Tear Tracks – by Malka Older

Here’s another read I stumbled upon while browsing Tor.com’s list of short stories. I saw it dealt with the theme of first encounter and cultural difference and decided to give it a go.

Title: Tear Tracks

Author: Malka Older

Publisher: Tor.com

Publication Date: 18 June 2019

Genre: Science Fiction Short Story

Stand Alone or Series: Standalone

Synopsis: For the first time in history, humanity is making contact with a sentient alien species, the Cyclopes, which are described as fairly similar to humans, albeit not entirely. The main character, Flur, takes part to the mission to their planet after undergoing careful training, fully invested of the gravity of her task. Once among the aliens, she thinks she has all the conceptual tools to communicate with the Cyclopes, overcoming the inevitable cultural differences, however she finds herself at loss when she discovers that the alien leader is apparently still in mourning for the loss of her family, an event that happened long before.

Analysis: Written in third person, present tense, Tear Tracks starts with a fairly sizeable infodump on the aliens and their known characteristics, then procedes to focus on Flur’s direct experience and point of view. The writing is straighforward and matter-of-fact, clearly more interested in its content than in its style; where more creativity is shown is in its description, that effectively offers the reader a visually poignant alien world.

The short story exploits the topic of a first encounter with an alien civilization, to explore how values and priorities are anything but universal, and how our own experience and perception of self might shift dramatically if we adopt a different cultural paradigm. More specifically, the ending reveals how the Cyclopes hold in the highest respect those who have experienced grief and suffering; which comes as a shock for Flur, accustomed as she is to hide her emotions under a mask of hypercompetence.

The concept, if not all that revolutionary, is failry interesting in itself, and it makes for an unexpectedly emotional conclusion. I have, however, some issues with its execution, and specifically with how Flur thinks, behaves, and ultimately misunderstands the culture she’s dealing with, quickly disregarding their leader as weak because she’s upfront about her grief.

As a matter of fact, the cultural difference we’re talking about isn’t anything beyond human imagination; the Cyclopes’ values, while different from our own, don’t even come across as literally “alien”, but rather as something you could expect from a fairly different civiliziation. Now, the fact that Flur still can’t wrap her head around it is surely tied to her history and personality; to the kind of repressive control she appears to exert on herself – and it would be an excellent twist, if she’d been a casual visitor, a character stranded among aliens or anyway utterly unprepared. However, this is not the case: Flur is supposedly a trained professional, on a mission where the interpretation of different customs and values is essential, and she’s well aware of that. The way she misjudges the situation just because the Cyclopes’ sensibilities don’t perfectly align with her own is almost disconcerting, making her appear not just flawed and complex, but frankly out of her depth. It’s a shame because, in a more suitable context, I would have loved to see the protagonist’s personal limits interacted with the sci-fi plot. But it would have required a different framing.

Conclusions & Recommendations: Tear Tracks didn’t really impress me; I didn’t hate it, but ultimately the main reason I’ll remember it lies in the analysis of its issues, more than in anything I inherently enjoyed. If the topic intrigues you, however, it might be worth reading anyway – you might, after all, get a different impression.

Content Warning: Grief.

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