“The Godfall’s Chemsong” by Jeremiah Tolbert

IZ224 coverI enjoyed this, but then, I have a soft spot for sf stories told entirely from an alien point of view, like Tiptree’s “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” or Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “Embracing-the-New”, which I suspect makes me look more kindly on “The Godfall’s Chemsong” than it really deserves. None of these stories can ever really do what they promise, obviously, but there’s a sweet spot between total incomprehensibility and humans-with-fins (or whatever) that I can’t resist.

This story errs on the side of the human, the transparent. Its aliens are undersea creatures whose world is defined by scent, and much of whose food comes as godfall, the bodies of other organisms falling from the surface. The protagonist, Muskblue, not the most successful female in her pod, encounters an unusual godfall while on her own: it is “thin, straight, only three times as long as Muskblue, with two narrow limbs at each end”. It’s a crime not to share godfall; she is banished; she finds a way to survive; she works out what this new sort of godfall means. Hard not to compare this to Helen Keeble’s “A Lullaby“, or the opening section of In Great Waters, and find it wanting; but as I say, I did enjoy it.

7 thoughts on ““The Godfall’s Chemsong” by Jeremiah Tolbert

  1. I enjoyed this very much (I just finally read it last night). I found it lucid, lyrical, absorbing, quiet, transformative.

    I am sure your reservations are well-founded, but I didn’t share them.

  2. I think it definitely suffered from my having read similar things this year that — perhaps partly by virtue of coming first — made a stronger impression. I really do recommend the Helen Keeble story as worth considering for your novelette ballot.

  3. I just finished the Keeble.

    I actually don’t think the stories are very similar. I read the Keeble as being more about human conceptions of intelligence, and constructions of what is or is not personhood — along the lines of where Cat Rambo has been going with her Tabat stories. “Godfall’s Chemsong” seems more like some of the intense, alien-saturated Tiptree work — it reminds me of “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death,” though gentler, certainly.

    I did enjoy the novelette, though. Keeble really nailed that ending.

  4. Hmm. I would say: sf has a lot of stories that are (deliberately or unintentionally…) about humans projecting their ideas onto inscrutable Others, and a reasonable tradition of stories that aspire to inhabit an Other perspective. “The Godfall’s Chemsong” is, as you say, squarely in the latter tradition. But one of the reasons I like “A Lullaby” is that I think it inhabits both, draws the link between the two. Because a story like “The Godfall’s Chemsong” is still about human conceptions of intelligence and constructions of personhood — just at one remove — which is what I was getting at in the original post when I said that it could never really do what it promises. “A Lullaby” can’t do it either, and in having two narrators certainly sacrifices the purity of the alien-ness of a story like “Chemsong” … But I think what it gains by having both narrators impose their ideas of personhood on each other is the ability to explore and critique both of those traditions. I mentioned. I haven’t read Cat Rambo’s stories, so I don’t know if they take the same approach, but it’s been a while since I read an sf story — other than In Great Waters — that looked at both sides of the human/Other divide so effectively.

  5. I think what I mean is, Keeble seems to be taking on colonialism in a direct way, using the scientist’s voice and recitation of his experiments to create specific skepticism about the racist implications of the history of science and colonial adventure.

    Here we have a sentient creature imprisoned in a cage by someone who suspects it to be sentient; its children are taken away; its behaviors and biology are analyzed in a manner that is a familiar call to the ways that science was practiced during colonialism. (The character could easily have been made an anthropologist instead of a biologist, as the former field was certainly equally complicit.) Given the explicit calls to colonialism, it is very difficult not to see Congolese people in exhibits in Belgium; black babies taken from their mothers; Bushmen shot and eaten by colonialists who brag of it in their journals; black men on display in Central Park Zoo; Goddard’s experiments with racial intelligence; anthropological analyses of non-white cultures which take for granted their members’ inferior intelligences, lack of moral character, lack of intelligence, and lack of souls.

    I think this technique of using literal otherness to discuss metaphorical otherness is both useful and fraught. Fraught because it legitimizes the metaphorical lens that centers the white experience (which is why work like Gord Sellar’s Pahwahke is both lovely and unusual, in the way that it centers and makes literal the non-white perceptions of encounter), but also important because I think the dissonance can be used to good effect. As I wrote about Cat Rambo’s “Narrative of a Beast’s Life” and “‘I’ll Gnaw Your Bones,’ the Manticore Said” in my review of her collection:

    One of the most powerful tools in the arsenal of fantasy and science fiction writers is the ability to place familiar things in an unfamiliar setting and, thereby, force readers to reexamine them… Much contemporary African American fiction plays on slave narratives in some way – for instance, Jones’s Known World and Morrison’s Beloved have both been described as taking on the project of re-imagining the lost histories of people who could not tell their stories. Rambo’s re-imagining of American slavery adds to this discourse in a different way, by altering the slave narrative subtly to create a new perspective for analyzing the original.

    Keeble’s is a deliberate political and contextual exploration of other, using voice and imagery to reinforce these themes.

    While “Godfall’s Chemsong” can certainly be analyzed through this lens, I don’t think that it has as much of a specific connection a any given particular historical interpretation of otherness (for good reason, since his is not set in a human historical period). This creates a different set of contexts and interpretations, and makes the two stories very different for me in how I think about or want to discuss them.

  6. “Bushmen”

    Pardon. I should not have used the term. When repeating things I remember from academic texts — even old ones — I sometimes have a tendency to use the words that were used there.

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