Malka Older is an academic, a humanitarian worker, and a science fiction writer. We’ll be talking about her work in the next Political History of the Future entry, but yesterday on her twitter feed she reminded me of the first thing by her I read, the short story “Tear Tracks”. Published at Tor.com in 2015, “Tear Tracks” is the story of Flur, a human who is a member of an expedition to make diplomatic contact with an alien species. The mission goes well enough–some cultural misunderstandings occur, but mostly they serve to highlight both parties’ goodwill and openness to new ideas. Nevertheless, Flur finds herself shaken to the core by what she learns about how the aliens order their society, and how this exposes her own unspoken assumptions about what qualities suit one for leadership.
she examines the row of decorations along the curving wall, gradually realizing that they are not abstract moldings, but sculpted likenesses. There are no gilded frames, no contrasting background to firm, smiling faces, but once she sees it Flur can’t believe she missed it. There are so many analogs in her own world: the row of ancient principals on the moldy wall of her high school; the faces of presidents in her history book and hanging in pomp in the Palais National; the old, unsuccessful directors hanging outside the Mission Director’s office. Conscious of the video feed, she looks at each face in turn for a few seconds, trying to learn what she can.
They do appear to be mostly female, although Flur counts three faces of the thirty-eight that scan to her as male. There are no confident smiles; a few are actually looking away, their faces turned almost to profile, and most of the eyes are angled downward. They look almost sorrowful; then, as she keeps staring, they look too sorrowful, the way the politicians at home look too distinguished.
What qualities–and what performances–do we value in our leaders? What traits do we deem necessary for achieving positions of authority and power? What path do we lay out for people to become our representatives, and what backgrounds and life experiences do those paths winnow out? The last week, and in particular the last few days, have brought all those questions to the foreground, and Older’s story deals with them in a way that at first seems gentle and low-stakes, until it builds to a devastating conclusion. I can’t think of a better story for us to be reading this weekend.