"New Light on the Drake Equation" by Ian R. Macleod: an appreciation by Niall Harrison
they lied to us
this was supposed to be the future
where is my jetpack
where is my robotic companion
where is my dinner in pill form
where is my hydrogen fueled automobile
where is my nuclear powered levitating house
where is my cure for this disease
It's funny because it's true. You could add moonbases and teleporters to the list, and a dozen other things that science fiction made us believe were just around the corner. But it lied to us; that future will never happen. Ian R. Macleod's beautiful novella 'New Light on the Drake Equation', first published at SCI FICTION in May 2001, takes that truth of modern life and makes it hurt. It is an elegy for a genre that believed in its dreams.
Tom Kelly is an old man, living in a shabby hut on the side of a mountain in France, listening to the sky, in a twenty-first century where twentysomethings twist their bodies with genetic engineering, growing scales or wings, becoming 'bright alien insects'. He's the last and forgotten advocate of SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, waiting for a message from the stars, trapped behind the bars of his life's choices, alcoholic and alone. He grew up a science fiction fan, and lives in a world where sf is as archaic as fairytale, extinguished by 'the real and often quite hard to believe present'. He listens. He waits. He longs. He is, it is hard not to think, one of us.
Every first Wednesday of the month, he rattles down his mountain into St Hilaire, to collect his post. On this particular Wednesday--actually a Thursday; he's got his days mixed up--his first piece of mail is from Sally Normanton, at the University of Aston in Birmingham, telling him the University is withdrawing its funding for his project. It's no use trying to argue; Sally grew up on Clarke and Asimov too, she understands. It's just policy. Nobody believes in anything but the most pessimistic interpretation of the Drake Equation, that calculation to estimate the number of intelligent and communicating species in our galaxy, any more. If they're out there, we should have heard from them by now.
Out of the corner of his eye, across the market, he catches a glimpse of a memory; and later, back up on the mountain, above the bustle of the French town, the memory comes to visit him. Terr, a woman he once made a leap to love. Tom pulls out the bottle of Santernay le Chenay 2058 he's been saving for First Contact, and they sit outside, and look upwards, and Tom remembers: decades earlier, back in Birmingham, when he was an American scientist abroad, and she was desperately in love with the world and everything in it. "How can two people be so different, and so right for each other?" Tom wonders. So right, but perhaps not right enough. After a time they drift apart, Tom's innate conservatism at odds with Terr's addiction to experience. She grows wings and, later, goes to the moon; he, ironically, would never do either.
'New Light on the Drake Equation' is a lovingly crafted story. Sentence by sentence, Macleod is as good at layering mood as any writer I can think of, and his future is subdued but enthralling. The story is, as I said, an elegy, so the predominant tone is one of melancholy and regret, but the glimpses of hope and possibility are as carefully portrayed, and as moving. It is also a story about what happens when nothing happens; about how it feels to wait through 'a slowly roaring beat of city silence', or any silence; about how it feels to have the future wash over you while you're still lost in the past. And, as you may be able to tell, it is the sort of story that lends itself to grand poetic statements about its achievements. Every time I re-read it, I'm left a little dazed, a little dazzled--which sounds, for a story that is in an up-front and important sense, about that thing we call science fiction and about its relationship to the world, a little ridiculous. Who mourns for a jetpack?
But it's not ridiculous, not at all, because what the story uses the subject of science fiction to question is how dreams drive us, and how we cope when we lose them. It's something that almost everyone has to face. It's the question raised in The Great Gatsby, except that where F. Scott Fitzgerald would persuade us there is something admirable about Gatsby's obsession, Macleod presents Tom Kelly as neutral. Gatsby attempts to make his dream come true; Tom doesn't have that option, but he does everything in his power to make sure he'll be listening when the message comes in. Tom is Gatsby, facing forwards but pulled backwards, forty years older rather than gunned down in a blaze of melodrama, not longing any less but perhaps admitting to himself, somewhere deep down, that his dream is dead. More than that, perhaps fearing that it wasn't worth spending the best part of his life on for no return; maybe even suspecting that it did more harm than good, left him less prepared for the future, not more. They are, these two, both particularly American dreamers. (And of course, a lot of science fiction is a particularly American dream.)
And then Terr comes to visit. It seems too convenient, and it is. Tom and Terr drink all night, remembering and arguing together, but as the dawn comes, Terr fades. The stars shine through her, and she's gone.
Oh, we want to believe. We want to believe this is science fiction, not just a dream--no. It is science fiction; there are men on Mars, and flying over the Lake District. What we want is hope. To believe again in the science fiction we've lost, which is to say that we want to believe what every person wants to believe: that we are not alone. We want to believe that Tom Kelly drank his Santernay le Chenay on the night of First Contact, not for the sake of a drunken dream. Not that dreaming made him drink.
Tom lets himself believe, perhaps, for a moment. Watching Terr leave, 'all he felt was a glorious, exquisite sense of wonder' (and never has that phrase had such a sharp edge). The day comes and the wonder recedes, but that moment sustains him, for a while at least. He cleans himself up, starts selling SETI merchandise--including t-shirts--at the market in St Hilaire. It's an ambiguous ending at best, leaving us considering whether it's a turning point or a hollow reprieve, but:
He's Tom Kelly, after all.
And this might be the night.
He's still listening, waiting.
As are we.
Link to story.