My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“This will be my last final broadcast. I know I said that yesterday, and the day before, and all the days before that after climbing this salt ridge and lifting my whiskers to the star. But this must be, truly, the last. There is no more time. I am dying.”
These opening lines of the story immediately set the tone of events to come. The protagonist is an Arabian anthropologist that was once tormented by the cold stars and the vast emptiness between them, and found himself driven to join Starmind. After years of training, Ansible 15716 , as he is designated is sent to a bleak and remote world covered in saline deserts. There he is robbed of voice and language, unable to communicate with the natives and unable to locate the other members of his team. There he roams the world looking for unknowable answers, tormented once more by his helplessness in the face of the stars, unable even to control the urge to mate with his alien bride. Slowly, he is driven to madness as his body yearns for expression, his heart for companionship, his mind for language and his soul for God.
The term Ansible was coined by Ursula Le Guin in 1966 and soon became a canon of science-fiction, borrowed by the likes of Orson Scott Card and other sf legends. The Ansible is supposed to be a device that allows for instant inter-planetary communication, despite the mind-boggling distances between worlds. Litore has turned the term into a calling and created a series of short stories that explore the outer regions of space and alien culture.
The story is written and narrated masterfully, engaging the reader’s senses in exploring the alien existence through a person imprisoned in the body of an alien, making him immediately familiar and yet other at the same time. By robbing him of the power of language, something that the Ansibles are trained for, the protagonist and the reader are forced to explore the world and the culture as outsiders. Yet these aren’t the only elements of the story. There is an overarching sense of mystical exploration too, with the protagonist engaged in an inner-dialogue with God. I have a suspicion that this relationship is central to the reason that the Arab man first went to Starmind, in the hopes that the work would bring him closer to God. This is best captured in the experience of the man’s intelligence transferring into the body of the alien, as he describes it as an “annihilatory experience”, the ultimate expression of Sufism, the annihilation of the self into the greater awareness of God.
This is true, breathtaking science fiction that will leave the reader as unsettled as it did the author. For that, despite its length, this is a 4 star experience.