Friday, February 06, 2009

The New Yorker: "The Invasion from Outer Space" by Steven Millhauser

Is this a parable? Or what, exactly? Is the “invasion” of yellow “animate dust” a symbol for something else? Almost certainly, I think, but what? It seems to me it could represent anything new in a culture: the return of democracy; a Starbucks on every corner; the arrival of HDTV. “It is really quite peaceful, in its way.” Said in a way that suggests the contrary.

So there’s this arrival from out of space. It turns out to be a dusting of single-celled organisms that reproduce in sunlight at an amazing rate. (What was the name of that wacky sci-fi movie with the cute little fuzzy things?) The people are curious, of course, but are warned to stay away from them. But they keep growing and the mounds rise “like bread”. The people are being lulled to sleep, but there’s danger in the bread. What is it? It could be anything, I think. And that’s this story’s problem.

February 9 & 16, 2009: “The Invasion From Outer Space” by Steven Millhauser.

13 comments:

choochoo said...

Hmm. I haven't read this book, but I did read somewhere that bread makes you fat. I'm not surprised if it comes from outer space.

Paul Epstein said...

This story gets my vote for the worst New Yorker story I've ever read. In contemporary times, such an outpouring of yellow debris would be detectable by surveillance technology years in advance. And, if we're not in contemporary times, why are there so many contemporary references? The story simply makes no sense, and therefore the thought "What if this happened?" isn't interesting (to me).

Clifford Garstang said...

Obviously I didn't care much for this story either, but not because it was unrealistic. That's the beauty of fiction, although realism is the norm in The New Yorker and so a story like this is a tougher sell to regular readers. This is why I assume the yellow stuff is actually a symbol for something else . . .

Anonymous said...

Paul - actually, while modern surveillance technology _could_ detect such an object years in advance, you would have to know exactly where the object was and exactly how it was moving in order to catch a glimpse of it. Read up on NASA and other's reports on the tracking of Near-Earth Objects - asteroids that could potentially hit the Earth sometime in the near future. Missing the bunching of dust until it was a matter of days away is one of the most realistic elements of the story.

Homunculus J. Reilly said...

I actually liked the story OK. As the yellow dust rose, so did my pulse, and that doesn't happen to me all that often with literary short fiction. For me the problem with it is the simple fact that it's in the NYer. It's neither good enough nor "literary" enough (let's be honest, it's basically a nicely crafted piece of sci-fi flash-fiction) to deserve that platform. If it had been published in an obscure e-zine instead (and had a different byline!), I think most people would be satisfied with it. An obvious point, perhaps, but hopefully also a good reminder to try to view every story on its own terms -- removed from its author, era, and publication.

[BTW, like the blog! keep up the good work.]

Ian said...

Just discovered your blog via your Pushcart ranking list, for which I am very appreciative.

I read this story just today. It does seem to me to be allegorical. Clearly, the yellow cells could be fatal to the entirety of the world, not to mention humanity, simply by spreading over and throughout everything and outcompeting all other life for sunlight, water, etc. Who could imagine a more lethal alien invasion? Yet the people in the story seem let down, oddly disappointed, rather than alarmed. Because the threat is not overt, it inspires ennui rather than fear.

I think the allegory here just relates to overlooking deadly risks because they don't measure up to our sense of catastrophe. The mundane can be just as deleterious as the ferocious. Or, the collapse of an economy is more likely to destroy a nation than terrorist missiles. Who knows. In any case, the story seems true to the whole "not with a bang, but a whimper" idea.

Thanks for allowing me, a stranger, to blather on in the comments of your blog.

Oz said...

I don't think this is meant to be taken literally as a Sci-Fi thriller as some of your correspondents seem to suggest (talking about surveillance technology, Paul, made me laugh!)

The question of whether it's a good allegory is a separate question...

So it could be an allegory about almost anything - one attempt: I'd take it as something like the fear of terrorism - we expected it to take one form, expected its attack, but instead what it did was infect every part of our every day lives (shoes off at the airport, library borrrowing lists, that whole list) and hurt us in ways we couldn't have anticipated and many we barely noticed.

Clifford Garstang said...

I agree with you, Oz, that the story is allegorical, and your interpretation is a good one, I think. I was going down a related path: perhaps the yellow dust is the erosion of civil liberties that we've experienced over the past 8 years in the US. But that may be my own political perspective interfering with the reading.

Waldo said...

That's funny—I can't stand 90% of the fiction in The New Yorker, and generally don't bother reading it because it just annoys me. But I read this story and really enjoyed it. Discussions have popped up about it all over the internet from appreciative readers (all non-literary blogs). This may be the sort of story that separates the literary types from us regular folks. :)

Clifford Garstang said...

It's a fun story to discuss. I distributed it to the class I teach--second semester Freshman composition--because we're talking about allegory and symbolism. It was great to have the students answer the question, "what does the yellow dust represent?"

Mark Richardson said...

Thanks for your blog. It is nice to have a place where others post their thoughts.

I think Oz has an interesting take on this one.

Anonymous said...

This story intrigued me, especially when the narrator expressed his disappointment after seeing their "invader" was only a yellow dust. In a sense you should feel relief because it really wasn't an all out alien invasion like you see in the movies, but the truth is its human nature to feel guilt in a situation like this. It's almost selfish or ignorant to feel that way, but the feeling is mutual. I really liked Ian's and Oz's comments on this story because I think the author definitely intends for the reader to get more out of the "yellow dust" then there is seen at a superficial glance. I totally disagree with Paul Epstein.

Anonymous said...

The story was fascinating. I loved every bit of it.
It's pretty soothing if you ask me. Sure, it wasn't realistic or anything, but something about it puts me at ease.