Because I’ve been asked about the process by which I’ve been selecting stories for the Random Review series, I thought I’d take a moment to explain how the stories are selected.
I have a database of approximately 42,000 short stories that I own sorted by story title. When it comes time for me to select a story to review as part of this series, I role several dice (mostly ten sided) to determine which story should be read. I cross reference the numbers that come up on the die with the database to see what story I’ll be reviewing. This week, I rolled 26,559 which turned out to be Avram Davidson’s short story “Paramount Ulj.”
One of the things I’m hoping to get out of this series, from a person point of view, is to discover authors and short stories that I’ve owned and have never read. Of course, I’m also hoping to share those discoveries, good or bad, with the readers of Black Gate.
Avram Davidson could be extremely erudite, yet, at the same time, rather silly. “Paramount Ulj” is a story that tends to fall on the latter side of that spectrum and is completely predictable if you share Davidson’s penchant for wordplay. It is one of his more slight stories, which may explain why its only appearances were its original publication in Galaxy (with translations appearing in the Swedish, French, and Italian versions of the magazine) and in Strange Seas and Shores, one of Davidson’s collections.
The Paramount Ulj is the leader of an alien race that has sent out scouts to learn about other planets in the galaxy and try to find a civilization that practices their concept of ovlirb-tav, which is never fully defined in the story. Upon their arrival in Central Park, the two aliens, who are twins named Smottleb and Cumpaw, happen across High Royal Highness Prince Prhajhadiphong of Thai, who happens to be a permanent delegate to the United States.
The prince realizes that he has been placed in a precarious situation and calls on representatives from the US and India to help him navigate the situation with the aliens. The story set up is certainly one in which a misspoken word or untimely revelation will cause the aliens to determine that humans do not practice ovlirb-tav and result in the destruction of the planet. At the same time, it is made clear that the aliens are evaluating humanity through their own cultural lens and misinterpreting what they are seeing and reading.
The ultimate denouement of the story hinges on an offhand comment one of the aliens made and the story ends with neither the aliens nor the humans having a complete understanding of the situation or each other. The reader, however privy to Davidson’s omniscient narrator, comes away with all the pieces to the puzzle and can enjoy Davidson’s sense of humor in a way the characters couldn’t.
Steven H Silver is a nineteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology is Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.