"Russian Vine" by Simon Ings: An Appreciation by Abigail Nussbaum
Cue the exploding national monuments, right? Or the armies of implacable, green-skinned killing machines, or the shadowy groups who quietly take over the government? How about "To Serve Man"?
Not according to Simon Ings in his 2001 story, "Russian Vine". Ings' aliens, the Puscha, aren't interested in conquest or destruction. They like things to be quiet, orderly, beautiful, and a war-like Earth doesn't fit in with their plans.
So they eliminate our ability to read.
The elimination of literacy naturally leads to the collapse of the planet's larger institutions, the global economy, and most governments.
Rob a culture of literacy, and rumour replaces record, anecdotes supersede annals. The drive to cooperation remains, but cooperation itself, on a grand scale, becomes impractical. The dream of universal understanding fades. Nations are reborn, and, within them, peoples—reborn or invented. Models of the world proliferate, and science—beyond a rude natural philosophy—becomes impossible. Religions multiply and speciate, fetishising wildly. Parochialism arises in all its finery, speaking argot, wearing folk dress, dancing its ethnic dance.
Ings avoids the cliché of the jack-booted alien invaders, but he also refuses to tell a story about the benevolent parent race who save us from our own weaknesses. "Russian Vine" is told from the point of view of Connie, a Puscha bureaucrat stationed on Earth, who can't himself decide whether he's an invader, an imperialist, or a savior. The marvel of Ings' story is that neither can we. Nor can we decide whether the Puscha were right to act as they did.
But what's most surprising about "Russian Vine" is that, at its heart, it is a love story, albeit a very sad one. The aimless, rootless Connie lives among humans but constantly at a remove from them. He tries to make connections--with the human Rebecca, whose meeting with Connie has the distinct undertones of both the resistance member who seduces a German officer and the young native who allows herself to be seduced by an aging colonialist, and with a nameless young Parisienne with whom he has a brief affair--but ultimately he is alone, a middle-aged imperialist straight out of Graham Greene, who doesn't understand the society he lives in but can't find in himself the strength to leave.
Through Connie, through his relationship with Rebecca, and through the Puscha's actions on Earth, Ings conflates the personal and the political. Did the Puscha render humanity illiterate because they are indifferent guardians of life, conscientious gardeners? Or was their true, unacknowledged motivation a desire to encourage the balkanization of Earth's society--as Connie puts it, "We are good gardeners, but we are too flashy. We succumb again and again to our vulgar hunger for exotica. ... We have made this place our hothouse"? Does Rebecca betray Connie out of racial pride, or does she do it because he's been unfaithful to her?
"Russian Vine" is a story that will leave you with more questions that answers. Sad and haunting in all the best possible ways, it has lingered with me for nearly five years because of its terrifying premise (what could be worse, after all, for a voracious reader?), its beautiful prose, and the unanswerable riddles it poses.
Link to story.