A Billion Eves

There are three obvious things to say about Robert Reed, and they get said all the time. One: he is prolific. Two: he writes (mostly) traditional science fiction stories. Three: his work is highly competent. In isolation, none of these qualities is particularly remarkable, but the combination marks him out.

To take the question of productivity first, for instance, there are plenty of sf writers who produce a book a year, and more than a few who seem to manage a book every nine months or so; and of that cohort, there’s a depressing number I can’t help wishing would slow down a little. Not because it’s hard work trying to keep up, although it can be, but because there is often a sense that such productivity—whether driven by the market or by the writer’s own need to get their stories told—comes somewhat at the expense of the final product. There are a lot of sf books (to be fair, probably a lot of books in general) that feel as though they have escaped from their writers’ desk just a little too early, that seem to have needed just one more draft, just that extra bit of care. But that’s almost never the case with Reed’s work. He is, admittedly, most visible a writer of short stories. In twenty years or so of writing, he’s produced eleven novels, but more noticeable is the fact that it seems barely a month goes by without him cropping up in some magazine or other (“The Cure”, in the December 2005 F&SF, was his fiftieth story for that venue), not infrequently with substantial novellas. The stories I’ve encountered have been, almost without exception, smart, tidy, well-put-together—competent—work.

And to my mind, at least, the most interesting of them have been science fiction. I was recently involved in a discussion about what current sf it would be best to recommend to someone who used to read in the genre, drifted away a decade or two ago, and now wanted to try it again. One immediate problem with the question, of course, that a lot of the high-profile writers at the moment (China Mieville, Kelly Link) are best-known for recombinative, border-case work, which may not be the most effective starting point. Reed’s work was suggested as one way in, which makes sense to me: although the settings and themes of his stories vary widely, they tend to work like traditional sf, being usually either idea-driven, or on a grand scale, or both. In 2004, to pick a year more-or-less at random, Reed stories included “A Plague of Life” (Asimov’s, March), which is essentially a family saga, but set in a world where humans are vastly longer-lived than us; “Hexagons” (Asimov’s, June, later Hugo-nominated), which reveals an alternate history through its depiction of a strategy game and real political machinations; and several entries in his “Marrow” sequence (“River of the Queen”, F&SF, February; Mere; and The Well of Stars), which relates the story of a Great Ship, an environment so vast it contains a planet at its centre.

“A Billion Eves”, in the October/November issue of Asimov’s this year, is one of the aforementioned substantial novellas. It works in a similar way to “A Plague of Life”, which is to say that it opens on a recognisable, even familiar scene (a family preparing to go on holiday, their daughter sceptical, expecting things to go wrong) with a few odd details (character names like Kala, the daughter, and Sandor, her brother; place names like the Mother Ocean), and then pulls back by stages to reveal how drastically the story’s world differs from our own. In the foreground, though, sure enough trouble strikes the holiday: they leave on Friday, but the family car soon breaks down. Luckily, it’s not too far to the nearest garage.

Despite its being the Sabbath, the traffic was heavy—freight trucks and tiny cars and everything between. Traveling men and a few women bought fuel and sweet drinks. The women were always quick to pay and eager to leave; most were nearly as old as Mom, but where was the point in taking chances? The male customers lingered, and the fix-it man seemed to relish their company, discussing every possible subject with each of them. The weather was a vital topic, as were sports teams and the boring district news. A glum little truck driver argued that the world was already too crowded and cluttered for his tastes, and the old gentleman couldn’t agree more. Yet the next customer was a happy salesman, and, in front of him, the fix-it man couldn’t stop praising their wise government and the rapid expansion of the population.

As prose, this paragraph is not particularly special, but what’s nice about it is that it raises questions and provokes assumptions through its choice of details, without stepping outside the scene. Friday is widely accepted as the Sabbath; there is either a specific or general situation that’s putting women in danger; population growth is encouraged by the government; and sports and local news continue as usual. Before too long, a repurposed school bus pulls in for fuel. Sandor interrogates the driver about his intentions. It is a tense scene, but we don’t quite know why—in fact, it’s a tense scene because we don’t quite know what’s going on, and its resolution evokes a complex mix of relief that the family are ok, and horror as the implications of what’s just happened become clearer. The driver is a member of something called the Church of Eden, and planning to leave (where to, we don’t know). When Sandor asks him how he’s going to maintain his gene pool, the man replies, “You think I should take along another? Just to be safe?” Kala starts to wonder who else is on the man’s bus, and whether they’re there voluntarily. But though it’s clearly a fate to be avoided, it also appears to be business as usual. It may not be a practice officially endorsed by the government, but the abduction of women isn’t very actively policed against, either.

For a while after this, the story devotes itself to making such a situation plausible, and exploring how things got this way. We learn that, despite the apparently twentieth-century levels of technology, we’re a long way in the future: at least 20,000 years. We learn that we may not be on Old Earth, but we’re certainly on An Earth: humanity has been expanding sideways, into parallel Earths uninhabited by humans or other intelligent species, using machines known as “rippers”. We learn that the man from the Church of Eden was on his way to finding a new Earth of his own, using a stolen ripper only powerful enough to relocate the bus and a few surrounding metres; bigger rippers can move whole city blocks. And we learn how it started: a young man named Owen, from our Earth, stole one of the larger rippers, loaded up three trucks with essential supplies, and transported them, himself, and a local sorority house to another world. Kala and Sandor’s world is just one of hundreds of worlds downstream of that initial shift, and Owen’s story—the story of the First Father—has long since become myth, forming the basis of a whole spectrum of religions.

The most devoted wives left behind written accounts of their adventures on the new world—the seven essential books in the First Father’s Testament. Quite a few churches also included the two Sarah diaries, while the more progressive faiths, such as the one Kala’s family belonged to, made room for the Six Angry Wives. Adding to the confusion were the dozens if not hundreds of texts and fragmentary accounts let behind by lesser-known voices, as well as those infamous documents generally regarded to be fictions at best and, at worst, pure heresies.

The worst of those heresies is The First Mother’s Tale, which relates the story of Claire, the fifty-something widow who had overseen the sorority house. No major church recognises Claire’s existence, but we are given every indication that her testament is, in fact, the closest to the truth. In the aftermath of the shift from Old Earth, Claire confronts Owen. In every official testament, Owen unlocks the supplies in the trucks he’d brought through, and his new wives give themselves to him willingly; in The First Mother’s Tale, Claire rejects Owen’s demand of three women out of hand, offering only herself instead, and pointing out that “You don’t know us […] Everyone here is going to realize that you’re just a very ignorant creature. If they don’t know it already, that is. And if you think you’ve got power over us … well, let’s just say you have some very strange illusions that need to die.” But despite the fact that she gets her way—and in fact seems to be instrumental in the survival of the colony, and its establishment as a functioning society—history has swept her under the rug. Owen has a tomb; Claire does not.

Relating all of this takes time, during which Kala is growing up. But it’s the former rather than the latter that drives the story. We don’t turn the pages to find out what happens to Kala (which is just as well, because Reed’s characterisation of her is only serviceable); we turn them to find out what has already happened to her world, and how. The answer to that second question is that a sort of memetic Founder Effect holds sway: uprooting civilisation and starting from scratch every couple of thousand years doesn’t just restrict genetic diversity, in Reed’s model of history, it restricts the ideologies that people carry with them. This is clearly an arguable premise, at best, but much like the conservation of the path of progress in a book like Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, it makes for an interesting story. There is progress, but of a limited kind, and heavily dependent on starting assumptions. So by Kala’s time, establishing new colonies is part of religious practice, and the founders are equal numbers men and women, who undergo formal group marriages the day before they depart; but it’s still accepted that some men will kidnap some women, because that’s the way things are. When Sandor saves his younger sister from just such an abduction, and castrates the would-be kidnapper to boot, the reaction of the family’s friends and colleagues is incomprehension: Kala’s friends can’t understand why she would stand by her brother, when he’s committed such a horrible act.

At about the half-way mark, then, the story seems to be headed for the neat ending, to wit that Kala and her brother will find a way to Do It Right. There would be nothing wrong with this, as such, but it wouldn’t be doing anything we haven’t seen before; and given Reed’s commitment elsewhere in the story to the logic of his premise, it would have the mark of contrivance. To have Kala go all the way, by herself, would seem (I think) too much. So Reed throws another idea into the mix, with the result that what we more-or-less expect is more-or-less what happens, but it doesn’t happen entirely for the reasons we think it’s going to happen. Kala is concerned about the oppression of women in her world, but she’s even more concerned about something else: the fact that her world is dying.

“Computer models point to the possibility,” she explained. “Low diversity means fragile ecosystems. And it’s more than just having too few species. It’s the nature of these species. Wherever we go, we bring weed species. Biological thugs, essentially.
Do you ever wonder why so many earths don’t have decent air for us? Do you?” Kala gave [Sandor] a rough pat on the shoulder, asking, “What if a lot of pioneers have been moving across the multiverse? Humans and things that aren’t human, too. And what if most of these intrepid pioneers eventually kick their worlds out of equlibrium, killing them as a consequence?”

It’s a theme that could easily become heavy-handed, but Reed balances it against the already-established conservative nature of the story’s setting. Both the social and the environmental elements of the story underscore Reed’s basic argument—that human nature really doesn’t change, even across thousands of years; that thinking outside your immediate world really is hard, even when you know for certain that your world is only one of an infinite number of possible worlds. The scale of the story exposes the bleakness of the sentiment.

Kala’s world, like all the other worlds descended from the First Father’s colony, is inherently out of balance. So, not unlike the early garage scene, the end of “A Billion Eves” plays two emotions—what we feel, and what we know the characters feel—against each other. The joyous release provided by the fact that Kala and her brother eventually do escape from history (perhaps) is tempered by the knowledge that they are not really doing it for (what to us are) the obvious reasons, even if they’re doing it for perfectly good reasons. “I don’t want virility and stupidity,” says Kala. “I want wisdom and youth.” There is something comfortable in this, too, because all the strategies Reed has used in getting to this point—the initial use of strangeness as a hook, the narrative emphasis on uncovering history, the clean but unadventurous prose, the viewpoint character who grows to understand the world at the same pace as the reader, the generation of story through the collision of two different speculations—are classic science fiction strategies. But in the end, they still work. Robert Reed knows how to make them work.

2 thoughts on “A Billion Eves

  1. Surely the title of this story — one of my favorites this year — is “A Billion Eves”.

    Aside from that I think your remarks are very well taken!

  2. *headdesk*

    Yes, that would certainly make more sense. Thank you.

    Do I at least get credit for misreading it so consistently?

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