A Is For Alien, But Also For Altered States

Caitlín R. Kiernan leads us into eight worlds of mutilated bodies and uploaded brains in the wake of alien encounters, in her new story collection A Is For Alien. Spoilers ahead...

In this collection, Kiernan's famed gothic touch turns to science fiction, to prove the human race is smaller, and more malleable, than we ever imagined.

I'd never read Kiernan's work before, but I've been hearing great things about her writing for years now. And A Is For Alien, out now from Subterranean Press, has stuck with me since i read it a week or so ago. The stories, which honestly felt a bit lightweight when I read them, have stuck in my mind and are popping up in unexpected ways. Pretty much all eight of the stories take place in the future, and involve people who have lost some of their humanity — but not in a cute, clever uplifty way, more in a horrendous, deforming way.

In one story, a guy is hunting alien parasites that are decimating the human race, and meanwhile his ex-girlfriend has become a bitchy cyborg who bosses him around and calls him Mr. Paine instead of his first name. In another story, two people on a deep-space exploration ship realize they're not human - they're robots who have been imprinted with the personalities of dead humans... but that doesn't stop the robots from masturbating constantly. In a third story, a girl tries to join a "polymorphist" cult which tries to fuse human and animal DNA... and she gets a set of tentacles added to her body which die off and necrotize, leaving her with non-functional dead tentacles, while the other polymorphists jeer at her for refusing to go naked among them.

In many of these stories, humanity has encountered something bigger, and older, than itself - something which sees our insignificance and greets us with a resounding shrug. And - probably not by coincidence - humans are striving to become something stranger and possibly more important than what we already are. It's a messy, disappointing process, and none of Kiernan's characters seems to gain much from their stabs at self-improvement. Often, humans form cults around the alien, the other, the mysterious eyes watching us from beyond the protection of our pitiful campfire.

In one story, "The Pearl Diver," a woman named Farasha Kim loses her job merely for opening a spam email, which is illegal in this dark dystopian future. (For some reason, this Big Brother future can tell instantly if you open an unsolicited email, but they still don't have working spam filters.) The unsolicited email is an invite to a Hindu-themed uplift cult, which has a mysterious link to a meteorite which crashed in 2037. Farasha goes on a weird head-trip, which ends with a vision of transcendence:

And her stolen body, like the fractured, ephemeral landscape of her nightmares, becomes something infinitely mutable, altered from second to second to second, living tissue as malleable as paint on a bare canvas. There is not death here, and there is no longer loneliness or fear, boredom or the dread of whatever's coming next. With eyes that have never truly seen before this moment, Farasha watches as her soul fills up with pearls.

Taken individually, these stories are a bit frustrating. They feature tons of explanation, exposition and infodump, but then there's no resolution and everything is left ambiguous. I found that somewhat daunting, to be honest - I don't mind a story where everything is dreamlike and left unresolved, and I don't mind a story where there's tons of explanation, leading to a resolution. But I have a hard time with stories which feel both plot-heavy and open-ended. At the same time, once you've read all eight stories, their themes and characters blend together more, and you start to worry less about whether each story has a satisfying conclusion or makes sense in the end.

And maybe by stopping just short of the tidy explanation and resolution, these stories leave us with a shred of hope that humans actually will survive our encounter with the unblinking eyes of the cosmos, that all of those weird transformations, Moreau-isms and customizations really will make us fit for the terrifying worlds we're set to explore. Instead of just leaving us damaged and pathetic in the path of the universe. You do walk away from A Is For Alien with a vague sense of hope mixed in with the dread. But I couldn't help wishing Kiernan had written a novel with these same themes, instead of a story collection, because that would probably be awesome. (Or maybe there's one out there, and I missed it?) [Amazon]