“From Babel’s Fallen Glory We Fled,” by Michael Swanwick takes you on a journey through another world. A sentient suit called Rosamund, tells of Carlos Quivera, who survived the ruin of towering city of Babel, one of many cities on the planet Gehenna built by giant black sentient millipedes. Quivera contrives an extremely rough alliance with a millipede he calls Uncle Vanya, and sets out for home.
The story has so much going for it. Lyrical prose, check. Adventure journey through a steaming jungle, check. Amusing meta-play with the narrative, check. Narration by a human mind uploaded into a machine, check. Arguments about trust, information, and economics, check. Giant sentient millipedes who communicate in complicated symbols, check. And yet, while I enjoy reading it, I can’t quite say I love it.
The names bother me. The suit is never called Rosamund da Silva, but always Rosamund. The man is never called Carlos, but always Quivera. Millipoid sapiens may call themselves We-of-the-Hundred-Cities, or the True People, but usually they’re “millies”. I can’t find a hint of Uncle Vanya’s real name, or even an admission that Vanya’s a joke name. The names of the cities, Babel, Ur, Ziggurat, are likewise chosen by the Europans. It adds up to an undertone of disrespect for anyone who’s not a human male action hero.
But they only bother me when I think back after reading it. I like Rosamund’s cheery tone. I like the twists on the journey and thwarted expectations. I love the descriptions. So I’d rather not think too hard about it. As Rosamund says:
All machines know that humans are happiest when they think least.
Addendum: You can hear a reading of it on Escape Pod that really brings out the lyrical quality of the prose, and has some fun with the millipoid’s communicatians.