Saturday, 27 July 2013

Terminal Quest

"Terminal Quest," the first story in Poul Anderson's collection, Alight In The Void (New York, 1993, pp. 1-28), is another that I seem not to have read before. This story takes its time about telling us where it is set and what is happening. A character called Rugo, who has been sleeping in the open, awakes and mourns for his mother who had left him, and not returned, when they lived in a cave.

Rugo is a quadruped with a big scaly head so he sounds like a Wodenite in Anderson's Technic Civilization History or like similar "xenosophonts" in other science fiction (sf) works by Anderson. Reading this story so far, we are not yet sure that it is sf although that would be a reasonable guess. Rugo's mother would have come to grief when she "...met the Strangers..." (p. 2)

We learn that the Strangers are in possession of the land, also that Rugo has hands and a tail and is old. One Stranger is referred to as "...a man..." so it is a safe bet that they are human beings. Indeed, the following paragraph refers to " from Earth itself..." (p. 4) The next revelations are that Rugo's people had been hunted with vehicles and weapons, that the Strangers had been the hunters and that Rugo is now reduced to begging from them.

It took human beings forty years to reach Tau Ceti and colonize New Terra. The natives agreed that they could stay but then opposed them. Possibly, the native counselors had thought that they were agreeing to more explorers, not to settlers. The natives were "...huge and scaled and black..." (p. 6) but the colonists had guns, bombs and a plague virus. Thus, Rugo is the last surviving native.

A good touch is that:

"None of the beasts from Earth could stand the sight and smell of him; they knew he was not of their world and a primitive terror rose in them." (p. 8)

Rugo is driven back into the wilderness by a rifle-wielding farmer and stoned by children led by the farmer's son but befriended by an educated tramp and two children. However, he drowns saving the farmer's son. Sinking, "[h]e wondered if his mother would come for him." (p. 28) This is possible because, when he was old, "...she often came back at night." (p. 2)

Since the entire story until his dying thought has been narrated from Rugo's point of view, the text could have ended with: "He wondered if his mother would come for him." (p. 28)

However, there is one more paragraph, showing New Terra at last without even one surviving Gunnur:

"A few miles further down, the river flows broad and quiet between gentle hills. Trees grow there, and the last sunlight streams through their leaves to glisten on the surface. This is down in the valley, where the homes of man are built." (p. 28)

Maybe Rugo's body goes where the river flows? Quiet river and gentle hills symbolize the end of conflict. The last sunlight symbolizes the end of Rugo's life and race. The narrative ends with "...the homes of man..." because this is now a human world. The title had told us that Rugo's quest would end in death.


Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

It's been a long time since I read "Terminal Quest." As dark and heartbreaking a story in its way as "Sister Planet."

One reason why Anderson is so worthy of admiration is because he does not shy away from showing us the tragedies of life in his works. I can think of many examples, both novels and short stories: THE ENEMY STARS, "Sister Planet," "Terminal Quest," "Welcome," "Murphy's Hall, etc.

Let me hasten to add that Anderson was equally capable of giving us optimistic, even humorous stories as well. "Horse Trader," the Hoka series (co written with Gordon Dickson), "A Bicycle Built for Brew," etc.

Sean M. Brooks

ndrosen said...

There aren't many stories that have made me burst into tears reading them, but that's one. And I wept again on rereading it.

Nicholas D. Rosen

Paul Shackley said...

Rugo is persecuted but dies saving his persecutor's life...

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Nicholas!

While I did not weep, I felt the same way as regards "Sister Planet." A dark, moving, tragic story. See James Blish's comments about that piece in the essay he wrote for the Special Poul Anderson Issue of the MAGAZINE OF SF AND F in 1971. Will be looking up "Terminal Quest" soon.


Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

One thing Anderson would regard with utter horror and dismay is human beings seizing another race's planet and genocidally wiping out the rightful possessors. Which is the situation we see in "Terminal Quest."

I'm reminded of another story called "Home" which touches on similar ideas. However, an expedition is sent from Earth to remove, by force, if necessary, a large scientific base on the planet Mithras which the authorities on Earth no longer thought necessary. The idea was to prevent the humans of that base from rejecting orders to come "home" and beginning the conquest of Mithras and the possible extermination of the native xenosophonts.

Here, we see the opposite of what happened in "Terminal Quest." The tragedy we see in "Home" lay in ruthlessly uprooting hundreds of people from a planet which had become their real home, not a remote, abstract, and distant Earth. Even tho this uprooting at least prevented humans from incurring the guilt of genocide.


Paul Shackley said...

And a close reading of "Home" reveals that the Mithrans might have been able to exterminate the colonists.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

Yes, I remember seeing those hints indicating the Mithrans might have defeated and exterminated the humans of the scientific base had it ever come to war between the two races. However, the commander of the ship from Earth sent to remove the humans from Mithras, Captain Yakov Kahn, did not believe that would be the case. Kahn thought the technological edge the humans had over the Mithrans, plus increasing ruthlessness as this possible war progressed, would have ended with a human victory. With the Mithrans at best being defeated, conquered, and granted only small territories.

Moreover, recall how the Mithrans themselves INVITED the humans of the scientific base to stay if they chose reject the orders to return "home." Therefore, it's my view the inevitable conflict between two very different races, POVs, cultures, etc., would have needed a considerable time before both sides realized the quarrel could not be resolved except thru the defeat of one side or the other. By then the human colonists would most likely have become too strong in numbers and technology for the Mithrans to defeat. That was Kahn's view.

And, in "The Queen of Air and Darkness," we see yet a third alternative, humans colonizing the planet Roland while believing it uninhabited by a native race. Here the natives chose to not reveal themselves to the first human explorers sent to investigate Roland before colonists were sent. Which was a bad mistake because the implication I got from that story was that the humans of that time would not settle an already inhabited planet. By the time Sherrinford discovered the truth it was impossible, given STL travel, for the humans of a large and deeply rooted colony to evacuate Roland. The natives had to come to terms with permanently sharing their planet with the Earth colonists.