Within many creative circles, criticism of specific techniques or practices is often reflexively attributed to sour grapes. It seems that no artist ever criticises an artifice unless he isn't good enough to make use of it himself. This is very much the case in writing, something I've discovered every time I made a comment about something that bothers me.
One such practice - and I hinted at this in the last Cavalcade - is the overwrought language associated with some "literary" writers. I often joke that a typical literary novelist is a failed poet who went in search of a style with lower standards. It's an overstatement, but I do infinitely prefer clean, clear prose to the dense, obscuritanist language used by many such novelists, and I'm not alone.
Make a comment like this in a public forum, and you'll get a response to the effect that you just aren't smart enough to understand real literature; say the same thing after identifying yourself as a writer, and the response becomes "Oh, you only say that because you can't do it." To which I responded "Hold my beer" and wrote "The Ocean Unseen."
The fact that I was tarting up the prose meant that this fairly simple, none-too-long (under 3,000 words) story took about a week and a half to write. Like "Starless Night," it's based on a series of audiobooks I listened to during my brief, wretched stint in agriculture. In both cases, these were books on exoplanets, leading to speculation on the nature of potential life forms inhabiting, respectively, a rogue planet and a frozen planet concealing a warm ocean.
Sadly, the 12 rejections suggest that I have failed yet again to break into the world of literary spec. Having read some of those publications, I think the problem may be that the prose is still far too clear and too enjoyable to read (everyone knows that real literature is a struggle to comprehend, after all).
The Ocean Unseen
The inhabitants of Detriti had always held a certain romantic fixation with the gloomy shell of dense ice that defined the upper limits of their world. Ahine was not unusual in this regard, except perhaps for the depths of her obsession. As a child, she joined with many others in their gleeful attempts to break through the barrier, digging at the dark surface with broken harpoon points, old hand drills and jagged shards of flint. It was a ritual of sorts, a tradition going back a hundred generations to the earliest Detritan explorers and mythmakers. There was something primeval about it, a connection to the planetary heritage that drew Ahine back even after she deduced that the effort was futile. And when she finally set aside those childish implements for good, she did not turn her thoughts back inward as most of the others did. Rather, her own fascination only became more intellectual.
There were no shortage of traditions explaining the nature of the barrier, its creation, and what might dwell in the unseen space above it. Most of the accounts were clearly myth and few Detritans took them as scientific fact, more as entertaining stories and cultural legacies. At the dawn of their civilization, they had held that the barrier separated the Ocean of Life from the Ocean of Dreams, a place that mortals were not meant even to consider. These two zones, the physical and the ephemeral, had to be kept apart for fear of what dwelt beyond. The risk of angering the gods or unleashing some fiend was too great to risk even a close examination. These superstitions gave way to more objective inquiry, but this varied only in details as the scholars, too, feared what might happened were the barrier breached. The dominant theory held that there was indeed another ocean above the barrier, but one of carbon – a blistering gray river of molten earth stuff pressing against the ice, threatening to infiltrate the Ocean of Life and bring ruin to the ecosystem and, in turn, the glorious civilization of the Detritans.
Ahine much preferred a far more romantic theory, put forth by certain outsider thinkers who rejected the presumptions of their colleagues that only an ocean could support life. From the first time she heard of this hypothesis, Ahine was enraptured. It seemed impossible that anything could inhabit a place devoid of water – how could such a creature possibly draw breath? But the impossibility of the situation only stirred Ahine's ingenuity. What might these creatures – these beasts of an “sea of gasses,” as the scholars called them – even look like? How would they adapt to a world that, lacking the invigorating warmth of hydrothermal vents, must be constantly encased in ice?
When she wasn't absorbing the words of obscure thinkers, Ahine followed the news of the world, which in its own way made her feel much more normal. There were others out there who, beyond dreaming idly about the world above, sought to find out for themselves what was past that barrier. These were the efforts of cranks more often that not – wealthy and unstable individuals pouring their resources into the constructions of impractically large bores or explosive devices that resembled magic more than science. On occasion, though, a person of letters would devise a plan that had some chance of success. Ahine had been particularly hopeful after hearing word of a scheme to direct energy from the vents to the upper waters, thinning the ice enough to allow for a more sophisticated study of whatever might be on the other side. Such schemes never made it out of the planning phases and were inevitably cataloged alongside those of the mad moguls.
Thus, the study of the barrier shifted away from the domain of science and into the world of the arts. Ahine saw no conflict between the two – surely there is no poetry as delicate as that to be found in nature, and every great practical endeavor started as an audacious story. Perhaps she couldn't simply smash through the wall, but through study she could imagine how such a feat might be accomplished. She spent free days floating just beneath the barrier, watching the children play at their games of exploration and trying to picture life in the Ocean of Dreams. Even among scholars, there were few who attempted to imagine the nature of life beyond the wall of ice. This was Ahine's opportunity to make a mark – to imagine a creature of the frigid gaseous ocean. At first she pictured a being much like the Detritans, similarly symmetrical on the outside, but with wholly alien innards fit to process the gasses of the world beyond. This struck her as an excessively romantic image, so she made a deeper study of biology and crafted a series of increasingly bizarre life forms, finally settling on a bulbous creature that little more than a fleshy satchel of organs and air, covered in layers of tiny tendrils to shelter it from the rigors of life outside of the water. She rarely spoke of these hypothetical creatures, especially as she grew older. It wasn't worth the mockery.
And still the known world evolved, all but unnoticed by Ahine as she fixed her sights on the barrier. It started with a handful of skirmishes, petty little conflicts that scarcely deserved to be dubbed “wars” but which were a disturbing upset in what had been generations of stability. For most, day-to-day existence scarcely changed, but there was an undercurrent of something more dire brewing in the Ocean of Life. The edges of the great civilization were pulling away from the center, aiming to form their own tiny empires at the farthest points of the known world. The bloodshed from these limited conflicts dissipated readily, but the comfortable folks in the Detritan heartland couldn't so easily ignore the changes in their quality of life. The luxuries that once came from the depths of Detriti stopped coming, and what did arrive at the centers of commerce was far more expensive. No one starved, but it was enough of a shock to turn all eyes inward and shake free the romanticism that had once characterized so many Detritans. The more people worried for their material comforts, the less time they had to ponder the barrier and the world beyond it.
Ahine was little troubled by solitude – she had little in common with the gawkers who flocked to the barrier in an attempt to relive childhood memories, and even the scholars could be aggravating in their own way. If anything, the increasingly empty quadrant of ocean felt like a gift from the world at large. Thus it was that Ahine was the only person to witness the light on the other side of the barrier.
It started as a tiny point of yellow, scarcely visible through the great black shell. Ahine paid it no mind at first, taking it for proof of exhaustion and a sign that she needed more sleep. But it was still there the next day, and what's more it had grown in both size and brilliance. By the third day there was no question that it was a genuine phenomenon, and Ahine brought tools to measure and record the size of the light. By the sixth day there was a faint vibration on the surface of the barrier, and after ten days Ahine would swear on her very life that the ice felt warmer to the touch. There was no longer any question what she was witnessing – there was life in the Ocean of Dreams and it was trying to make contact.
The revelation was enough to disintegrate the facade of self-restraint. Ahine, no longer concerned about things as petty as image, wasted no time in telling everyone she knew of her discovery. The scholars had little time or patience for Ahine's discovery, having been burned by similar tales before. Her neighbors reacted little better, but a small number who heard Ahine's message followed her back to the barrier. There were a few more the following day, and more the next. By the week's conclusion, there was a regular crowd gathered around the light, which by that point had grown vivid enough that it could be seen clearly from a distance. The scholars at last had time to visit the site for themselves, only to find themselves fighting through the mass of Detritans staring in awe at the phenomenon.
Perhaps it was the stress of the times, but the new discovery was embraced less as a scientific discovery and more as a spiritual one. This new discovery in times of peril reawakened Detriti's mythical heritage for more than a few people. For every person of letters taking measurements at the site and formulating hypotheses, there were three or four pilgrims looking to see something that they'd always been told was impossible, and the pilgrims grew in strength every day. Some of them began to view Ahine as an almost messianic figure, the priestess to whom the higher beings first revealed themselves. Ahine had no interest in her new status, though, consumed as she was in curiosity for what they would soon witness.
And even still the world around them continued to change. At first, the renegades and rebels had no inkling what was going on in the nation that they had rejected. They noticed the crowds, of course, but had little interest in what was going on at the barrier. But when the crowd failed to dissipate, when it grew larger and larger, and when the Detritans began using the phenomenon in their own propaganda, the rebels at last realized that this was not something they could simply dismiss. Even some of the loyal nationalists were seeing something sacred in the heart of Detriti and questioning the righteousness of their own cause. The rebel leaders responded with fury, decrying the phenomenon as either a hoax perpetrated by their enemies or – among the more inventive fabulists – a sign that judgment was soon to come and that any Detritans who valued their lives and those of their families would flee at once. The rebel propagandists became a presence at the site with hopes of winning more souls for the cause, only to be met by Detritan propagandists who had no patience for their oily stories. A few days after the rebels appeared, Detritan soldiers made their presence known at the site, creating a protective sphere between the pilgrims and the renegades. The two groups eyed each other at a distance, each waiting with tension for the other to make a move.
The arrival of the soldiers was the first thing to draw Ahine's attention away from the barrier and the light. For the first time, she was fearful – not because she thought that the renegades might make their move, but because she now imagined that Detriti might not last long enough for the unseen visitors to make themselves known. Would the dwellers of the Ocean of Dreams at last break through the barrier, only to find a great ruin on the other side? Reason departed by the day, replaced by an admixture of fear and faith. She didn't believe that these were gods on the other side, but the idea – the hope, the desperate longing – lingered in some crevasse of her mind that salvation was at hand. At her most frightened, she even found herself surrendering to the prayers and chants of the crowd and wondered, if only for moments at a time, if she was indeed the priestess that they needed so badly.
Then, just as the tension was reaching its apex, the ice cracked. The sound reached the crowd first, muffled splinters just audible at the surface of the barrier. The first cracks were fine ones, visible only under careful scrutiny. The following day, minute chips of ice broke free and drifted freely through the crowd. It was a beautiful sight, enough to force an unspoken truce between the soldiers and renegades with each side too transfixed to even dream of fighting. Still, there was no soul in the crowd more fascinated than Ahine, who had become so consumed by curiosity that she had not left the site in days, relying on pilgrims to bring food and sleeping only in brief fits. She could feel the warmth of whatever lay beyond, hear the vibrations and the sundering of the ice, but what she could see...what she could see through the thinning ice was at once spectacular and terrifying. For the first time, she could see shapes and shadows on the other side, silhouettes of alien things lingering just inches above.
Then the light went cold and vanished, and for a moment the spark in the crowd was extinguished. Had these visitors truly abandoned the Ocean of Life? Had the radiance of salvation gone out for good? There was little time to muse on such things as the shadows beyond the ice moved. A massive dark object slammed into the weakened ice, sending a shudder through the barrier for a mile in each direction. The object struck again, this time shattering the ice and sundering the waters all around. The crowd was instantly dispersed – those nearest to the mammoth object were launched through the water by the sudden displacement, while those farther away had a chance to flee with their lives. Ahine, who was the closest, went tumbling through the water with terrible velocity, narrowly avoiding an ugly collision with one of the great chunks of ice that had been knocked free.
Ahine recovered her senses to a troubling sight. The few Detritans still in the area were either unconscious or dead, the survivors fleeing from this violent intrusion into their world. Through her still hazy vision, she could make out the object that had breached the ice – a massive gray mechanism of unknown make and purpose. Slowly, the object withdrew to the other side of the barrier, leaving a sizable hole in its wake. For the first time, Ahine could see what lay beyond the barrier, though not clearly. There was a strange distortion over the hole that allowed only a dim view of darkness and light. Shrugging off the shock and numbness, she struggled through the waters to reach the gap. Her hand passed through and into nothingness – no resistance, no liquid. The Ocean of Dreams was the ocean of gas of which the scholars had dreamed, and Ahine was the first to witness it first-hand.
And there, crouching at the edge of the breached barrier, holding tight to the surface through that thin vaporous ocean, was the visitor. It was a great gray thing far larger than any Detritan, not even flinching as it stared through the breach with what Ahine could only imagine were its eyes. It was a terrifying beast, but for the first time in her life Ahine truly knew no fear. Drawing as near to the gas-ocean as she dared, she uttered a single phrase:
“This is Detriti. What is the name of your home?”
200 billion miles away, the dwellers of a blue-green ocean of gasses waited eagerly to hear her question.
The Industry Responds!
"It was an interesting take on a first contact story but felt like it ended just as the plot was starting. It had a lot of exposition and little action." -Deep Magic
"We loved the worldbuilding and the voice of this piece, but for our tastes the ending was unsatisfying, because it hinged on a 'reveal' of something we considered self-evident from the first page." -Escape Pod