REVIEW SUMMARY: More of an enjoyable warning than it is story.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Man meets aliens; man shoots aliens.
PROS: Well-thought-out aliens; well-crafted prose; interesting premise.
CONS: Flat characters; minor story offshoots don’t lend much to the main thread.
BOTTOM LINE: A thoughtful and look at first contact.
The Dark Light Years (1964) by Brian Aldiss is a satirical look at mankind’s first encounters with aliens. In this case, the aliens are the Utods, six-limbed creatures for which fertility is held in religiously high regard – which is a nice way of saying that they wallow in their own feces. The military team that first encounters them shoots then on site, much to the consternation of Bruce Ainson, the non-military Master Explorer on the flight. He does manage to convince the captain that the remaining two Utods be brought back to Earth in an attempt to communicate. This is where things get really nasty for the Utods as the military just doesn’t know what to do with them beyond cruel experimentation. The Utods are unresponsive to communication attempts but it is learned that they feel no pain. Research money dries up when the military feels that money is better spent on the off-planet war with Brazil, or more specifically, on finding the home world of the Utod so the secrets on pain-free warfare can be revealed.
This synopsis is a bit more accurate than the back cover description found on the 1991 Carrol & Graf edition of the book, which focuses on Bruce’s son, Aylmer. Bruce’s estranged son Aylmer does play a part, but his story is more or less set up as bookend chapters to the main narrative. In effect, we know how the book is going to end. This takes some of the surprise out of the story, but any intention to surprise is confined to the inhuman way that humans treat the Utod. Here, I believe, the reader is meant to draw parallels with unethical treatment of animals.
During their captivity on Earth, the Utod become the center of many discussions, mostly philosophical and sometimes emotional, on the true nature and definition of intelligence and civilization. Most people believe that the Utod are mere animals because they show no outward signs of communication. (Note to the Utods who read this blog: covering yourself in your own defecation is frowned upon over here.) The lone voice of reason is Bruce Ailmer, but unfortunately his lack of progress in communicating with the Utod has irreparably harmed his reputation and, eventually, his involvement in their handling. Of course, thanks to the aforementioned back cover and the first chapter, we know that his son Aylmer will enter the story and pick up his work. The pessimistic worldview Aylmer shares with his father prompts him to volunteer to become marooned on the Utod’s home planet where he is meant to study their language first hand.
Aldiss’ cautious narrative, while well-crafted, sometimes diverges to the personal lives of some crew mates in passages that really don’t lend much to the overall story or its message. Even the main characters (beyond Bruce Ainson’s perceived pessimism) seem flat. This makes it challenging to become immersed in the unfortunate story of the Utods, who are otherwise very well-thought-out aliens. They communicate via a series of screeches ranging through multiple frequencies emitted through any combination of six orifices. Their 3G home world orbits three suns and they change gender during different orbital cycles. The author does a great job showing how the Utod culture is based on fertility and at odds with mankind’s way of thinking. I just can’t help thinking that the real-life military would not waste the chances missed by the book’s characters. But then, I suppose that is the point of satire.