Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #60 of 107: “Where Two Paths Cross” by Dmitri Bilenkin
“Where Two Paths Cross” is a science fiction story from the old Soviet Union by Dmitri Bilenkin. Future cosmonauts exploring a new planet are captured by bushes and nothing the humans do seems to outsmart the plants. Coincidently, this story reminds me of a novella in the new issue of Analog (Jan-Feb 2022), “Communion” by Jay Werkheiser and Frank Wu. It’s an encounter between an intelligent organism that communicates with biochemistry and human explorers.
Both stories are about science. “Where Two Paths Cross” focuses on evolution and adaptation and how it relates to intelligence, and “Communion” deals with biochemistry and how it can be used for communication.
Both of these stories focus on how things work, rather than human wants and desires. We might call them hard science fiction, or we could call them scientific puzzle stories. In both stories, learning what’s being communicated is the clue to resolving the plot. The plot is essentially the same too. Humans are threatened by animals we normally don’t consider intelligent, and the organisms are threatened by beings they don’t understand in terms of how they understand their environment.
Both were readable stories but neither turned me on. Nope, I don’t mean sexually. I’m talking about storytelling arousal. That doesn’t mean I don’t recommend them, I’m just not the kind of reader who responses to such puzzle stories. I need protagonists I care about, and generally that means a human I can relate to in some way. However, as I write this essay and think about these two stories, I might reconsider how much I liked them.
While reading “Communion” I was reminded of “Surface Tension” by James Blish about humans who become microscopic creatures. Now, this might reveal the child in me, but I liked the non-human microscopic creatures in “Surface Tension” because to a degree Blish anthropomorphized them. Although Werkheiser and Wu have their organism speak to the reader in the first person, the authors worked hard to keep it from having human qualities. That creature thinks in terms of organic chemistry. This is more realistic than Blish’s creatures, but it’s not believable like fantasy’s talking animals nor as something really possible in reality.
Bilenkin also worked to keep us from thinking of his alien bushes in any kind of cute way. Basically, the bushes reacted to humans in the same way they reacted to their normal predators — through reflexes conditioned through their environmental experience.
Both of these stories remind me of three other science fiction books, The Forgotten Planet by Murray Leinster, Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, and Dragon’s Egg by Robert L. Forward. They aren’t the same, but there are some similarities in flavor. All have unbelievable premises but we forget that because of the storytelling techniques used to make us believe. Werkheiser and Wu lay a lot of biochemistry on us to help us understand how communication works with organisms that communicate with chemicals. This biochemistry is fascinating, I really liked such details in the nonfiction book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, but there may have been a little too much of it in “Communion.” Unfortunately, Bilenkin probably didn’t know about such science when he wrote “Where Two Paths Cross,” but it would have added to his story.
My point of all this is my reader reaction depends more on storytelling than scientific accuracy or logical believability. I no longer think I should criticize a science fiction story for scientific accuracy or logic. I used to think that was important to science fiction story but I’ve come to realize that there are other qualities important to readers that override accuracy. Analog is known for presenting hard science fiction, but most of the stories I’ve read in the current could be severely trashed as unscientific, illogical, or just not believable. What really ignites a science fiction tale is not science, but what is it?
I’m waiting for others in the group to respond to these stories because I assume there will be readers who were turned on by them. I don’t want to say either of these stories are bad, but neither contained the magical ingredient that gets me high. They were interesting, they had ideas to think about, but they were missing something that would make them my kind of story.
I wish I could define the psychoactive element in fiction that pushes my buttons. We’ve still got plenty of stories in this anthology to read. Maybe it will be revealed.
James Wallace Harris, 12/16/21