This whole SF thing started because I spent most of last January reading J.G. Ballard novels. Even though I knew they would be science fiction and that I officially neither liked nor read science fiction. I had always made an exception of Ballard and Philp K. Dick. Everything else I had turned my nose up at since around 11th grade.
But when I read a book of Ballard's essays and reviews, I had to come to grips with how seriously he took the field. It was enough to make me take another look, especially once I stumbled across Jim Pringle's 100 Best Science Fiction Novels. Here was list covering the years 1949 - 1985, sprinkled with books I had read as a teenager, and with the added attraction of providing a limited set of titles that did not require my trying to make my way through the current field.
Hence, these to date seven blog posts on specific science fiction writers or novels, and a stack of used paperbacks on my desk that would not be out of place on the shelf of the worlds geekiest ninth grader, circa 1975. (I have had more than one friend, who for some unfathomable reason does not read my blog, take a look at this pile and ask, "What is this about?")
One of Ballard's particular enthusiasms was Brian W. Aldiss, some one I had never read although I knew that he was generally considered "good." I have always had a hard time dealing with the fact that he had written books with the titles Frankenstein Unbound and Dracula Unbound. Without ever having cracked one, I had written them off as quickie pastiche novels of the lowest order. But now I want to read them, because I want to read everything Mr. Aldiss has ever written.
Aldiss has three books on the Pringle list: Non-Stop (1958), Hothouse (1962), and, Greybeard (1964). I read them all and thoroughly enjoyed them. But what really knocked me out was a short book I read for extra credit, The Dark Light Years (1964). If there is anything I dislike more than having someone give me a book to read, it is the impulse I sometimes have to fight back to do the same. The Dark Light Years is that book. Really, you ought to read it. It's great.
The plot, such as it is, goes something like this. After centuries of zipping around the galaxies, humankind has found all manner of extra-terrestrial life, but never of such intelligence that we would hesitate either putting them in earth's new Exozoos or using them as target practice. But then we encounter the Utods, beings with several million years of racial memory, along with the ability to man spacecraft. The only problem is that they look like six-legged hippopotami, except for when they retract their legs and resemble giant, recumbent yams, and their vocal system is so complex we cannot possibly master it, although they have an irritating habit of repeating whatever we say. Oh, and they cover themselves with their own excrement. That's the deal breaker.
Man and Utod is is that trainwreck that has been waiting millennea to happen. . We transport a few specimen to earth, put them in a zoo, study them, puzzle over them, hold scientific debates about them, and since we are convinced, wrongly, that they feel no pain, we vivisect them. Occasionally we hose them down, although they clearly do not like it. They are touched if confused when one of the scientists observing them takes a crap in their cage. None of this really amounts to much since by the end of the novel a "Contained War" between Brazil and England has turned into a true intergalactic conflagration, and they are essentially wiped out, along with most of everything else.
One reviewer on Good Reads called this the most depressing book she had ever read. I don't think she appreciates just how dark comedy can be. In the other Aldiss books I read, people take journeys and learn things. The semi-savages living in "quarters" on the giant spaceship in Non-Stop, struggle their way to "Forward" and discover the mystery of their circumscribed lives. The three-foot-tall arboreal humanoids in Hothouse learn that fending for themselves will involve more than simply following the old ways. (Hothouse is actually pretty silly but fun, and you get to discover the surprising role of the morel mushroom in human evolution.) Greybeard inhabits an post-apocalytic England where he must confront the fact that his world will die out, and that what ever shows signs of surviving is beyond his help or comprehension.
In The Dark Light Years, nobody learns squat. Mankind, very much concerned with both the day-to-day problems of being such superior beings as well as concerned about our own future, continues to spread death through the universe as surely as those first Europeans spread small pox and flu to the New World. But all is not lost. London we learn has been destroyed, but there are plans to rebuild. On a limited scale, of course.