You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Thursday, October 21, 2010


I have over the past months read enough mid-century sf to notice several recurring themes, and to have settled on a favorite. Several novels involve The Next Step in Human Evolution, and possibly as a subset of these novels are those that hinge on the question, Is Mankind Ready to Join Intergalactic Society? There are both novels that describe an Apocalyptic Event and those that concerned with life post-apocalypse. And there are those stories, for the most part zany adventures, set in somewhat dystopian but recognizable future versions of our own society, or rather that which could be imagined by the first generation of Post WW II writers. (Everybody smokes in these stories.)

But my favorite genre centers around Man's Encounter with Alien Intelligence. The best book I've read, make that the best sf book I've read this year is The Cold Dark Years by Brian W. Aldiss. (See NOT A STUNT: SF (7) BRIAN W. ALDISS) This short, dark comedy describes our disastrous, for them at least, encounter with gentle, advanced beings who cover themselves in their own excrement and with whom we cannot communicate. Things do not go well.

The last two books I've read are Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg and A Case of Conscience by James Blish, two very different novels that concern earth's involvement with intelligent life on newly discovered planets.

Silverberg conceived his novel while in Africa in 1969. By this time, most African nations had achieved independence, and Silverberg's novel takes place on the planet Belzagor, formerly Holman's World, a decade or so after relinquishment. This is the policy adopted by earth to return planets with advanced life forms to their original inhabitants, ceasing whatever colonial or industrial activities we had imposed upon them.

Silverberg's hero, Gunderson, was an administrator on Holman's World. Haunted by his experiences of the place, he is determined to understand at last the mysteries of the Nildor, the blue, elephantine creatures that are the planet's dominant life form. He arrives with a small group of well-heeled human tourists, there for a package tour. They are the novel's comic relief. What he finds are the rundown vestiges of the colonial period, and a planet where what few humans stayed behind after relinquishment have in one way or another gone native. (Yes, the spirit of Joesph Conrad hangs over this novel, and Silverberg, after he wrote it, worried that it was nothing more than a pallid Conrad imitation. It's both more than that assessment while not being anywhere near the Conradian model.)

Gunderson is there to witness the rebirthing ceremony central to Nildor culture, a ceremony they had always kept secret from the colonialist settlers. As he journeys from the tropic zone to the misty highlands -- this is all sounding sillier than it reads -- he encounters old acquaintances in their new post-relinquishment incarnations. There's Van Beneker, happy to be a tour guide until things break down completely. A very unfortunate couple at an abandoned outpost who have been invaded by a parasitic organism. It is using their bodies for the several year gestation period of its young. A former lover, once rather finicky about alien life forms, now walks around clothed only in a transparent, clinging amoeba that is both pet and garment. She tends to her husband Kurtz, who has undergone the rebirthing ceremony Gunderson has returned to experience. Kurtz is now a deformity in constant pain.

Gunderson's rebirth, when it occurs, goes rather better. He comes through it with only an inner transformation, a new, spiritual consciousness that gives him a messianic vision and purpose that I don't think readers are supposed to find as creepy as I did. As he leaves the mountains, he sees himself as "the resurrection and the light," and I thought we had already had one of those. With this religious denouement, Silverberg overplays his hand.

Religion is front and center in James Blish's A Matter of Conscience. Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez is both a biologist and a Jesuit priest. He is part of a four-man team on Lithia, a planet that earth must classify as either suitable for human interaction or a hands-off zone.

Lithians are ten-foot tall reptiles balanced and their hind legs and with opposable thumbs that have gotten them pretty well advanced as a civilization. They are also an atheist's dream come true. Lithians are moral, peaceful, crime-free, and get along just fine with absolutely no concept of God or the spiritual.

Of the four men there to determine Earth's future relations with the planet, one sees its unusually high levels of lithium as a gold mine for the creation of nuclear weapons. Another thinks that for that same reason our policy should be hands off. One seems to be on the fence, and Father Ramon decides that the planet is the creation of Satan, designed to challenge humanity's faith. Their split vote ties up any final decision in committee where Father Ramon is relieved to assume it will languish for years.

Back on Earth, Father Ramon is excommunicated for heresy, since his theory about Lithia is a form of Manichaeism that grants Satan creative powers. But he has other problems. Just as his team departed the planet, a Lithian gave them an unhatched Lithian egg, which grows up to be a unruly young reptile with his own popular TV program and possibly the ability to muster the discontented youth of Earth into a seditious force. At this point I thought Egtverchi -- Lithians have unfortunate, unpronounceable sf names -- was going to become the Anti-Christ and Blish was prefiguring the Left Behind series. But no, Egtverchi stows away on a ship bound for Lithia, where, with his human concepts of right and wrong, he may prove to be the serpent in the garden of that particular Eden. The climax of the story can be interpreted either as God moving in his mysterious ways or a thermonuclear accident.

I don't go along with those reviews that call these books challenging and thought-provoking. That's the hermetically sealed sf world patting itself on the back for moving away from old-fashioned space operas. But I am beginning to find them irresistible entertainment, particularly when they are short, moderately well written, and feature lots of monsters.


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  2. Here's a question for you: Who has the best naming conventions in sf novels that you've read.

    Egtverchi is a rather ugly word. Realistic, but ugly.

    My favorite is Ian M. Banks Culture novels. His names are carefully chosen for their phonetic beauty and I'm pretty sure he takes the sound qualities from human languages, so they seem alien but natural at the same time. Here's one:

    Diziet Sma from the novel Use of Weapons


    Jernau Morat Gurgeh from The Player of Games

  3. I think I only notice them when I am put off by them. But I will start watching for well-named aliens in what I am reading.

    In Downward to the Earth,, Nildor and Sulidor flowed nicely.

  4. It's "The Dark Light-Years" and there's an empty stub on wikipedia just waiting to be filled in.