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Monday, February 9, 2015

"Outside" by Brian Aldiss

First appeared in John Carnell's New Worlds. Reprinted by Edmund Crispin, G. D. Doherty, V. S. Muravyev, and Ellen Datlow.

Four men and two women live in a habitat which feeds them, allows them to play piano, and live day-to-day amid various domestic duties and pastimes. Harley, after years of doing the same things, feels an unease that he suspects his companions may not share. One night, when the command to sleep presses his brain, he decides to stay awake.

Harley discovers a whole world outside his habitat. An inexplicable sad rage comes over him at this injustice as he encounters a man in a suit and several uniformed men. The suited man explains that this war with the Nititians required them to isolate the Nititian spies from prying state secrets out of agents. Instead, the Nititians... play card games and the piano and clean the habitat? This leads to Earthlings learning Nititian secrets to defeat the menace.

In a proper Philip K. Dick fashion, we learn our protagonist is one of the enemy, soon to be eliminated. Perhaps this POV might trouble some readers, but any future POV, even if manipulated, cannot reach back into the past for us to read it. SF challenges standard narrative notions in a way that few question.

The story secretly allies us with our enemy in order to feel for a guy who lives pretty much as we do. We work, socialize, eat and sleep. Suddenly, we learn more or too much about our reality and we must die. How fair is that? Are we/Harley truly spies without our knowledge? or victims of this Cold War? Perhaps an evil switch is tucked deep inside us. Or else we are just victims steam-rolled by our society.

The reference to Calvin may refer to John Calvin, a theologian who believed people were pre-destined to be believers or not. Therefore, Harley's anger is that of an unbeliever who has not realized evil against others, find himself pre-destined for death in this "afterlife."

The writing style here is reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence's. Character emotions are labeled, but not in any way that might detract from the story. Even early in his career, the characterization is quickly painted in one-sentence strokes:
"Calvin, the handsome, broad man who looked as if he could command a dozen talents and never actually used one." 
As thought-provoking a tale it is, it stretches credulity that you can learn much about an enemy watching it play cards and clean house. For four years. Maybe. Still worth reading.

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