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The People of Pele (Ken Liu, Asimov's, Feb 2012)

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The People of Pele (Ken Liu, Asimov's, Feb 2012) takes an original approach to the definition of life. The hills are alive not with sound but light-- piezoelectric scintillations as the inhabitants move/are moved about the planet. The approach isn't wholly unique, as any Star Trek TOS fan will note, but the original inhabitants of Pele aren't like the Horta except in being silicon-based. The Horta were basically silicon based humans—communication and mutual comprehension followed by cooperation quickly ensued, once it was determined that the Horta were sentient. The Peleans are beyond comprehension.

Sentience, the quality addressed less often these days in Sci-Fi, is not addressed and is not addressable in the context of the Peleans. They live on a vastly slower time scale than humans. Pohl's Sluggards in the Heechee stories are right with us by comparison. Once again, mutualism was possible once the obstacles were overcome between humans and Sluggards. The time scale differences between Pele’s two peoples are too vast for mutual comprehension to occur. This leaves an unfathomable gap between the humans and Peleans.

Even so, the colonists soon feel that they'll understand the rocks before they make sense of the orders they receive from Houston. They are ever more aware of the comprehension gap between them and the US national command authority on Earth. Pele orbits 61 Virginis, with a time lag of 28 years between the sending and the receiving of orders via radio. (No FTL. No ansibles. No quantum linked commo.) As in C.J. Cheryh's Downbelow Station, orders issued in the past have little bearing on the present. Personal messages from home only emphasize the sense of separation and loss and isolation felt by the colonists. Earth and its troubles quickly lose relevance in the light of the discovery of so different a life form under so distant a sun.

Pele is set in a future where nationalist prestige and competition demand the expenditure of 10% of GDP on a one-way, manned, NAFAL mission to an Earth-like planet far away. (Originally to be claimed for all mankind. Then they get "new orders" per the deteriorating political situation on Earth.) The Pele mission was sent by the US. There is a Russo-Chinese mission to Gliese 581 and a Euro-Indian mission to an unnamed planet. There is a three way cold war between these three power blocs. Anyone who lived through the US-Soviet Cold War understands the essential need of a country to one-up its rivals. What better way than taking resources that could be used to improve life here on Earth and sending a handful of colonists to 61 Virginis or Gliese 581?

The story presents an interesting political constellation-- I'm not sure that China would get back with the Ruskies, and I'd hope we'd get together with India. (Historically, India and Russia are a more likely friendship.) I see Chinese and Indian interests as coming into conflict, so why not a US-India alignment and one between Europe and Russia? To a lesser extent, China and Russia may come into conflict over their frontier. They’ve clashed in the past. China has people; Russia has open spaces. China has recently renewed its claims to waters to its southeast and has rapidly expanded its navy. Eventually, China must cast hungry eyes to the empty spaces to the North. On the other hand, finding mutually agreeable solutions may result in gratitude and collaboration—and alliance

The story requires the development of anti-matter reactors to get 151 colonists to Pele and depends on an Earth power not developing FTL to enforce the old disorder the colonists increasingly wish to leave behind. The living rocks are so innovative that I can't quite overcome my scientific skepticism. (The scientists among the colonists have to wrestle with it as well.) However, the hardest point for me to suspend disbelief over is that anyone on Earth would put forth sufficient effort to colonize another star system. Whenever the subject of the Final Frontier comes up, I think of the Coneheads laughing at the notion of "astronauts on the moon". (Does my bitterness over the "space program" show? The Coneheads laugh and I sigh.) That’s why we read Sci-Fi, though. To escape the horrors around us and to search for better answers than the ones offered us. I look forward to reading more of Liu’s future history. It may be more fun than the one we are living in. I long for a future that includes space colonization. Certainly I envy the humans on Pele. This story is certainly more fun to read than the newspapers

The story, start to finish, is a pleasure to read. The characters and plot are just meaty enough to move the story along, interest the reader, and establish the theme without wasting a syllable. The nature of life on Pele is used masterfully to bring home the story’s themes and raises questions the scientists among the colonists struggle to answer. You see the command staff blown along by the winds of reality just as Pele’s original inhabitants are blown by the winds of Pele. The command team members face a hard decision, but are firm in their resolve when the time comes. I would not be surprised to see The People of Pele fleshed out to novel length. I'd look forward to reading that. Having also seen Liu's The Countable in the December Asimov's, I look forward to reading more of his stories. Both stories are tight, saying a lot without wasting words, and both pull the reader in to see what happens next. Liu’s writing is compelling and full of meaning, with sympathetic characters in original and imaginative settings