People – a group comprised of every sapient species, organic or otherwise – were chaos, but chaos was good. Chaos was the only sensible conclusion. There was no law that was just in every situation, no blanket rule that could apply to everyone, no explanation that accounted for every component. This did not mean that laws and rules were not helpful, or that explanations should not be sought, but rather that there should be no fear in changing them as needed, for nothing in the universe ever held still.
Oh, I do love these books. Especially on audio. There just such a delightful take on the sci-fi ‘slice of life’ genre. Once again, it’s a new cast and new stories, with loose tiebacks to the previous characters (seeing Pei and hearing her talk about Ashby is a nice change of view). Chambers really shines at taking a bunch of weird and wonderful aliens, sticking them in a tight space (this time what’s essentially a ‘space truck stop’) for a few days, and seeing what happens. Nothing earthshaking1 or deadly2, but a lot of interpersonal drama. It’s great. Worth a read.
Really. Go read it. But if you need one more reason, take this (rather than longer than usual) excerpt:
He paused in thought. “Cheese. Is that a real thing?”
Pei erupted in laughter. “Ugh,” she said. “Stars. Yeah, cheese is real, unfortunately.”
Roveg was both delighted and horrified by her answer. “Not really?” he said.
This was finally enough to coax Tupo out from under the table. “What"s cheese?”
Speaker cocked her head. “I second the question.”
“Oh, please don"t make me explain this,” Pei groaned.
The Akarak leaned back in her cockpit. “Well, now you have to,” she said.
“Mom, what"s cheese?” Tupo whispered loudly.
“I don"t know,” Ouloo said back. “If you listen, you"ll find out.”
Pei set down her plate and exhaled apologetically. “Cheese,” she said in a clinical manner, “is a foodstuff made out of milk.”
Ouloo blinked. “You mean like …” She gestured at her own underbelly, where her mammary glands presumably lay beneath thick fur.
“Yep,” Pei said. “Exactly that.”
“So, a children"s food,” Speaker said, her tone suggesting that this struck her as no stranger than the concept of milk itself.
Roveg laughed. “Go on,” he said to Pei goadingly. He continued to snack, enjoying the show.
Pei winced. “No,” she said to Speaker. “It"s not for kids. I mean, kids eat it, too, but … so do adults.”
Everyone present – with the exception of Pei – let out a reflexive sound. There were low growls from Ouloo and Tupo, a short trill from Speaker. Roveg, for his part, let out a triple-clicked hiss. A brief cacophony of varied species all communicating the exact same thing: complete and utter disgust.
“No,” Ouloo said.
Tupo cooed in fascinated horror.
“Wait, so, how …” Speaker made a hesitant face. “I"m going to regret this question. How is it … prepared?”
Pei grimaced. “They take the milk, they add some ingredients – don"t ask me, I have no idea what – and then pour the mess into a … a thing. I don"t know. A container. And then …” She shut her eyes. “They leave it out until bacteria colonise it to the point of solidifying.”
The cacophony returned.
“I knew I"d regret it,” Speaker said.
Roveg laughed and laughed. “I"m so glad I asked about this,” he said.
“Mom, can we order some?” Tupo said.
“Absolutely not,” Ouloo said.
“They don"t all eat this, do they?” Speaker asked.
“I don"t know,” Pei said. “I know they don"t make it in the Fleet, and a lot of people there can"t eat it without getting sick.”
“No, it"s not that. Humans need a … oh, what is it … it"s something with their stomachs. An enzyme, I think. For digesting milk. Only some Humans produce it naturally. But here"s the thing: they"re all so fucking bonkers for cheese that they"ll ingest a dose of the enzymes beforehand so that they can eat it.”
“That seems a bit extreme,” Roveg said.
“Have you eaten it?” Tupo asked.
“Not if my life depended on it,” Pei said.
“How is it that their milk makes them sick?” Speaker said. “That"s got to pose a problem if they can"t feed their young.”
“Oh, no, I – stars, I forgot the the worst part.” Pei rubbed her neck with her palm. “They don"t make cheese with their own milk. They take it from other animals.”
At that, chaos broke out.
“I didn"t know that part,” Roveg said, his forelegs shivering. “That"s … oh, that"s vile.” And it truly was, but this fact did nothing to derail his glee.
Cheese. That is all.