Nebula Novelettes: Lawrence M Schoen – The Rule of Three (Future Science Fiction Digest)

An American-Chinese man receives a tantalising video — evidence of an alien visitor near his grandmother’s village in China.

“My mother had called me at noon. She passed along surprisingly good video shot by a local child on the blind neighbor’s cell phone. I could hear the kid’s laughing commentary as he panned back and forth capturing some trees along the riverbank before moving on to show the water and what looked like an enormous pearl floating there. The trees provided perspective. The pearl had to be at least two stories tall. It looked like nothing on Earth, and certainly nothing that had any business being in my grandmother’s backward village. Except that’s where it was. Not the place where an alien visitor, or an alien invader, would set down. There was nothing significant there, nothing of value, just a handful of people who—a lone cell phone notwithstanding—had never joined the modern world. Nothing but my grandmother.”

The Rule of Three By Lawrence M. Schoen Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 1 December 15, 2018

The narrator’s grandmother is part of the Miao ethnic minorities in China and lives a simple agrarian life in the hills. The narrator’s initial puzzlement about why an alien would choose his grandmother’s village for first contact is answered as he discovers the alien has its own intriguing philosophy.

“It nodded at me and smiled. “If I make a thing, I am one and the thing is full of the life that I gave it. If I pass that thing to you, you are two, and the thing still feels its connection to me and so retains that life. If you give the thing to another, that person is three. The thing still holds the link to me, my life still resonates within it. The distance does not matter, but the number does. Three is the limit. Pass the thing I made on to a fourth person and it can no longer detect me. The connection is broken. Unlife rushes in to fill the void. As a result it cannot be easily perceived. It is dark, inert.”

The Rule of Three By Lawrence M. Schoen Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 1 December 15, 2018

The alien’s “Rule of Three” is not simply a preference against mass manufactured goods or modern consumerism but something that literally shapes its* powers of perception. It can barely perceive the narrator when they first meet and only then because a bout of food poisoning had meant the narrator had only eaten his grandmother’s food recently.

As well as limiting the alien’s powers of perception (rendering things ‘dark’ that hadn’t been made within the rule of three) the rule also is at the root of the alien’s power. Coming from a society where all things must have small personal chains of creation, the aliens have developed fantastical powers of creation. Even the alien’s pearl-like spaceship was personally crafted by the alien itself.

“There was no falling back on the classic trope of taking Foom to meet with world leaders. It wouldn’t be able to perceive them. Whether it was foie gras or prime rib, a fast-food cheeseburger or a cup of insta-noodles, antibiotics or cholesterol-lowering meds, there wasn’t a president or king or diplomat on the planet that wouldn’t appear dark to the alien. And even if they deliberately purged themselves as I had unwittingly done, if they ate my grandmother’s soup or dined on fish caught and cooked by their own hand, still the things they placed the most value on, computers and air conditioning and cars and smartphones and hospitals and organ transplants and electrical grids and highway infrastructure and missile defense systems, all the things we’d accomplished as we moved from the agrarian world through the Industrial Age, past the Atomic Age and into the current Information Age, all of it was dark. Unlife.”

The Rule of Three By Lawrence M. Schoen Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 1 December 15, 2018

Instead, the connection between the alien and human worlds is made by the narrator’s grandmother who teaches the alien her traditional skill of batik dyeing of cloth using the distinctive indigo dye of her people. This craft and art form is sublime to the alien who is entranced by how the patterns made by the wax are retained in the patterns of the dyed cloth even as the wax is lost.

Unfortunately, the alien has other plans for humanity as whole, who it regards as being largely consumed by unlife.

According to Schoen, his story was inspired by a sponsored visit to China in 2018.

“In June of 2018, the Future Affairs Administration** flew me and three Canadian authors to participate in a workshop co-funded by the Wanda Group*** which was running a poverty abatement program in Guizhou Province, traditionally one of the poorest and most ethnically diverse regions in the country. We picked tea, made paper, learned batik, visited historic sites, and spoke with many people. I don’t have enough superlatives to describe the trip. When it was over, FAA asked us to write novelettes inspired by our experiences there. “The Rule of Three” was my result, the words coming to me without effort as I daydreamed about the places I’d seen.”

The Rule of Three By Lawrence M. Schoen Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 1 December 15, 201

There’s a vague genre of alien contact where the alien provides broader spiritual wisdom to humanity. Stranger in a Strange Land technically has a human in the alien prophet role but is effectively the holotype for the genre. By using the perspective of an alien, the reader is given a radically different view of their own world and society. In addition, the alien is granted a privileged perspective by virtue of either technological or spiritual powers (or both or they are the same thing). So it is not simply an outsider commenting on modern society but an outsider who is framed unarguably by the story as being from a more advanced state.

Here, the alien rejects the loss of personal connection in modern society with the things we own and use. The alien rejects our own alienation from our possessions and our lack of personal connection with what we own and consume even down to our clothes and food.

It’s a clever critique and you could pull it apart or point at Schoen and say that he hasn’t retreated to a pastoral life weaving his own clothes but that would be misunderstanding the role of fiction. This story isn’t a polemic or a manifesto but rather a way of turning our perception of what an alien society might make of us. The narrator explicitly points to the tropes of first contact and rejects them and instead the story asks us to imagine what if the aliens we meet are an extrapolation not of of current late-stage capitalism but rather an extrapolation of one of the many (but dwindling) other ways of living in the world.

On the other hand it is necessarily a shallow perspective on the lives of ethnic minorities in China. Nor is the critique of mass production done in any depth — it is simply granted by the alien as being not merely ethically wrong but also inimical to life and a danger to the rest of the universe. Yet, within the confines of a novelette there are obvious limits in how deeply such things can be explored.

Personally, I didn’t warm to the story, perhaps because of my pro-technology biases (and despite the interesting idea of being able to sweat beer) but it is hard not to be impressed with the consummate skill of the story. I was worried by the initial exposition of the character’s background that the story would follow a similar tone as the first couple of paragraphs but overall it is a deftly done and original tale.

*[“it” is the pronoun used for the alien in the story]

**[The ‘Future Affairs Administration’ is apparently a Chinese media group who co-published the magazine this story appears in. There is a Pixel Scroll entry on the venture here: http://file770.com/pixel-scroll-12-8-18-science-fiction-is-what-i-yell-zap-for-when-i-throw-at-people/ ]

***[The Wanda Group is a major private company in China and internationally (e.g. they own the Hoyts cinema chain in Australia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wanda_Group ]

3 thoughts on “Nebula Novelettes: Lawrence M Schoen – The Rule of Three (Future Science Fiction Digest)

  1. This is a beautiful little story about reconnecting with the basic and essential things in life, crossed with an encounter with a visiting alien who may not be as kind and benign as they seem. It’s full of wonderful cultural insights — leavened with some home truths — and has some darkness, but also some hopefulness.

    I, too, have a pro-technology bias, and I don’t think that having everyone on Earth go back to living by the Rule of Three would be feasible. I like that the story also recognizes that, and that the narrator can acknowledge the deep flaws in our civilization while still feeling that humanity is worth saving.

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