytime they find it now, they fall through.

Such is the nature of war. Such is the nature of power.

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