The Dark Light Years by Brian Aldiss, first published in 1964, makes me realize what an important voice Aldiss is in the science fiction genre.
So after some years of space exploration and around 300 Earth-type planets, humans have not yet found any life form worth writing home about. Brian Aldiss is one of the greats of British SF but in this early novel he is still writing dialogue like this: Get knotted, Duffield, you ruddy trouble-maker!
The sort that uses fictional constructs to address serious topics. It matters not, of course, that Utods are in fact a sophisticated race with advanced technology and philosophy, the men (confined by their impregnable anthropomorphism and galvanized by narrow minded prejudice) see their wallowing in mud habit and their excretions as appalling, thus rendering the entire race as inferior, thus making it ok to slaughter, imprison and torture. Certainly makes you think, which is really what books ought to do.
This novel, the author's sixth in the sci-fi realm, does not enjoy as good a reputation as those first three just mentioned; Pringle, in his "Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction," says that the book is "enjoyable but minor Aldiss," while "The Science Fiction Encyclopedia" refers to it as "a lesser work." Still, as might be expected from a multiple Hugo and Nebula Award winner, not to mention a future Science Fiction Grand Master, even lesser Aldiss has something to commend itself to the modern-day reader, now more than half a century since its release in 1964. The book, in essence, gives us the history of Earth's relationship with the so-called utods, a race that an Earth exploration ship had discovered on the planet Clementina, around 100 light-years distant. For one thing, there are hardly any Earth characters in it whom one can admire (with the possible exception of Aylmer Ainson, who is marooned on the utod homeworld of Dapdrof for 40 years to study the beasts, but who is only present in the novel briefly), and indeed, most of the characters--Aylmer's father Bruce, the weak-willed explorer who discovers the utods; Mihaly Pasztor , the wily head of the Exozoo; Hilary Warhoon, an attractive, middle-aged "cosmeclectic" with good intentions but who is, ultimately, easily led astray; and Hank Quilter, a trigger-happy crewman--are ultimately shown in a less-than-flattering light. I love it when he tells us that after a period of revolutionary cleanliness, hundreds of years earlier in utodian history, "law and ordure were restored." Also amusing: when Aldiss refers to the utods' habit of politely excreting on one another as "Do to others as you would be dung by"; when he refers to the three-times gravity on a utod planet as a "crippling tripling"; and when he mentions that one of the obscure utodian folk arts is called "blishing." (American sci-fi author James Blish, it will be remembered, famously criticized "Hothouse" for its scientific implausibilities.) Aldiss accentuates the satirical nature of his work by giving his utods outrageous, borderline silly names (such as Blug Lugug, Snok Snok Karn and Quequo Kifful), and their home planets such appellations as Buskey, Clubshub and the previously mentioned Dapdrof. Fortunately, Aldiss also peppers his novel with many ingenious and imaginative touches, such as the background war that is transpiring between Britain and Brazil on the newly discovered deep-freeze planet beyond Pluto, dubbed Charon (the author, in a fascinating aside, here gives us some of the rules governing 21st century warfare); the mescahale smokes that many characters imbibe in (inhaled powdered mescaline, if I'm reading the author correctly!); the complicated monorail system surrounding 21st century London; the face masks that all London residents must wear in the street, to protect themselves from the ghastly air pollution; the décor motif known as Ur-Organic; and the californium slugs (with an impact force "equivalent to seventeen tons of TNT") spat out by the rifle-toting Earth goons as they engage in their "explorations." Aldiss book IS a brief one, as I mentioned, densely and compactly written, and I cannot help feel that its brevity works against it. In all, yes, "The Dark Light Years" is a lesser Aldiss affair, but one still worth, uh, wallowing in....
Only one man, who decides to exile himself in order to observe the creatures in their own environment, will ever understand the profound connection they have with their world and each other.
Taken back to the London Exozoo, the sharpest human minds attempt to converse with the remaining creatures, only to see them fail every man-made test for intelligence. It sounds like the perfect setup for a social satire---and that's exactly what Aldiss provides, a kind of first-contact, post-colonial take on humanity's anthropocentric expectations of what an alien intelligence should look/act like. Like other such satires (Pohl's Jem comes to mind), it isn't as good at being a novel as it is as biting social commentary.
This is my first Aldiss.
Brian Wilson Aldiss was one of the most important voices in science fiction writing today.