Larry Niven – The Artists, 2011

Subterranean Magazine. winter2011Unholy Colors, the latest of the Chirpsithra interstellar liners, sent down a boatful of artists and artistry to pile up around the walls of the Draco Tavern.

Some of the big stuff could stay outside, but most of it was too delicate. The work had been accumulating for two days now. Aliens in many shapes drifted among the displays, critiquing each other’s work in a score of alien languages.

The bar wasn’t selling much. The viewers were reluctant to carry drinks and the like. Spilled drinks, sparkers, foodstuffs, smoke or toxic gasses could ruin too many of these displays.

The work was generally impressive. Some of what was lined along the curved wall seemed half familiar. Paintings, sculpture, weaving. But the paintings showed odd colors, oddly matched to human eyesight. Alien graffiti wrote itself as you watched. Water above a fountain twisted into strange curves, glowing in neon colors. Some of the sculpted shapes, and some of the holograms, moved. Light sprayed in random patterns. Between a fractally twisted tree and a radio antenna that wasn’t doing anything, another tree grew taller as I watched.

It reached a limit, a cage of branches.

I went about my business, and looked again, and the tree was gone. Yet there was something there…

I stopped by the bar to pick up a palm stun. No suspicions, just a habit I’ve tried to encourage in myself. I strode casually among tall Chirpsithra, small yellow bugs, creatures armored or hairy or feathered, a water tank on tractor treads, a snake with a huge mouth and several tongues…alien artists wandering among the displays.

What I thought I’d seen was there, slumped against the blue curve of the wall. I could just make it out from two feet away: half a kiloton of octopoid bulge, its body a half-empty sack, its eight tentacles thick and muscular and bifurcated into fingerlets. Its skin glowed a wonderful sky blue, shading itself to match the holo wall. Now its eyes met mine. Then the blue darkened almost to black, and rainbow shapes like tiny octopi lifted from a seabed and swam a pattern across the creature’s bulbous torso, as if trying to write a message.

I spoke into the bead mike of my translator. “Are you participating in the Gallery Display?”

“I am.”

“I’m Rick Schumann. I run the Draco Tavern. Welcome.”

“I thank you. My name is View from the Depth.”

“Can I fetch you sustenance?” Usually a visiting ship keeps me supplied with whatever a visiting alien needs. I couldn’t remember anything unusual being delivered since Unholy Colors’ lander came down. “What’s your physiological type?”

“Tee tee hatch nex ool. May I have seawater?”

I went back to the bar. I was mildly surprised: tee tee hatch nex ool is the same code as mine, as Earth life, the air and water patterns that won’t poison, for instance, a human being. I mixed up a reasonable approximation of seawater, chilled it a little, and brought a big bowl of it to View.

“Refreshing,” View said, its eyes and beak dripping. “Do you enjoy alien art forms?”

“Some are very pretty. Talking to the artists is mostly confusing. What else can you show me?”

“My companions liked this.” View’s body changed. In dark depths colors swirled: pillars and jets of stardust brilliantly lit from offstage. Stars formed explosively. One came near, nestled in a thousand rings. The rings grew lumpy and formed planets in blasts of white light.

My score of customers were watching me and View. Conversation swirled, and I sensed amusement.

I asked View, “Where are you from?”

“I will show.” Again View’s body sac darkened at the edges, brightening in the center. I watched a planet form. The view zoomed in, and I recognized the Philippines, New Guinea, Japan rimming an arc of Indian Ocean. Now there were only islands visible: Micronesia, and an awful lot of water.

A Glig was at my elbow, a little too big and a little too close. “Do you like View from the Depth?”

It dawned on me: View was a display of genetic skill, a work of art. “Impressive. Yours?”

The artists were laughing, each in its own way. The Glig said, “No. View from the Depth was worked by Sea People.”

We should never have let the Sea People into the oceans. “View, are there more of you?”

“Two early versions. Next version will breed, but must have permission of the Chirpsithra.”

“These are our oceans,” I said.

“Tell the Chirpsithra. I do not hold copyright.”

Yerrofistch wore rank markings on her scarlet chitin chest. If I’d read them right, she was an officer of middle rank among Unholy Colors’ Chirpsithra crew. I brought a sparker to her table and struck up a conversation.

She said, “The Sea People entered your Atlantic Ocean during the year the Draco Tavern was shut down. After all, where else were they to go? Many species visited other parts of Earth during that period.”

“I know. They bred like crazy and ate up a lot of fish. Where are they now?”

“The passengers, the primary group, moved on with their ship. Their progeny are mules; they will not breed. Are you worried about their consumption of fish?”

“No, not that.” The Sea People had eaten deep into the fish population of the Indian Ocean, but they’d found a way to pay that back. They’d helped the locals build OTEC power plants, powered by the difference in temperature between the surface and the bottom of the ocean. One side effect of pumping warm water down was that warm currents rose from the depths, carrying nutrients to feed more fish. “No, it’s what they’ve been doing with the octopus, the local life forms.”

I pointed out View. Yerrofistch stood and walked over.

At that point the bar got busy. I didn’t get a chance to join them for some time, but I did watch them talking. View was creating visuals to illustrate important points.

When I joined them, Yerrofistch said, “She is intelligent.”

“I know,” I said.

“What Sea People remain number in the thousands. They were left to deal with View and her people and several other experiments. We’ll look into those. Meanwhile, these that View calls the Many Hands are a legitimately sapient species. Copyright no longer applies: they own themselves. I don’t see that they will disturb your civilization much. You don’t share territory. View and two sisters are the only models who can walk and breathe out of the ocean.”

Most of my customers now clustered around the fireplace. It had just been floated in, a pit of bricks and charcoal with an inverted funnel chimney above the flame, and it had the aliens fascinated. I was surprised. Fire’s common enough. But the centauroid artist was preening.

“I can do that,” View from the Depth said. Flames chased themselves across her torso and limbs; smoke darkened above. A human reporter, festooned with camera specs and sensors, turned to watch her.

“No heat,” I said.

“No. May I have water?”

“I’ll get it.”

“Wait. What is this I’m told? Are you shutting down the artists’ display?”

“In twenty-six days.”

“Must I return to the sea? I must visit, of course, but I find more of interest on the land.”

“I was wondering,” I said. “Could you represent your kind as an ambassador? I was thinking your people should petition for representation in the United Nations. Otherwise someone might take away their fishing grounds.”

“I do not know that I would still be considered one of them. I am so altered.”

“Where’s their choice? The UN meets on land.”

“Well, I can ask. Thank you, Rick. Is this one of the displays?”

I introduced the reporter to the octopus, and they began an interview.

Larry Niven, b. 1938.   The Artists, 2011

Published in Subterranean Press Magazine, Winter 2011

Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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