In “Out of All Them Bright Stars,” by Nancy Kress, it’s the end of the night, and Sally Gourley is filling up the catsup bottles when an alien walks into the diner.
I know right away it’s one of them — no chance to make a mistake about that — even though it’s got on a nice-cut suit and a brim hat like Humphrey Bogart used to wear in Casablanca.”
The story maintains her voice wonderfully, and vividly shows us the diner Sally works in. And then it hits you with a huge sucker punch at the end. If you don’t want spoilers, go find one of many collections it’s in and read it before going on.
Back in the diner, the other customers freak out, but Sally is cool with the blue alien. She’s seen them on TV, and they don’t look all that creepy to her. They converse. Its Earth name is John, but it’s native name is “a beautiful sound — like a birdcall, only sadder.”
By the time her boss, Charlie, rushes out to get all heavy-handed with his bigotry, we’re totally in the tank for Sally. She is the lone wise woman who can see through the surface to the beauty underneath. And then the story proceeds to crush all hope that she or the alien will ever make a difference in this world. Men in black take the alien away. Her boss holds the threat of firing her over her head. At the end she is left with nothing but fury.
Why did he come to her? she asks. “John” himself says he makes so little difference. She feels that she has been asked to make a difference, but she can’t. Considering how awful the people in the story are, no wonder the aliens think that Earth needs saving. Even Sally looks like a coward at the end; she shuts down everything we like about her — her empathy, her willingness to reach out — and turns away. She wishes they would go away.
There must be lots of other places they can go, out of all them bright stars up there behind the clouds.
Now, I’m an optimistic person and I want to see this story as a call to action, to find the Sallys in this world and give them a hand. But the story ends on such a note of powerlessness, it seems to deny that anyone has ever made a difference, or that anyone can ever make a real difference — and that’s just not true.