In future fiction it is common to include characters (especially protagonists) who are luddites by the standards of their contemporaries, or at least out of touch with current trends. This is, among other reasons, a handy way of providing an audience identification figure who can ask the dumb questions about the world, while a character with the equivalent of Wikipedia eidetically memorized would be less easy to use.
Paul Norris is this luddite today, a man who’s built a home, buried a wife and grown old on Mars. Not that he’s the protagonist. That would be Cessair, an amortal with mixed feelings about old humans who refuse to upgrade:
Look, I’m no bigot! The Old-Strains made us, after all, and their genes formed the basis of those parts of amortal bodies that are still organic. They gave us form, gave us shape, gave us the stars, for Life’s sake… and I’m not going to static them just because they’re slow. But talking to one of them can be like talking to an ancient gigabyte processor, pre-AI: slow, single-minded, and positively complacent in its determination that it’s right, and never mind what the rest of the universe has to say.
But he has to meet Norris, so Cessair grows a temporary body so he can appear at Norris’ door in person, which he thinks would be received more warmly. The thing is, Mars is being gradually terraformed by ice comet impacts, no more than a few tens of meters across so they won’t cause much trouble, and has been going on for long enough that there is a liquid sea again. But something went wrong with the fracturing of the last comet. A chunk of ice several kilometers long is going to fall into the sea. The resulting impact will form a tidal wave that will race through the valleys, and Norris’ house is right in its path. But Norris doesn’t want to leave.
Now, the person refusing to leave their home in the face of imminent danger is a venerable trope. But this story then goes in a different direction. Norris already knows about the meteorite. He doesn’t want to leave his home because he has his own plan: to attach flotation bags and thrusters to his house, and catch the wave and sail when it hits.
This is a ridiculous scheme. But if it’s far riskier than anything Cessair has ever done in his life, it also sounds far more exciting than anything he’s ever done either. And so he surreptitiously leaves cameras and sensors around the house so that when the wave hits, he can vicariously ride along too. And so can other amortals. And thus the story transforms into another venerable trope, that of the young realizing they can still learn from the old, as the story provides a spectacular set-piece of the house racing down this newly created tsunami.
Fossils by William H. Keith, Jr
Word count: 9,400
First published: Asimov’s Magazine, Aug 1999
Where to find it: Worldmakers: SF Adventures in Terraforming, edited by Gardner Dozois, 2002, St Martin’s Griffin