Wednesday, June 2, 2010

William Tenn's "Firewater" (novella, communications): Traders come before theorists

Quote from short story Firewater by William Tenn
The key thesis here is: well organized human knowledge often has a vast history behind. A whole lot of people over long periods of time doing routine jobs gathering bits of isolated data, until finally the accumulated lot begins to fit a pattern & is fit for generalization & theorizing.

This is also a first contact story about communication difficulties with aliens who're totally & utterly incomprehensible, & with whom we don't have anything in common - sort of, a tamer version of Stanislaw Lem's "Solaris" & Terry Carr's "The Dance of Changer & the Three" (download). Another noteworthy story of the class is Hal Clement's "Longline"; while aliens continue to remain impossible to understandable here, a method of communication is worked out.

Through the story, we see analogies with European invaders of Americas in the past & their interactions with native Americans. "Firewater" of title refers to whisky, apparantly a European product sometimes traded with native Americans for tobacco, the local product. I obviously missed nuances Americans will see here.

Story summary.

This is a complex-story-that-feels-simple, with several actors persuing their own agenda:
  1. "Aliens" who've been on earth a while, & now occupy localized places. They're so vastly superior to humans as to be god-like. They're obviously not interested in occupying earth or looting. Their presence here is giving humanity fits because of inferiority complex it breeds.
  2. "Primeys", short for "Humanity Prime": Some of the smartest humans who've achieved enough contact with aliens to get noticed have turned into these gabbing idiots, but with vast magical powers. They effectively run as errand boys for Aliens, & are best seen as a race distinct from normal humanity. Think of them as magic-weaving characters from James Schmitz's "The Witches of Karres" (download), but of incomprehensible motives.
  3. United Mankind's "Special Investigating Commission" (SIC): And organ of the "world government" ("United Mankind"), granted vast police powers & mandated to open channels of communications with Aliens. They've nothing to show, in spite of a lot of public money spent.
  4. "Humanity Firsters", or just "Firsters": A near-religious cult a man named Vandermeer Dempsey spawned & is using to further his own agenda of political power. Cultists deny that Aliens exist, & think Primeys & people who deal with them are humanity's worst enemies.
  5. Algernon Hebster, a rich businessman who's made a fortune building gadgets by picking knowledge off Primeys. He's the central character around whom the whole story is woven.
P Braganza, of SIC, wants Hebster to work for government in establishing communications with aliens. Dempsey sees Hebster as the poster boy to rouse passions among the masses that will begin a revolution for him. Running from both, Hebster will end up getting caught among the Aliens & successfully contact the trade representative of their expedition: let's begin with the profits, understanding can come centuries hence using bits of data that will be gathered while trading.


  1. During the meeting of Hebster with Aliens, we're offered a simile: "like the girl in Greek mythology who had begged Zeus for the privilege of seeing him in the full regalia of his godhood. A few moments after her request had been granted, there had been nothing left of the inquisitive female but a fine feathery ash."

    I know of at least one other story that uses this Greek legend in a central way: Henry Kuttner & C L Moore's "The Children's Hour" (download).

Collected in.

  1.  William Tenn's "Time in Advance".

Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding, February 1952.
Rating: B.
Among the stories from Astounding/Analog issues edited by John W Campbell, Jr
Related: Stories of William Tenn.