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A Passage in Earth
A Passage in Earth
by Damien Broderick
by Damien Broderick
[A note from Damien Broderick on "A Passage in Earth"]
More than half my life ago, and 13 years after my first short story collection
appeared in Australia, I was invited by the Aussie photographer and sf writer Lee
Harding to contribute to his original anthology Rooms of Paradise. Good timing!
My then partner Dianne and I had recently bought a small house and set up a study
for me under the ground floor. On my desk I had a review copy of the
Encyclopedia Britannica and an electric typewriter (no computers or Google back
then), and I was in the mood for a short story I'd been nurturing for years,
blending some material from Finnegans Wake, mythology, black hole science, AI
theory and what we'd nowadays called a stalled Singularity. Looking back, it's
probably my first mature sf writing, and I'm grateful to Lee for nudging me into its
creation. But while the anthology was released quite handsomely by Quartet
Books in the UK and St. Martin's in the US, and reprinted in paperback by
Penguin in 1981, it never quite reached its natural audience, readers likely to relish
its contributors: Gene Wolfe, Brian Aldiss, Ian Watson, R.A. Lafferty, Michael
Bishop, Sakyo Komatsu (translated by Judy Merril), and an equal number of
I was tremendously pleased when Roger Zelazny commented, in the Foreword, on
"A Passage in Earth," in addition to possessing an intriguing and engaging
narrator, is one of those stories where things implied are as important as things
stated, and the tone of the piece is such as to show that the author actually has a
larger vision containing the events he has chosen to record here. To this extent,
this story reminds me of some of the work of the late Cordwainer Smith, and I can
only selfishly hope that he returns to this same universe, many times, to fetch back
more pieces of that vision.
So far I haven't done that, and doubt that I should. But the voice I hear, re-reading
this tale 36 years later, is not Smith's -- no, it's Roger's own, in science mythic
mode. Not a bad model to latch onto, for a guy in his mid-30s restarting his short
I grew her in a pod, and she was the best baby I ever made. The big collapsicle
field was shut down by then, on our last slowing skid back to Earth, which might
explain why she didn't come out raddled like the earlier tries. Or maybe it was
love, for I put that child together with devotion, blended her nucleotides with an
haute cuisine passion. Delicious enough to be gobbled down on the spot. But
that's Shaun's diction, concupiscent and lip-smacking, lustful-eyed and
carnivorous, and she was never meant for Shaun. Not my Mahala, bright birdsong
for the ravishment of austere Shem.
Which is being gallows smartass after the fact, of course. When I started growing
Mahala I knew she'd be my benediction to an altered Earth, spinning sixteen solar
years ahead and to one side of our cruddy battered prow. But the details were up
for grabs. You can't trust humans to sit still, even when they're riding an e
exponent rollercoaster. I knew they'd have changed in ten thousand years,
Mahala's distant genetic cousins, but I certainly didn't guess then that they'd have
done the demi-god thing: wound up strutting out their own archetypes. Maybe (in
the limit, as we analytic types say) it was inevitable.
"Cloth Mother," she asked when she was eight, smartass herself, "will I have a
prince to love when we get there?"
I stopped cuddling and tried to sound stern. "Fiddle-faddle, long shanks. This is a
vessel of the People's Anarchy and I'll have no backsliding on my bridge."
She did that thing with her nose which everyone except a parent considers
sickeningly cute, and went mercurial eight-year-old scornful. "It would be nice to
have a prince, Captain, and if you're going to go Hard-Wire on me I think it's
purely a shame." The little beast had got to H in the biography matrix and kept
mixing Freud up with Harlow, largely to get a rise out of me (see what I mean?).
When she was sixteen and stepping out on Earth, Mahala was innocent and
bashful, if she felt like it, as peach blossom, but at eight she just powered away
like a savage with every joule of the five sigmas of savvy I'd woven into her
Later, but before the end, sitting one breeze-flushed evening under a profusion of
soft stars beside logic-hacking Shaun, she'd had to explain her little name games.
Because he insisted; she took it for granted that the matter was self-evident.
"There were these monkeys, Shaun, who had no parents. Poor little things." I don't
think she actually dabbed at her eyes with a lace hanky but I wouldn't put it past
her. Yackety-yack, soft surrogate mothers for comfort, nobbly hard-edged
surrogates for milk, all the poor little things rushing to barren soft mummy for
comfort when nasty white-coated lab monsters went boo. "Let me get this
straight," insisted boisterous, heavy handed Shaun, all stunning and virile in
muscles and platinum thread, "the infants preferred the pretence of affection rather
than the reality of food? But perhaps they weren't terribly hungry if they'd just had