I really can’t say anything about my thoughts on Utriusque Cosmi by Robert Charles Wilson without massive spoilers. Consider yourself warned!
Huge things terrify me. The first time I lived in an apartment, the thought of being four stories up was enough to make me panic. I need to work to stay calm when I go up The Hague Tower’s glass elevator. As a kid, I spent the vast majority of any ferry rides imagining just how massive the monsters under the ship could be.
And then there’s the fact that I read more horror than science fiction. So Utriusque Cosmi by Robert Charles Wilson had me feeling a little knot of dread — until the final passages, that is.
The ending is glorious. But also even more terrifying.
The plot of the story follows the story of Carlotta after she escapes from a soon-to-be-destroyed Earth. The only catch? In order to hitch a ride on the space ship run by an alien life force almost too big to comprehend, offering her a way out, she has to leave her body behind.
But Carlotta can rest assured that she’s made the right choice. After all, a future, bodyless version of herself has come back to tell her about it.
This premise could easily lay the foundation for an effective horror story, but in Utriusque Cosmi, Robert Charles Wilson chooses a different path. Rather than focusing on estrangement, loneliness and cosmic terror — all of which are present in Carlotta’s story — the main themes are friendship and benevolence.
When Carlotta decides to leave many of her comrades behind, the story focuses on the friendship and love she finds in her group of travellers. When she thinks about her past, she is able to make peace with her mother and her choices — something that we see doesn’t come easy for her.
Even the story’s mysterious antagonists are revealed to be a force for good, offering Carlotta’s saviours the same escape they had offered mankind and other similar races. They’re not the embodiment of entropy or some kind of elder gods bent on destruction — they’re friendly, but simply too big for Carlotta to understand.
It runs counter to the cosmic horror that I’m used to reading. There are huge and incomprehensible forces out there, but guess what? They want to help.
But what Carlotta discovers is also quite chilling.
The Earth’s destruction was caused by these unknowable aliens. Weren’t they supposed to be friendly?
They didn’t even realise they were destroying Earth and the countless similar planets.
They ended billions upon billions of lives without knowing, simply because those lives were too small to register as life.
On the one hand it’s nice to know that these beings are benevolent. But does benevolence matter when you’re too small for them to comprehend?
When I was a kid, I worried that there were entire universes in the cereal I ate. Every Rice Krispie I ate could signal the doom of countless tiny lives. What if a second to me was a trillion years to them? What if I was ending entire worlds with each bite of breakfast?
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids affected more than you’d think.
So that. While I was pleasantly surprised by the warmth and positivity that is at the heart of this story, there’s still something there at the end to make my stomach clench. I just don’t think that a story about space is ever not going to give me the creeps — or the all-consuming dreads, as the case may be.