“Hinterlands” is a short story by Nebula Award-winning author William Gibson that was published in his 1986 anthology Burning Chrome.
Plug in, flip the switch, and let’s get this review started!
The Story: Pushing Humanity To The Edge Of Reason And Back
Human space exploration changed forever once a Soviet cosmonaut named Olga Tovyevsky accidentally gets pulled through a pocket of space that acts like a wormhole, only to return years later in a catatonic state, clutching a seashell of apparently alien origin. This discovery jump-starts a new field of exobiology, along with a new profession: helping space tourists make one-manned flights through the same wormhole as Olga… and then helping them cope with the unspeakable horrors they’ve witnessed upon their return. Some come back dead, others in shock, and a few carrying trinkets that can do marvelous things like cure cancer.
The Cast: Therapists… In… SPACE!!!
Our narrator is Toby Halpert, a would-be astronaut who wasn’t allowed to go through the wormhole (known colloquially as “the Highway”) and instead sits at a nearby space station with his girlfriend and coworker, Charmian. Their job is to handle the returning visitors from beyond–or whatever’s left of them when they return. Toby and Charmian are fairly desensitized and despairing of their jobs, seeing as many come back dead or commit suicide, but they have to keep at it because human beings continue to insist on going out there and facing what they’ve come to call “the Fear.”
The Style: Lovecraft, But Without The Racism and Purple Prose
There are two interesting elements about this story. The first is the bizarre phenomenon that the Highway is part of. Gibson never really explains it–although most signs point to it being one or more highly advanced alien civilizations–and it’s up to Toby and Company to pick over the bizarre clues brought back by a series of unfortunate travelers. Humanity acts like a cargo cult with this alien presence, considering how many benefits its “souvenirs” have brought to Earth. It’s interesting that the story gives us aliens that might be horrific, yet also produce some wonderful developments for the human race (as most sci-fi tends to make it one or the other).
The other interesting element is the pedestrian language that Gibson uses for such a sensitive and bizarre project. The wormhole is called a “highway,” the travelers are called “hitchhikers,” and the space station anchored near the gateway is just called “Heaven.” For all the horrors that might lie beyond the limits of human-explored space, there’s a kind of laid-back attitude for those who have to deal with its aftermath day in and day out. I suppose it’s a nice testament to our ability to adapt as a species, but maybe it’s more cynical than not.
So it goes.
Final Verdict: Maybe Discovery Isn’t The Healthiest Thing For Us
As I’ve said before, I like how this story added a whole new sense of mystery to first contact with extraterrestrials, recognizing that for whatever wisdom or gifts they might have for us, our minds might not survive said contact. It also makes the universe at large a far more interesting, if not terrifying, place.
Bibliography: Gibson, William. “Hinterlands.” Burning Chrome. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1986.