The Conflagration

Yoon Ha Lee ( lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She has a degree in mathematics. On her blog, she says, “if I am doing my job correctly as a writer, I am structuring my story around a series of ambushes and trying to deliver as much punishment as possible. Especially by punishing bad assumptions that the reader makes. This is probably a hostile and adversarial stance to take toward the reader, but if I try to conceive of it the collaborative way I get bored and wander off.” She has been publishing her carefully crafted stories in the genre for about ten years. Her fiction has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Ideomancer, and Shadows of Saturn, among others.

“A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel” was published at, which maintained its prominent position as a publisher of short fiction in 2011. This story is a compressed, Stapledonian vision of huge vistas of time and space.

Among the universe’s civilizations, some conceive of the journey between stars as the sailing of bright ships, and others as tunneling through the crevices of night. Some look upon their far-voyaging as a migratory imperative, and name their vessels after birds or butterflies.

The people of a certain red star no longer speak its name in any of their hundreds of languages, although they paint alien skies with its whorled light and scorch its spectral lines into the sides of their vessels.

Their most common cult, although by no means a universal one, is that of many-cornered Mrithaya, Mother of the Conflagration. Mrithaya is commonly conceived of as the god of catastrophe and disease, impartial in the injuries she deals out. Any gifts she bestows are incidental, and usually come with sharp edges. The stardrive was invented by one of her worshipers.

Her priests believe that she is completely indifferent to worship, existing in the serenity of her own disinterest. A philosopher once said that you leave offerings of bitter ash and aleatory wine at her dank altars not because she will heed them, but because it is important to acknowledge the truth of the universe’s workings. Naturally, this does not stop some of her petitioners from trying, and it is through their largesse that the priests are able to thrive as they do.

Mrithaya is depicted as an eyeless woman of her people, small of stature, but with a shadow scarring the world. (Her people’s iconography has never been subtle.) She leans upon a crooked staff with words of poison scratched into it. In poetry, she is signified by smoke-wind and nausea, the sudden fall sideways into loss.

Mrithaya’s people, perhaps not surprisingly, think of their travels as the outbreak of a terrible disease, a conflagration that they have limited power to contain; that the civilizations they visit will learn how to build Mrithaya’s stardrive, and be infected by its workings. A not insignificant faction holds that they should hide on their candled worlds so as to prevent Mrithaya’s terrible eyeless gaze from afflicting other civilizations, that all interstellar travel should be interdicted. And yet the pilgrims—Mrithaya’s get, they are called—always find a way.

Certain poets write in terror of the day that all extant civilizations will be touched by this terrible technological conflagration, and become subject to Mrithaya’s whims.


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