The Sidon in the Mirror
by Connie Willis

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Asimov's, April 1983

collected in —

Fire Watch December 2012

Pairings of heat and light

"The Sidon in the Mirror" is a strange novelet, as we might first surmise from the unusual word or name in the title. Sidon is the city in Lebanon whence haled Jezebel of ill repute, anciently and even on to today. Connie Willis uses "sidon" in her science fiction story as a name of an animal of dangerously unpredictable temper, found on an ashen-dark star named Solfatara; one of these animals was imported to our story's locale, another dark star named Paylay. The handful of miners on Paylay name their taps into gas-mines after this explosively temperamental beast, so these taps also are "sidons".

Mirror here refers to the narrator, a tall ruddy fellow who has been imported onto Paylay as the piano-player in the joy-girls' house frequented by the miners. He is a doppelganger, not imitating superficial appearances like a chameleon, but rather the inward characteristics of nearby people: their personalities and talents. This is involuntary.

In my teens I read Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Double, and the narrator's progressive displacement in his life by a doppelganger created a lasting impression. Woody Allen's film Zelig gives us the biography of a man about halfway from Dostoevsky's to Connie Willis'; that is, Zelig acquires appearance and behaviors, but from different sources successively. Willis' narrator is a successive or multiple absorber of behaviors, talents, and personality traits, but his own appearance as a red giant sort of man remains constant.

I wouldn't wish to try teasing out all of the symbolism suffusing "The Sidon in the Mirror", but I'll give a few suggestions. It works well enough as a straightforward science-fiction story, but picking up the smoking and glimmering hints and internal cross-references gives us a deeper and hence more empathetic appreciation of bravery, sadness, and potentially eruptive dangers.

Basically, the psychological depths of the story seem to be stellar, volcanic, combinatorial, Biblical, and judgmental. — If that feels like a lot of weight for one little novelet, well, it is set on a dead star — weighty matter indeed — among people who work and play there.

This dead star Paylay, soot over heat, likely is named after Pele (pronounced "Paylay"), the Hawaiian volcano goddess. Similarly the off-stage tapped dead star Solfatara, after the Mediterranean volcano. Deadly dangerous no matter how dormant they appear. Does a volcano's mouth speak the time-deep Adamaic language of the planetary interior when it erupts? What issues might we anticipate when tapping into a dead star for its resources?

A Sidon sequence "is a sequence of natural numbers in which all pairwise sums ai + aj (i ≤ j) are different." This describes the narrator's advanced doppelganger relationships; he responds uniquely to each individual with whom he's in contact. Connie Willis' brief introduction to the story, in her own voice, is on the phenomenon of adult twins and what their often convergent behavior intimates for free will.

With Taber, the name of a man who's been on Solfatara and is now on Paylay, we develop more inward heat and gravity:

1. He that dasheth in pieces is come up before thy face: keep the munition, watch the way, make [thy] loins strong, fortify [thy] power mightily.
2. For the LORD hath turned away the excellency of Jacob, as the excellency of Israel: for the emptiers have emptied them out, and marred their vine branches.
3. The shield of his mighty men is made red, the valiant men [are] in scarlet: the chariots [shall be] with flaming torches in the day of his preparation, and the fir trees shall be terribly shaken.
7. And Huzzab shall be led away captive, she shall be brought up, and her maids shall lead [her] as with the voice of doves, tabering upon their breasts.
Nahum, Chapter 2
Bible: King James Version (KJV)
Taber: ta'-ber (taphaph, "to strike a timbrel" ((Psalms 68:25)): The word is used only once in the King James Version, namely, in the exceedingly graphic account of the capture of Nineveh given in Nahum 2:7. The queen (perhaps the city personified) is dishonored and led into ignominious captivity, followed by a mourning retinue of "maids of honor" who taber upon, that is, beat violently, their breasts. Such drumming on the breasts was a gesture indicative of great grief (Luke 18:3).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), 1915

In "The Sidon in the Mirror", Connie Willis has given us one of her most densely packed stories. After reading it, we owe ourselves a little time to at least partially integrate all its sequences.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

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