Story of the week: "An Alien Heresy" by S.P. Somtow

I first heard about S.P. Somtow back when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand. During in-country training, one of my first dates with my future wife--who was also training to become a PCV--was to invite her to a showing of the Thai SF film Kawow tee Bangpleng. The movie isn't a classic of the genre and is remembered mainly for the scene in which a massive UFO visits a Thai village and impregnates the local women. The day after seeing the movie I fell into a discussion about science fiction with one of my Peace Corps language trainers, who mentioned Somtow as a famous Thai SF author. However, when I asked what he'd written, she preceded to describe his work as a musician. Because my Thai was so poor, I assumed she'd misspoken about his being a science fiction writer.

Nope. Turns out I was merely limited in understanding all that a man like Somtow could do. Somtow is a throwback to the 18th century ideal of a renaissance man and is an accomplished musician, composer, film director, and author. Somtow's writings have won a number of high profile awards, including a World Fantasy Award for his novella "The Bird Catcher." A past president of the Horror Writers Association, Somtow also wrote a moving semi-autobiographical novel set in Thailand in the 1960s called Jasmine Nights. George Axelrod, Oscar-winning writer of Breakfast at Tiffany's, so loved this wonderful book that he called Somtow the "J.D. Salinger of Siam." However, in recent years Somtow has written very little as he's focused on musical compositions and his work with the Bangkok Opera. But now, after a seven year fiction drought, he returns to SF with the amazing novelette "An Alien Heresy" (published in the April/May 2008 issue of Asimov's).

"An Alien Heresy" is the story of Lenclud, a young official in the Catholic church during the dark years of the European Inquisition. A few years back, Lenclud lead an inquisition against the royal leader of the area called Tiffauges, who had been sexually assaulting and killing the children under his protection. While this should have been a high point in Lenclud's life, he also gave in to lust with a local woman. Ever since he's regretted his lack of true faith and piety while also fearing that his sin will be discovered. Now Lenclud is sent back to Tiffauges to examine reports of a captured demon. If the creature is indeed a demon, he will lead a new inquisition. But instead of a demon, Lenclud encounters both an alien explorer who crash landed in the area and a son he never knew he had. Both encounters test his faith--and his views of his faith--in ways he never could have expected.

This story of how religious faith can be perverted to justify almost any horror is a deeply disturbing story. But it is also an amazing tale, crafted with the atmospheric prose and attention to character that are Somtow's specialties. "An Alien Heresy" is highly recommended.