20) ‘Ej-Es’ by Nancy Kress
The story is told from the point of view of Mia, a doctor in the space corps, well past the age of retirement and worn out from long service. We join her as she and her colleagues are about to touch down on the planet named Good Fortune, where an established colony has suddenly ceased communicating. The reasons for this are soon established: the colonists have fallen prey to a new virus. They’re all dead. ‘Rec’ cubes left behind by the final victims tell their own story. Mia and her colleagues get to work isolating the pathogens and, from them, creating an antidote:
The colonists had had interment practices, they had had time to bury some of their dead in strong, water-tight coffins before everyone else died, and their customs didn’t include embalming. Much more than Mia had dared hope for. Good Fortune, indeed.
In five days of tireless work they had the micro isolated, sequenced, and analysed. It was a virus, or a virus analogue, that had somehow gained access to the brain and lodged near the limbic system, creating destruction and death. Like rabies, Mia thought, and hoped this virus hadn’t caused the terror and madness of that stubborn disease. Not even Earth had been able to eradicate rabies.
These brave pioneers of the space corps are clearly accustomed to measuring time in E years, travelling at speeds ‘just under c’ and solving complex bio-medical problems within five days. It all seems so, so easy. The skeletons of the dead colonists have been picked clean of muck, so there aren’t even any rotting corpses to dispose of. The reconnaissance team later run into some ‘natives’ who seem to be affected by a condition that causes delusions and hallucinations. Mia, worried by their plight, voluntarily maroons herself on Good Fortune so she can spend the time left to her saving their civilisation.
There’s a moral at the end, about not meddling in things or people you don’t properly understand, but by this stage in the story the whole thing had become too Star Trek for me to care. I’ll happily spend an evening watching DS9 or Voyager, but as it appears on the page, I lost my taste for this post-Golden-Age kind of science fiction many years ago. The workmanlike prose, the little mystery that needs solving, the by-the-numbers characterisation? Just not for me.
21) ‘The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees’ by E. Lily Yu
I’m not always a fan of stories that make use of animals to tell a human story, but when they are invested with this amount of wit and invention they can be powerful and strange. Bees seem to be in vogue at the moment, science fictionally, which is no bad thing at all. Not only are they vital to our survival as a species, but with their complex and often untranslatable social systems and modes of being they provide a potent source of metaphor and imagery for any writer.
I was aware of ‘The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees’ the year it was published. I know this story was nominated for a fair few awards – I just never got around to reading it. I’m very pleased to have made good that gap, because it’s a wonderful piece of writing: amusing, cautionary, excellently crafted. In essence, it’s a war story, a story of brutal invasion and counter-revolution, the struggle for power:
Whereas the hive before the wasp infestation had been busy but content, the bees now lived in desperation. The natural terms of their lives were cut short by the need to gather enough honey for both the hive and the wasp nest. As they travelled farther and farther afield in search of nectar, they stopped singing. They danced their findings grimly, without joy. The queen herself grew gaunt and thin from breeding replacements, and certain ministers who understood such matters began feeding royal jelly to the strongest larvae.
Meanwhile, the wasps grew sleek and strong.
In spite of the elegance and beauty of its language, there is nothing even remotely soft-centred about this story. I only wish it could have gone on for longer.