In “The Tomb Wife,” by Gwyneth Jones, Elen is the Navigator of a small crew of humans and a guest alien on a starship transporting ancient artifacts. The alien, Sigurt, is the most distinctive character. The story opens with him messing with them about the nature of one of the artifacts, claiming that it’s haunted by a Tomb Wife. He’s generally good humored, and even accepts being tweaked back. Elen is equally preoccupied by keeping their journey on track and speculating about the nature of the ghost. When she begins exploring the tomb, things gets interesting.
I wasn’t sure I would like this story at first. The opening paragraphs run through a bunch of tropes I’m bored with. The inscrutable alien with a peculiar physical characteristic (in this case, diamond-shaped pupils). The reasons why he turns out to be as scrutable as any human. Not to mention apostrophes in proper nouns.
I had to set it down and tell myself, those aren’t tropes. Those are signifiers of a kind of SF where you almost don’t need to mention that it’s set on a starship. When I picked it up again in a proper mindset, I enjoyed it. And the starship’s method of transport is pretty cool, if it is what I think it is. It’s described only elliptically, in passages like this:
But we do not travel, she thought. Not a step. When the transcription is done — what does when mean, when there is no time? — we will make the crossing in almost zero extension.
What we do is stay, in the paradoxical moment —
I think they are hovering in an unresolved state of quantum spacetime maintained by the consensus reality of their joined conscious minds. But I can only guess because I like to read wacky cosmology books. People who deride quantum mechanics and the origin of consciousness just ain’t going to get it. This sort of thing leaves me wondering about the size of the audience for a story like this, but some of my favorite stories depend on similar expectations. Others prefer to explain everything at length. It all depends on what you’re trying to do.
An SF story for SF fans.