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Gwyneth Jones | from:English

The Universe of Things

Introduction by Eyal Dotan

This is the first Hebrew translation of a work by Gwyneth Jones – an award winning British author who wrote multiple novels. The story follows a seemingly mundane meeting between a car mechanic and an alien who brings his car over to the garage to be fixed. The mechanic is captivated by the alien’s image and tries under various pretenses to keep him in his garage, even going so far as to offer to host the alien for the night. When the alien refuses, the mechanic must be satisfied by working on his car, which he does for the entre night. I will leave for you to discover what happens to the protagonist in the garage during the night. I will only say that Gwyneth Jones’ literary talent in imagining non-human consciousness modes reaches an apex in this story, and that LSD lovers will undoubtedly find an echo of their experiences in it.
“The Universe of Things” was once simply catalogued as science fiction, but this category became so wide and ambiguous over the years that more precise segmentations became necessary; segmentations that don’t necessarily benefit this text. As far as Jones’ science fiction literature is concerned, she will undoubtedly be considered in contemporary terms as a post- or trans-humanist because her project is ultimately to transport both the readers and protagonists beyond the human threshold into an alien consciousness and sensation; be the aliens from another planet, or alien life-forms from our own world, taking such forms as rock, a drop of water or, as in this story, a car. Ultimately, there is a great optimism in Jones’ texts, because this is a literature that does not accept the Kantian assumption that we are separate from the world, and thus shall forever remain confined to the inner architecture and hardware of the subject.
This particular story belongs to the cycle of stories that deals with the Aleutian: an alien race with a human appearance that arrives in the near future to earth in order to colonize it. Perhaps in contrast to what is expected here, these aliens do not declare war on humanity but instead live alongside it in a tense but stable status quo – unwilling to leave but also not wishing to confront us. They are more advanced technologically, and this fact leads to an immense feeling of inferiority in the other side. We are no longer the summit of creation. And indeed, in my opinion one of the more interesting aspects of the appearance of the alien in our world, is the shock and the ensuing ripples that will, undoubtedly, occur on every level and in every element of the human subject and the collectives to which he/she belongs. How will it be to change from being the lion to being the fox, from being the head to being the tail so to speak? This is a question science fiction ponders since its very beginning, but Jones focuses in this story almost exclusively on the psychological implications of the man-alien encounter, and in my opinion succeeds in giving a highly complex and delicate, even if of course utterly speculative, account of what might happen in the space of becoming between man and alien.
The initial and prejudiced conceptions of the mechanic about the alien are derived from pop-psychology books and TV shows. The primary difficulty for humans in understanding the alien “mind” is not necessarily its innate gender ambivalence, for this idea is already becoming increasingly popular in our world today, but rather its distinctive collective existence: The aliens are not set apart from one another or from the objects that constitute their world. They excrete germs that serve as a sort of medium that coats everything they come into contact with or with which they live, and thus any distinction between object and subject or between object and object fades and is replaced by an infinite and multidimensional network of shifting coordinates. Of course a description of this sort raises the question whether human society, and particularly since its extension into cyberspace, doesn’t itself march in this direction or even isn’t already there – only lacking the awareness of this epistemic condition. Be that as it may, no theory, as complex as it may be, equals a direct engagement with the alien’s being and experience. This fact is grasped by the mechanic once he is alone with the car, but to see this its best to delve directly into Jones’ text.

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The alien parked its car across the street and came and sat down in the waiting room. He must have seen this happen, peripherally. But he was busy settling the bill with a middle-aged woman with curly grey hair and substantial, attractive clothes, to whom he’d taken an irrational dislike. Those who deal with Joe Punter, day in and day out, especially Joe car-owning Punter, are prone to such allergies. He saw her start of concealed surprise, looked up, and there was the alien.

The other customers on the row of seats were pretending, in their English way, that nothing special had happened. He finished dealing with the woman. Other cars and customers left; the alien’s turn came. He went out in the road and hand-waved it into the bay with fatherly care, then sent it back to wait while he looked the red car over. He entered the car’s make and model in the terminal and began to check the diagnostics.

The mechanic worked this franchise alone with the robotics and the electronic presence of cashier, manager, head office. He was able to read print, even to write. It was a necessity of his trade. To be wired-up, routinely, among all this free-running machinery was against health and safety regulations. He used a hear-and-do wire only for the exotics, where the instructions came packaged with the part, and tried to conceal this from his customers. The mystique of craftsmanship was important to him.

Consequently, it took him some little time to examine the tired little runabout. He called in the alien and explained what had to be done, using a lot of gesture.

The convention was that if you couldn’t stomach calling another sentient being “it,” they were all called “she.” The mechanic eyed the alien covertly as he made his exposition: the soft, noseless profile, drooping shoulders, the torso thickened by layers of strange undergarments beneath its drab “overalls,” gawky backwards-jointed legs. It was about as female-looking as the dugongs sailors used to miscall “mermaids.” The confusion, he considered, was an insult to both parties. But it was nonsense to expect the denizen of another star system to be humanly attractive. He was in no hurry. He wasn’t affronted or frightened, as some people might have been, to see one running around loose, out of the enclave. No doubt the alien was going to tip generously, but it wasn’t avarice that made him willing to linger. He was simply, genuinely pleased to have one of them in his shop.

“I just want you to scrub the converter.”

He wasn’t surprised that it could speak English; he’d only imagined it would not trouble itself to do so. But the last thing he’d expected was for an alien to be mean.

“You know, it’s going to be cheaper in the long run to replace the whole exhaust system. You’ve been using a high methanol percentage, there’s a lot of corrosion here…”

The alien looked at the ground.

“Come away –”

He followed it out into the waiting room, where it folded down like a big dog on one of the seats, looking miserable, twisting its puckered, chicken-skin hands against its chest. “I’m going to sell it,” the alien explained. “I want you to do the minimum that’s legally necessary.”

He realized that the alien did not believe that its car could understand English. But nor did it believe that such understanding was impossible. It believed that if you have to say something unpleasant about someone/thing, you remove yourself from the immediate vicinity of the victim. The rules of etiquette were immovable, matter-of-fact, and binding. The car’s level of comprehension was a separate matter, a subject for abstruse philosophy.

It was not unusual for a mechanic to be familiar, as far as this, with alien psychology. Alien nature was the stuff of daytime television. The mechanic could have drowned in the subject, if he had enough idle time between customers.

“What’s legally necessary,” he repeated. He was disappointed, practically and emotionally, by his customer’s poverty; but mollified by its bizarre sensitivity.

Of course he knew that in an alien the state of poverty could only be temporary and relative. The tip dwindled but some other benefit was bound to accrue.

It (or she) nodded glumly.

They nodded. Their gestures were very human, but culturally diverse: for “no” they would jerk the chin, not shake the head. It was as if they’d borrowed a little, deliberately, from every human race, and maybe that was exactly so. Their journey into human space had been through such a saturation of human emissions, no one knew how much of alien behavior on Earth was natural, and how much a carefully devised presentation.

“Shall I wait or shall I come back?”

Throughout this exchange the other customers had remained painfully fixed in bored or casual poses. The mechanic was delighted by their intent, covert attention. Luckily there were no children involved, to spoil the effect of cosmopolitan unconcern.

He did not want it to stay. If it stayed in here it might strike up a conversation, become the temporary property of one of these mere punters.

“You’d better go,” he told it, feigning regret. “I have another job that I can’t put on auto. Come back in about an hour.”

*

When it had left, regret became real. He went out into the dusty street and stared up and down. It was October. The fronds of the banana tree, that grew over the wall of an unkempt yard next door were acid green under a lowering sky that had been promising rain for days. The tourist center was not far away: the massive grace that all the world admired, which had once been the center of a dock town called Liverpool. He could see the tiny points of the newly gilded Liver Birds, winking above their monument of vast commercial assurance. Far inland, the vague conurbation stretched up the flanks of the Pennines: the hills swimming there out of sight like drowned monuments, drowned in time and lost forever, like the great city.

There was no sign of the alien.

He went into the shop, checked the progress of various operations, and quietly – avoiding camera eyes – sneaked through the door at the back, and upstairs to his living quarters. His wife was at work. Their two children, seven and two years old, were with her in the workplace schoolroom and crèche. The rooms, which were small but well-supplied with consumer durables, seemed unnaturally tidy and silent. He stood in the living room and studied a row of books, discs, journals, on a shelf of the library unit. Dealing with the Alien; What Do They Think of Us; The Farcomers; Through Alien Eyes; Have They Been Here Before?; Xenobiology: Towards the Dawn of a Science… The mechanic and his family were no more than averagely interested in the alien visitors. The books had been bought, not read. But it would have been a strange household indeed, or a very poor one, that didn’t possess at least a few of these titles.

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The mechanic did not feel, on the whole, that the human race was over-reacting. He and his wife had voted in favor, in the European referendum on the global change of era, which was now on its way to becoming law. This year, this present year, would be forever year three: 3AC, if the English-speaking lobby had its way. After Contact. It was official: this was the greatest thing that had happened to the human race since the dim and distant “coming of Christ.” And the aliens, unlike Christ, were here. They were in print, on the screen. They were indubitably real.

Everything on the shelves had been entered in their library; the mechanic’s wife was meticulous over this chore. His fingers hovered over the keypad. But the mysterious inertia of human adulthood defeated him. Only the seven-year-old actually used the database. He took a book down, and another: leaved pages, read a paragraph or two. He didn’t know what he was looking for. Surrounded by hard things that did not speak or look at him, he tried to imagine how it felt to be the alien. He had known sentimental drivers: cars with names, cars referred to as “she”; cars abused for bad behavior. He had caught himself (he dredged up fragments of memory), occasionally giving a glossy flank of robot casing an affectionate pat as he put it aside.

Good boy…

Good dog…

But the aliens did not know about animals. They had tools that crept, slithered, flew; but they had made these things. They had no notion of a separate creation, life that was not their own. It might be that conditions on the home planet were different, but the evidence, from their reactions and their own reporting, was otherwise. It seemed likely that they had shared their world with no other, no separate warm-blooded animals.

He went down to the service bay and checked the screen that showed the waiting room. All was quiet in there. It had not come back. He turned from that screen and made work for himself among the ramped vehicles and buzzing tools. He didn’t touch the alien’s car. When it reappeared he told it he was having a few problems. Please be patient, he said. Come back later, or wait. He took no new customers. The afternoon turned to dusk. The waiting room emptied until it (or she) was there alone.

The mechanic’s wife and his children arrived home, on foot from the tram stop, the baby in her buggy. He heard the childish voices chattering and laughing at the street door and gritted his teeth as if interrupted in some highly concentrated and delicate task. But he was doing nothing, just sitting in the gloom among the silent tools.

The alien was folded up on its seat. It looked like an animal dressed up, a talking animal of no known species from a child’s cartoon. It stood and smiled, showing the tips of its teeth: the modified snarl that might or might not be a genuine, shared gesture.

The mechanic was embarrassed because there was really no way he could explain his behavior. A human customer, stranger in a strange land, would by now have been either very angry or – possibly – a little scared. The alien seemed resigned. It did not expect humans to behave reasonably.

It made the mechanic obscurely angry to think that he was not the first person to give it the runaround like this. He would have liked to explain I just want to have you near me for a while… But that would have been a shameful confession.

“I want to do you a favor,” he said. “I didn’t like to tell you before, thought you might get embarrassed. I’m fixing up quite a few things, and I’m only going to charge you for the scrub.”

“Oh.”

He thought it looked surprised, perhaps wary. It was impossible not to award them with human feelings; not to read human expressions in their strange faces. “Thank you.”

“The least I could do, after you’ve come all this way!”

He laughed nervously. It didn’t. They did not laugh.

“Would you like to come upstairs? Would you like something to eat, a cup of tea? My wife, my kids would be very pleased to meet you.”

The invitation was completely insincere. The last thing he wanted was to see it in his home. He didn’t want to share the alien with anyone. The alien gave him a dry look as if it knew exactly what was going on. According to some readings of their behavior they were telepathic: intensely so between themselves, mildly with humans.

On the other hand, it had probably been pestered this way before…performing animal. The thought made him wince, for himself and for those others.

“No thank you.” It looked at the ground. “Will the car be ready tomorrow?”

The street was dark. There was little lighting just here, away from the hotels and malls and the floodlit, water-lapped monuments. He felt guilty. The poor alien might be mentally counting up its cash, maybe wondering what the hell to do next. Aliens traveling alone were rarities anywhere. If it couldn’t take refuge in a big rich hotel it would be bothered. People would crowd around it heartlessly, pointing their cameras.

But that wasn’t the mechanic’s fault. He didn’t want to capture it. He didn’t want to turn it out, either. He’d have liked it to stay here; to keep its real live presence. It could sleep on the seats. He would bring down some food. They liked some human foodstuffs: ice cream, white bread, hamburgers; nothing too natural.

“Yes, of course. Come back tomorrow. I open at nine.”

*

He told his wife that he had to work overtime. This never happened, but she accepted the idea without comment. The routine of their life together was so calm it could swallow the occasional obvious lie without a ripple.

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He sat in the machine shop alone and looked around him. Cars.

It was strange how many static, urban Europeans still felt the need to own them, even with the fuel rationing and all the rest of the environmental-protection laws. The mechanic wasn’t complaining. It was a steady job, and often even enjoyable. These are my people, he thought, trying on the alien worldview. My people, the sheep of my flock. He had a grandmother who was a churchgoer. But there came the idea of animals again, the separation of one kind of life from another. That was not what happened between an alien and an alien machine. He went up to the car, clamped on its ramp in an undignified posture, a helpless patient.

“Hallo?” he said tentatively.

The car made no response, but the atmosphere in the shop changed. By speaking to it aloud he had shifted something: his own perception. He’d embarrassed himself, in fact. He could just catch the tail of a more interesting emotion. He was a child creeping past the witch’s door, deliciously afraid. But nothing he could do or say would make the imagined real: make him see the robot eyes wink, the jaws of metal grin or open in speech. Nothing but madness would change things that far.

He began to work, or rather he set the robotics to work. He had no choice now; he would have to do what he had promised and square the accounts somehow. Nothing that happened in his garage went unrecorded. The mechanic had never tried to hack his way around the firm’s system. He’d never been the type to be tempted by the complications of crime, and now he wouldn’t know where to start. He became very gloomy thinking about what he’d have to do: the awkward covering up for this strange impulse.

The free machines skated to and fro. Others slid along the overhead lines and reached down their serpent heads. The mechanic fidgeted. The little car, a fifteen-year-old Korean methanol/mix burner with a red plastic body, liquid clutch, and suspension, was a hardwearing complex of equipment, good for at least another ten years on the road. It needed a certain amount of attention, but it didn’t need his hands-on attention at all. He stood and watched.

I am redundant, he thought – a standard over-reaction to robotics. Why don’t aliens feel redundant? He struggled to perform the mental contortion of looking out of the mirror. If it were not for humans, if it were not for me, there would be no cars, no robots, no machines at all. I cannot be superseded. Even if the machines become self-conscious, become “human” (the ever-receding bogey of the popular media), I will still be God. The maker. The origin.

Upstairs the toddler would be in bed; and the boy too, tucked up with one of the home tutoring wires that supplemented the education provided by his mother’s employers. The mother would be relaxing into her evening, snug in a nest of hardware. Empathically, subliminally, the mechanic was aware of the comings and goings, the familiar routine.

He discovered why the alien filled him with such helpless, inarticulate delight. The machines promised, but they could not perform. They remained things, and people remained lonely. The mechanic had visited his country’s National Forests – the great tracts of land that must remain undisturbed, however small his sitting room became. He accepted the necessity of their existence, but the only emotion he could possibly feel was resentment. He had no friendship with the wilderness. Animals could be pets, but they were not part of you, not the same. The aliens had the solution to human isolation: a talking world, a world with eyes; the companionship that God dreams of. The alien’s visitation had stirred in him a God-like discontent.

He could not make it stay. But perhaps he could learn from it, share its enriched experience. He saw the bay as a microcosm of human technology and civilization – a world extruded like ectoplasm from its human center, full of creatures made in the mechanic’s own image: his finger and thumb, his teeth, his rolling, folding joints, his sliding muscle. His mind, even, in its flickering chemical cloud, permeating the hardware of his brain.

Excited by this insight, he jumped up and hurried to the bay’s keypad. He pulled the robotics out, the shining jointed arms sliding back and folding themselves away into the walls. He took out a box of hand tools. He would pay the alien’s car the greatest compliment in his power. He would give it the benefit of his craftsmanship, the kind of “natural, organic” servicing for which the rich paid ridiculous sums.

For a while he worked like Adam in Eden, joyfully naming the subcreation with his hands and mind. He worked, he slowed… He sat on the cold, dark-stained floor with a socket spanner in one hand and a piece of ragwaste in the other. The lights looked down. They built things with bacteria, as the mechanic understood it. Bacteria which were themselves traceable to the aliens’ own intestinal flora, infecting everything: every tool and piece of furniture, even the massive shell of their ship-world. Human beings, when they wanted to express feelings of profound communion with the planet, with the race, spoke of being “a part of the great whole.” Having lived so many years – from the start of their evolution, in a sense, the pundits reckoned – in a world created by themselves, the aliens could not experience being a part. There were no parts in their continuum: no spaces, no dividing edges.

He suddenly felt disgusted. Scientists had established that the alien bacteria were harmless. That was the story, but it might be wrong. It might be a big lie, maintained to prevent panic in the streets. He wished he hadn’t touched the car. The alien had been using it for months. It must be coated all over with invisible crawling slime.

What was it like, to be part of a living world? He stared at the spanner in his hand until the rod of metal lost its shine. Skin crept over it; the adjustable socket became a cup of muscle, pursed like an anus, wet lips drawn back by a twist on the tumescent rod. The mechanic was nauseated, but he could not put the tool down. He could not go away from it. This oozed drop of self, attached to his hand, would not be parted from him if he dropped it. Tiny strings, strands of living slime, would cling and join them still. The air he breathed was full of self, of human substance.

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He stood up. He backed off. A robot casing yielded like flesh. The mechanic yelped and sprang away. His hand, with the rod-flesh spanner growing out of it, hit the keypad; and all the tools began to leap into action. He stood in his own surging, hurrying, pulsating gut – for an instant saved by the notional space of an anatomical drawing, and then the walls closed in. there was no light, only a reddened darkness. The mechanic wailed. He fought a horrible need to vomit; he scrabbled desperately at the keys.

When everything was quiet again, he sat for while. It might have been minutes; it felt like a long time. Eventually he stopped wanting to be sick and managed to put down the spanner. He sat with his head hunched in his arms; became aware of this abject fetal crouch, and came out of it slowly. He took a deep breath.

The garage was the same as it had always been: dead and safe. He realized that he had been highly privileged. Somehow, just briefly, he had succeeded in entering the alien mind, seen the world through alien eyes. How could you expect such an experience to be pleasant? Now that it was over he could accept that, and he was truly grateful.

At last he heaved a sigh and set about putting the bay to work again. He couldn’t bring himself to touch the red car with hand tools now. Besides, he was too shaky. But he would deliver the alien’s vehicle in the morning as promised, as near to perfectly reborn as was humanly possible. He owed it that much.

He had tried to take something from the alien by a kind of force. And he’d got what he wanted. It wasn’t the alien’s fault that he’d bitten off more than he could chew and gagged on the mouthful. Gritting his teeth against the ghostly feel of flesh in the machine, he set up the necessary routines.

In a short time, it was all done. But it was very late. His wife would have to ask questions now, and he’d have to tell her something of what had happened. He stood looking at the plastic shell and the clever, deviously economical innards under the open bonnet. The machines, they said, couldn’t live with the ecosphere. In the end the human race would have to abandon one or the other: motor cars or “the environment.” But “in the end” was still being held at bay. In the meantime this was a good, well-made little compromise with damnation.

He felt lonely and sad. He had seen another world walk into his life, reached out to grasp the wonder, and found something worse than empty air. He’d wanted the alien to give him dreamland, somewhere over the rainbow. He had found, instead, an inimical Eden: a treasure that he could no more enjoy than he could crawl back into the womb.

The mechanic sighed again and gently closed the bonnet.

The red car settled itself a little.

“Thank you,” it said.

*

In the morning at nine o’clock the alien was there. The car was ready, gleaming on the forecourt. The alien put down its bag, which it carried not on its back or at arm’s length but tucked under one armpit in that very peculiar, lopsided way of theirs. He thought it looked tired and anxious. It barely glanced at the car. Perhaps, like a human, it didn’t even want to know how badly it had been cheated.

“What’s the damage?” it asked.

The mechanic was hurt. He’d have liked to go over the whole worksheet with it: to extract the sweet honey of its approval, or at least to extend this dwindling transaction just a little further. He had to remind himself that the alien owed him nothing. To itself, its feelings were not romantic or bizarre in the least. The world it lived in was commonplace. The mechanic’s experience was his own concern, had been an internal matter from the start. The alien was not responsible for kinks of human psychology, nor for imaginary paranormal incidents.

“look,” he said. “I’ve got a proposition for you. My eldest, my son, he’s just passed his driving test. He won’t be allowed out on his own for a while, of course. But I’ve been thinking about getting him a little runabout. I don’t keep a car myself, you see, I’ve never felt the need. But kids, they like the freedom… I’d like to buy your car.”

In the cold light of day, he couldn’t bear to tell it the truth. He knew the car would never speak to him again. But he had been touched by the world of the other, and he simply had to bring away something: some kind of proof.

The alien looked even more depressed.

The mechanic realized suddenly that he didn’t have to worry about the money. He would tell the firm everything. They were human at head office: and as fascinated as he. The car would stay on the forecourt. He would call in and get it featured on the local news, maybe even national news. It would be extremely good for business.

For the alien’s benefit, however, he would stick to the story about his son. They really shouldn’t be encouraged to believe that human beings thought they were magic.

“List price,” he added, hurriedly. “And a little more. Because anyone would pay a little more, a car that’s been driven by one of our famous visitors. What do you say?”

So the alien walked away with its credit card handsomely e-charged. It turned at the corner of the street, by the yard where the banana fronds hung over the gate, and bared its pointed teeth in that seeming smile. The farewell could have been for the red car on the forecourt as much as for the human beside it, but it made the man feel better anyway.


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