Marcia Martin and Eric Vinicoff’s 1992 The Weigher is a stand-alone first-contact xenoanthropology science fiction novel.
Slasher’s people are touchy apex predators, inclined to see each other as threats and competitors. Nevertheless, the Kodiak-bear-sized beings have a civilization of sorts, facilitated in large part by the tireless efforts of Weighers like Slasher, who work to find equitable, non-violent solutions to conflicts.
Slasher’s successful career is doomed as soon as the demons appear.
The first foul-smelling visitor wanders into Treesap’s home and is immediately killed. Neither Treesap nor Slasher know what to make of the dead humanoid. Accordingly, the corpse is sold to the local version of a scientist to make of it what he can.
The next demon is identical to the first. It lives long enough to use off-world technology to bridge the communications gap. Before its inevitable death at the claws of an affronted bystander, it explains that its name is Ralphayers, that it (or rather he) is a visitor from a world called Earth, and that his purpose is to study Slasher’s world and its inhabitants.
Two more demons present themselves. One is another Ralphayers. The other is a novel demon, Pamayers. Their starship took the precaution of altering Ralphayers and Pamayers’ offensive body odor while growing them. At least these two clones won’t have to worry about provoking attack with their loathsome scent. This is good, because so many clones have died that the ship only had enough material left to grow this last pair.
Seeing utility in the pair, Slasher becomes Ralphayers and Pamayers guide to local culture. The two humans pay their way with off-world knowledge, in particular technological innovations. Both sides benefit … except for traditionalists whose ways of life are disrupted by alien innovation.
After one innovation too many — specifically, the concept of economic blackmail — the traditionalists have had enough. Slasher barely gets the humans away in time to save their lives. Now an exile herself, Slasher accompanies the two humans as they explore all the ways in which it is possible for two aliens to die on Slasher’s world.
The Weigher appears to be an expansion of Martin and Vinicoff’s 1984 novella of the same name. I missed the issue of Analog in which it appears. Pity. That issue had a pretty good cover1.
The novella was nominated for a Hugo, losing to Butler’s Bloodchild and placing behind Shepard’s The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule, Zahn’s Return to the Fold, Willis’ Blued Moon, Schenck’s Silicon Muse, and ahead of No Award. Robinson’s Lucky Strike placed below No Award, something I had not previously noticed.
Martin and Vinicoff may have missed a trick by having the orbiting craft run out of material from which to grow more clones imbued with the memories of previous clones. There is a certain element of humor inherent in having hapless explorers appear, each one learning a bit more than their predecessor before dying. Perhaps the pair didn’t want to trespass on territory covered by Pohl and Williamson’s Farthest Star (reviewed here).
The Weigher belongs to the same genre as The Luck of Brin’s Five (reviewed here), first contact told entirely from the alien perspective. In course of guiding the visitors, Slasher is forced to explain various minutiae of local culture2, which is convenient for readers who don’t want to have to work these things out from behavioral evidence3.
The Weigher is also cousin to Poul Anderson’s The Winter of the World. Both stories feature intelligent beings whose individualistic nature is an impediment to the creation of large, complex societies4. Slasher’s people have (barely) mastered transactional interactions. Unlike Anderson’s Rogaviki, Slasher’s people do not live harmoniously with nature; one culture visited in the course of the novel is doomed because it is inadvertently driving into extinction the megafauna on which it depends.
Many other authors present libertarian societies more positively than do Martin and Vinicoff. Slasher’s people took longer to accomplish much less than humans, and it’s not at all clear they’d survive being handed more advanced technology, such as the means to make nuclear weapons. That’s certainly an unusual stance for novels of this sort. I wonder if that’s why it was never a Prometheus finalist5? Or did nobody draw the book to the appropriate people’s attention? Oh, well. There’s always the Hall of Fame.
Despite some world-building quibbles6 I enjoyed this first-contact novel. All of Martin and Vinicoff’s work appears to be out of print7, which seems a pity. There has been nothing from either since the 1990s, which seems an even greater pity.
1: I snagged the covers from Librarything, which is how I discovered that there are two entries for this novel, one credited only to Vinicoff and one only to Martin. An order of magnitude more people appear to be aware of Weigher as a Vinicoff novel than as a Martin novel.
2: In this book, culture varies from location to location; [snark] this is unlike the alien worlds in a few books I could mention [/snark].
3: Given how the aliens handle raising kids, one at a time in a process that usually ends with the kid trying to murder their parent to take their property and job, either succeeding or dying in the attempt, it’s not clear to me how they maintain a steady population.
4: It is also difficult to carry out infrastructure projects without provoking lynch mobs.
5: I notice that even though there were many finalists in 1985, the Prometheus Award went to “No Award”. Were the voters especially cranky that year?
6: There’s a bit of logic midway through the book that I can only describe as worthy of the 1966 Batman movie:
“We had monsters like that on Earth a long time ago,” Ralphayers replied. “They disappeared — killed off by the weather changes caused by a huge meteorite strike. Your world didn’t get struck, so your monsters survived. This proves the meteorite theory.”
How? How does it prove the meteorite theory?
7: For the most part, the pair stuck to collaborations, although Vinicoff did write his novel Maiden Flight without Martin and both wrote short pieces solo.