“Stranger Station” by Damon Knight – Fourth Reading – Classics of Science Fiction

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“Stranger Station” was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 1956. You can read it on Archive.org. It is story #20 of 22 for The Best SF Stories of 1956 group read. “Stranger Station” was a selection for Judith Merril’s SF:’57: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy and Asimov/Greenberg’s 1988 anthology The Great SF Stories # 18 (1956). It’s often reprinted. This is my fourth reading of the story, and the third for the Facebook SF short story reading group. It was tied for fourth place for the most cited SF short story of 1956 in our citation database.

I’ve reviewed “Stranger Station” before.

I think it’s important to note that Damon Knight published two of the most remembered science fiction short stories of 1956: “The Country of the Kind” and “Stranger Station.” I think it’s also important we should note that both were about hate. We must ask, “Were they positive or negative?”

I’m a big believer in rereading fiction, but can a story be reread too much? With this fourth reading, I got even closer to what Knight was creating. In the first half of the story, I marveled at Knight’s hard science setup. The story was more vivid than my previous readings. I admired everything Knight wrote, and I was quite impressed. The second half of the story, especially the ending, still puzzles me. Had Paul Wesson truly figured out the motives of the aliens from Titan? Was his reaction, right? Was Wesson’s solution supposed to leave us feeling ambiguous about what Wesson figured out?

The basic plot is Paul Wesson, an astronaut working on a space station near Earth volunteers to spend months on a distant space station, called Stranger Station, reserved for meeting an alien from Titan every twenty years. Both aliens and humans have trouble being near each other. Nearness causes a deep sense of psychological dread in each species. However, it also causes the aliens to exude a golden liquid from their bodies that humans have discovered has life extending properties for our species. The aliens agree to meet every two decades at a space station far from earth. Just one human and one alien. The fear of being around humans causes the alien to sweat longevity chemicals which they freely give to the humans. But what do the aliens get in return? That’s a mystery.

There is a cost to the human who volunteers for this mission. They go crazy, losing the ability to communicate, and change physically in horrible ways. It might be a form of adapting to the aliens. But Wesson doesn’t know that. It’s another mystery. But all of humanity gets to live another twenty years longer. This reminds me of Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

Paul Wesson’s only companion is an AI he calls Aunt Jane. The creation of Aunt Jane was brilliant speculation by Damon Knight in 1956. Paul tries to learn as much as possible about his fate from Aunt Jane, but she is restricted by what she can tell. This relationship slowly reveals the mysteries, and maybe the solutions. However, in the end, we’re not sure what happened to Paul. It appears he’s about to die. And he’s killed the alien. It also implies that humanity’s longevity serum supply will be cancelled. Was Paul Wesson, right? Did he save humans from a fate worse than death, or merely act on his own hatred and xenophobia?

Wesson believes the aliens are fighting us with love because they know we’ll eventually overrun the solar system, go interstellar, and destroy them in the process. Paul believes the aliens give the humans their golden sweat to make us addicted, thus protecting themselves. Wesson then assumes hate is the only way to fight back.

I’m still not sure what philosophical stance Knight makes in this story? Is he saying xenocide is ethical? Or that cooperation or even a symbiotic relationship with aliens is evil? Is he promoting human purity, a kind of interstellar racism? Up until the arrival of the alien at the station, the story is very pro-space, pro-technology, pro-future. Then it gets weird. Is hate the solution, or just Wesson’s solution, or even Knight’s solution?

My friend Mike didn’t have much to say about the story, but he sums it up precisely:

“Stranger Station” has a pervasive underlying element of apprehension and dread. I think Knight is forcing us to confront the stark reality of alien contact. He discards the facile Hollywood model and thrusts us into the bewilderment and dread and menace that will surround an alien contact event. The stakes will be enormous; our survival as a species will be at risk.

Personally, I don’t believe we can have contact with aliens of any kind. I assume that each evolved planetary biological ecosystem will be deadly to all other planetary ecosystems. That was the same conclusion as The World of the Worlds by H. G. Wells and more recently by Kim Stanley Robinson in his novel Aurora. Knight doesn’t seem to be worried about deadly microbes, only of hating each other. Knight is suggesting that there will be psychic barriers that will keep us separate from beings from other worlds. But again, is that Paul Wesson, or Damon Knight?

I tend to think it’s not Knight, but Knight suggesting it’s true about us.

James Wallace Harris, 1/11/23

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