For today’s edition of Spring Break Short Story Recommendations (read Part I and Part II), I’m moving away, at least temporarily, from the collection 11 Great Horror Stories to look at piece from another collection, this time in the science-fiction vein. The collection, Not the Only Planet: Science Fiction Travel Stories, compiled by Damien Broderick, was published in 1998 by Lonely Planet Publications.
When I was a kid in the 1990s, Lonely Planet dominated, at least in my young mind, travel guides. They were the “cool” travel guides, that told you how to bike through Shanghai or where to get good food in Nepal. I managed to pick up a few of them at second-hand stores or book sales, and would just pour over them and their descriptions of odd places around the globe.
As such, I always thought it was cool that Lonely Planet put out a collection of science-fiction stories—naturally, about travel. My memory told me that I picked up this collection in middle school, which is plausible, but the I was out of middle school by 1999, and I picked up this book at a used bookstore. Having the means of a thirteen- or fourteen-year old, I would not have paid full-freight for it.
Indeed, I remember vividly the bookstore where I purchased it, if not the name. I was on a trip with my best friend from the time, David, to his family in Virginia (in Blacksburg, if I recall correctly; David’s father was an alumnus of Virginia Tech, and I think his mother grew up in the area). I can’t remember if it I was drawn to the book because of its strange cover art, the science-fiction travel focus, or the Lonely Planet imprimatur, or some combination of those three, but I picked it up and have enjoyed it thoroughly.
Of course, the publication date of 1998 leads me to believe that I was slightly older than my memory suggests, maybe fifteen. What I do remember is that these stories really left an impression on me, particularly one odd tale, the feature of today’s post: Gene Wolfe‘s “Seven American Nights.”
The story consists of entries in a journal of a young man of some Middle Eastern extraction (one website suggests Iranian, which makes sense), Nadan, detailing his journey to America, which is, his entries reveal, a much-reduced nation that is greatly in decline, and which has suffered some kind of widespread catastrophe.
The story is a frame story, and begins with a letter to Nadan’s mother from a private investigator, who has photocopied the journal and sent it to Nadan’s mother and fiancee, requesting funds in order to continue his search for the missing Nadan. From this frame letter, the reader knows that Nadan is missing, and that this journal—which was found somewhere near the Delaware Bay—is all the evidence the investigator has found on Nadan.
What struck me at such a young age was the role reversal here: instead of an American or a Brit writing about the savage, strange ways of another land, it’s the savage, strange land commenting on us! It was also jarring—once I realized what was going on (which took awhile—I was still pretty young when I read this story)—to learn that America was in decline, and that the Middle Easterners were suddenly an advanced, high-tech civilization.
That’s the part of the story that left the biggest impression on me, which I’m sure is exactly Gene Wolfe’s hoped-for effect. I have not reread the story in many years, so a number of the details have escaped me, but I clearly remember a scene in which Nadan visits a laboratory somewhere in Washington, D.C., in which one of the dutiful but ragged scientists claims, optimistically, that he is rebuilding his country.
The rest of the story involves Nadan’s various scrapes and scuffles around D.C., including eating eggs dipped in some kind of drug (this detail really escaped me as a kid), as well as his passionate ardor for an American actress. The implication throughout the story is that some dire, apocalyptic event has transformed America—and relatively recently, within the last hundred years, per the details of the story—from a great nation into a backwards backwater, and one where the inhabitants outside of the cities are semi-feral and even mutated.
It’s a weird story, and an unsettling shifting of perspective. It’s also a good reminder that, while America is great, we cannot take that greatness for granted. It takes vigilance and effort to maintain greatness.
It’s also worth remembering that even the greatest empires fall. I think America’s collapse is a good ways off—we’re Rome in the second century AD, probably, not Rome in the fourth or fifth century AD—but we can already see signs of decline.
Like that ragged little scientist busy at work in his basement laboratory, then, we need to keep working to keep our country great. And we should probably get the drug-dipped eggs off the street while we’re at it.