Giants In The Dust by Chad Oliver science fiction book reviewsGiants In The Dust by Chad Oliver science fiction book reviewsGiants In The Dust by Chad Oliver

At this late date, the authors who have penned works in the fields of science fiction and fantasy must number well into the multiple thousands, but the ones with an actual background in science, who have used their education and scientific training to both inform and add veracity to their stories … ah, they are indeed amongst a much more limited crew. Let’s see … Isaac Asimov was, of course, an associate professor of biochemistry. Hal Clement had degrees in both chemistry and astronomy, and the British author Fred Hoyle was also an astronomer. Joe Haldeman has a BS in physics and astronomy; Gregory Benford is a physicist; Arthur C. Clarke took degrees in both physics and math; and Carl Sagan was a renowned and popular astrophysicist. And then there was Poul Anderson, with his own degree in physics; Lewis Carroll and John Taine, both of whom were mathematicians; Vernor Vinge, who was also a professor of math and computer science; and James Tiptree, Jr., with her Ph.D. in experimental psychology. And oh, Symmes Chadwick Oliver, the chairman of the Dept. of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, who also wrote a half dozen sci-fi novels under his pen name, Chad Oliver. I have already written here of three of those six novels – 1954’s Shadows in the Sun, 1960’s Unearthly Neighbors and 1971’s The Shores of Another Sea – all perfect examples of that curious subgenre known as “anthropological sci-fi,” and now would like to tell you of my latest experience with this regrettably undersung author; namely, his final science fiction novel, Giants in the Dust.

Giants in the Dust first appeared as a $1.25 Pyramid paperback in March 1976 (the month of Oliver’s 48th birthday), sporting a rather misleading cover by an unknown artist. Sadly, this was to be its first and final English-language edition. In 1985, the German publisher Moewig released the novel in paperback form with a new title, Die neue Menschheit (The New Humanity), and then, the book would go completely OOPs (out of prints) to this day, although an ebook was released by Gateway/Orion in 2014. Still, I would advise potential readers of this hugely satisfying, final sci-fi effort by a significant author not to despair. With the book-search tools available online today, a copy of that 1976 Pyramid edition can easily be found at a reasonable price. The one I was happy to purchase even came with Chad Oliver’s signature on the title page (!) … a serendipitous bonus that the seller wasn’t even aware of, or at least did not mention.

Now, as to Giants in the Dust itself, the book is initially set on the Earth of what is apparently many centuries in the future. Most of the planet is covered by cities, except for small portions of the Sahara and Antarctica; a virtually planetwide urbanscape, in which the peoples live carefree, idle existences. Against this backdrop we meet a misfit named Charles Varnum, who is called before the ruling Council one day and asked a rather odd question: “Are you happy?” It seems that this ruling body has become aware of the fact that although the populace is seemingly contented, nobody is genuinely happy. And Varnum advances his opinion as to why that is: Human beings were meant to be hunters, to face adversity and harsh challenges on a daily basis. Ira Luden, one of the Council members, would seem to agree with him. He tells Varnum that colonists sent to other planets initially fared well, but, retaining their old cultural habits and memories, soon fell back into the old patterns, merely replicating their lot on Earth. Hence, a remarkable experiment is propounded. A group of colonists will be subjected to a complete memory wipe, dropped on a new world, and start a civilization over from primitive scratch. Varnum, selected by computer for his like-minded feelings and natural leadership abilities, agrees to go on this mission, with the proviso that his own mental wipe be a temporary one … say, for a period of three years. And so it is done, and before long, Varnum and a few dozen others awaken on the Earth-like world Capella VII (why are these planets always represented with Roman numerals, Varnum curiously wonders), 42 light-years distant, with the tabula-rasa mentalities of newborn babes.

Over the course of this short novel, we watch as Varnum and the others live an existence roughly on a par with that of Neolithic man. Despite many setbacks and harsh winters, the group somehow begins to thrive and – after the first tragic instance of childbirth – even grow. Plants are successfully foraged, cattle and rodents are hunted for food, skins are worn to protect the settlers from the cold, and caves are found to shelter in during the winter season. Varnum takes a wife and even raises a strong son and rather sickly daughter. And then, one day, Varnum’s memory begins to slowly return, and he eventually remembers who he was, and what he is doing on Capella VII. And he recalls that men from Earth will soon be returning to check up on the colony; to see if they are well, prosperous and happy. Thus, Varnum faces a terribly important decision: whether to let his primitive people encounter the space visitors, OR to go with them into hiding…

One of the more interesting aspects about Oliver’s work here is how his style of writing changes to match Varnum’s intellectual state. Thus, in the early scenes, that style is wonderfully literate and thoughtful. But when Varnum first awakens in his new home, with the mentality of a primitive, the style changes to one that is much more simply written, with three- and four-word sentences; almost impressionistic, in places. And of course, that writing style again grows nicely literate as Varnum’s memories begin to resurface. In all, and typical for Oliver, the book is extremely well written; the type of book that will likely prove well-nigh unputdownable for most readers, most of whom will likely devour the 142-page affair in a few rapt sittings. As you might suspect, the novel is quite concise, with no extraneous flab. Again typical for this author, the book is also unfailingly intelligent, and features a likeable leading man who happens to be something of an outdoorsman (like Oliver himself). As was the case with those other three books by the author that I’d previously experienced, the theme of “first contact” is again touched upon, although here, the resident extraterrestrials happen to be of the wild-animal variety; no alien humanoids are to be found in this outing. I might add that Oliver’s favorite hobby, fly fishing, is dealt with here as well, as Varnum attempts to construct a proper rod, reel and various baits, and manages to find solace from the pressures of his position in the catching of food fish for his tribe.

Varnum indeed does make for a fascinating and sympathetic leading man, going from Terran misfit, to primitive caveman, to fully aware leader of a group of virtual troglodytes over the course of this book. And while we do get to know some of those other folks in a sketchy way – such as Varnum’s wife Dee, son Varnum, daughter No-Name, and tribesmen such as Watcher and Rain Friend – Charles is the only character presented in any depth. Another element that is fleshed out nicely is the planet of Capella VII itself, with its similar but somehow different fish and fauna. And just when the planet begins to feel a little bit too Earth-like, Oliver shocks us by presenting some kind of cave monstrosity; just a casual reminder that this is, at bottom, a largely unexplored alien world.

While reading this final sci-fi novel of the famed anthropologist/author, the reader cannot help but feel that the primitive Terrans whom we encounter must be precisely how the folks in Earth’s Neolithic period were. We rejoice when the people manage to eke out minor victories, such as when Varnum manages to fight off a killer-cat; when the tribe successfully digs up a warren of rabbitlike creatures and devours them raw; when Varnum figures out how to use a tree branch like a parasol as protection from the blistering sun; when Varnum organizes the men to attack a herd of cattle by a waterfall; when Varnum employs all his mental power to figure out how to get all that meat back to the tribe; and when Varnum, with only some of his memories restored, makes the first fire in this new world. And Oliver gives his readers many more wonderful sequences, such as the fascinating conversation between Varnum and Ira Luden that comprises the first section of this book; the tribe’s initial awakening in their new home; the tragic first birth, a breech baby that horrifies the entire adult group of primitives; Varnum’s first moments of full remembrance (“You miserable sons of b_tches,” he whispers, regarding those Council members); the harrowing journey to the winter caves; the first instance of homicides in the group; and Varnum’s pursuit of the crazed murderer, Trackblood, through the forest.

And pleasingly, Oliver manages to lighten the mood at times with some wry throwaway lines. Thus, when Varnum wonders how to make the people bend to his will, we’re told “A bit of foaming at the mouth and howling gibberish might be his most persuasive arguments. It would not be the first time in human history that they had substituted for logic.” And I had to laugh when Varnum reflects “There was more to sex than a joining of unwashed, insect-infested bodies on the rocky floor of a cave.” Oliver was also something of a master of the surprisingly well-crafted description. And so, early on, Varnum is said to have a “nose that had lost an argument somewhere, sometime”; when carrying his sickly daughter during that long trek to the winter caves, we learn “She seemed to weigh almost nothing. The weight of her was in his heart; the strain on his arms was trivial.”

Ultimately, my only quibble with Oliver’s work here is that I wish it could have gone on longer. The book never resolves the central question about primitive hunters being happier than modern city dwellers, and ultimately that question becomes irrelevant, as Varnum realizes that, despite his best efforts to avert it, progress toward a civilized state is inevitable. And the author’s book concludes as those initial steps toward pastoralism are made. It is a shame, really, that Chad Oliver decided to call it quits as regards sci-fi novels after this one, as Giants in the Dust finds him at the top of his game. Two more novels would follow – 1989’s Broken Eagle and the posthumous The Cannibal Owl from 1994 – but they were Westerns, reflecting his fascination with the Native American peoples. His last full-length work of science fiction, however, is a wonderful novel that deserves to be discovered today, now almost half a century since its initial publication. And the same might be said, I can’t help but feel, about Chad Oliver himself. I thus completely agree with The Science Fiction Encyclopedia when it says of him “…he is a careful author whose speculative thought deserves to be more widely known and appreciated…”

Published in 1976. Into a world where monsters ruled… To make it his own, he had only the power in his limbs and his desire to wrest this primeval land from the beasts. He was Varnum, last vestige of strength in the jaded race of men. Adrift in a land untouched by technology, he found himself with the chance for which all men dream – to shape history!


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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