Monday, June 23, 2008

Joan D Vinge's "To Bell the Cat" (novelette, science fiction, free): A discredited man finds a purpose in life

Quote from short story titled To Bell the Cat by Joan D VingeIt' a first contact story - slow to pick up; it really picks up about midway through, where we hear aliens' conversations, & is then a good read.

The story includes short passages of torture, & longer ones about their justification: "They're just animals. They don't feel pain like we do." These are the kind of things that put me off, but main first contact story made up for this.

There is also a track on super-severe punishment of political criminals accused of what is sometimes called crimes against humanity. The hero of the story, Piper Alvarian Jary, is one such criminal. As a punishment, he has been sold into slavery as a laboratory animal to Simeu Biomedical Research Institute, after being "brainwiped", & then by killing his physical senses (by killing nerve endings)! He no longer remembers any "crimes" he's being punished for, & in fact there is suspicion he might be falsely being punished. There are several torture scenes, some extreme, with him at the receiving end.

Story summary.

On an unnamed alien world with a high level of radioactivity, a group of space faring aliens from a high energy world once had a shipwreck. Stranded ones are now living here. They comprise of "sessiles" & "mobiles" - former stuck to a place, later "rat-sized" creatures that move around. Mobiles are far less intelligent than sessiles; it's sessiles where new births occur. I've seen something like this in one of the "Rendezvous with Rama" sequels of Arthur Clarke/Gentry Lee (I think second & third stories - "Garden of Rama" & "Rama Revealed").

Now a human expedition has arrived, with five members: 3 "wardens" - Juah-u Corouda, & the husband/wife couple Albe Hyacin-Soong & Xena Soong-Hyacin; a biologist Dr Hoban Orr, & Piper Alvarian Jary. Piper is Orr's slave with no civil rights, & is also used as a lab animal.

Orr has been catching a lot of "mobiles" of the local aliens - he calls them "troglodytes" or "trogs". Humans aren't aware of the aliens' existence. Trogs in captivity behave rather dumb, & anyway humans have preconceived ideas that they're dumb. A lot of trogs will serve the purpose of science - by being vivisected!

An accident where Orr seems to have consciously thrown Piper into a situation where he might die, plus valiant rescue efforts of other trogs, makes Piper uncage some freshly caught trogs he's carrying. This act makes some aliens look towards humans they were already aware of with hope - may be humans can help them go back to their own world. But majority vetos them - humans are too dangerous, & not worth making contact with.

Yet, there is a problem of trogs' capture by humans; their population is fast dwindling. This is where the title comes from: how to ensure trogs will get a signal when human hunters approach?

In the later parts of the story, trogs will approach Piper when he's alone on a catching mission. Through a complicated ritual, Piper will become aware that trogs have different vision than humans; they can see him when his radiation suit has some local radioactive mud smeared on. He won't ever become aware of the aliens' sentience, but the idea of doing a good deed will make him determined to ensure no trogs will henceforth get caught by humans...

Fact sheet.

First published: Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Summer 1977.
Rating: B
Download full text from Internet Archive.
Included in Ellen Datlow's Sci Fiction classics.