It had been a good 30 years since I last read anything by British sci-fi author Brian Aldiss. Back in the mid-‘80s, spurred on by three highly laudatory articles in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, I had eagerly read Aldiss’ classic novel of a generational starship, Non-Stop (1958); his equally classic tale of an Earth billions of years hence, Hothouse (1962); and his underrated novel of an Earth gone sterile due to fallout radiation, Greybeard (1964), back to back to back (as well as his volume of linked stories, 1959’s Galaxies Like Grains of Sand) … and had loved them all. But, between this and that, as I said, no Aldiss for me since then. On a whim, thus, I recently picked up the author’s The Dark Light Years, which had been patiently sitting on my bookshelf, unread, for a very long time. 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.
An extremely cynical novel of first contact, The Dark Light Years (the lack of a hyphen between those last two words is annoying) takes place in the year 2035, except for the opening and closing sections, which transpire 40 years later. 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. The utods, typically, are first found wallowing in a mudpit beside the banks of a river. Resembling two-headed hippopotami, the race is soon nicknamed “rhinomen” by the Terrans, who waste little time in slaughtering a half dozen of them and bringing a couple of others back to the Exozoo in London for study. Although the reader is made privy to the utods’ conversation amongst themselves — a conversation that quickly assures us that the utods are both intelligent and the products of a sophisticated culture — the various investigators who we meet cannot crack their language at all, and are fairly well convinced that these rhinomen are little more than interesting beasts … despite the fact that a small, wooden (!) spaceship had been found near the utods’ wallow on Clementina.
Another factor arguing against their intelligence: the fact that the utods love nothing so much as rolling around in the mud and in their own excrement. A race of coprophiles, the utods actually revel in their own dung, and their wooden star vessel is literally caked in it! Can such an ugly-looking race, with such unsanitary habits, possibly be one harboring intelligence? As might be expected, the answer is an unqualified yes; as might also be expected, things go as well for the utods here as they did for some other maltreated groups that Aldiss brings up (“the Polynesians, the Guanches, the American Indians, the Tasmanians…”), in this mordant look at Man’s first interstellar dealings.
The Dark Light Years is a short novel, and one that is difficult to love. 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. As might also be expected, the only two characters who manage to arouse the reader’s sympathy are the captured utods themselves, and their horrible treatment while here on Earth manages to both shock and offend.
Aldiss’ book is a thoughtful one, raising questions regarding the nature of intelligence, beauty, and civilization, although it is a tad clinical and dry. Fortunately, the author manages to counterbalance the aridity with occasional, pleasing dollops of humor. 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. He also throws in made-up words that he never bothers to elucidate (“grokkies,” an apparent homage to Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 classic Stranger in a Strange Land, are journalists, I assume, but what is the female fashion style “flared mock-male with recessed carnation poltroons,” and what is a “magnastic” bathytherm?). Adding to the rather strange feel of the book are little oddball anecdotes regarding minor characters who just kind of peter out, and the stilted, unnatural-sounding conversations that most of the characters engage in.
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. Still, his barbs shot against us silly humans are well-aimed ones. It would have been nice to have revisited the curious utods in another, later book, but sadly, by the end of this one, there are shockingly few of them left. Turns out that the residents of Dapdrof fared even worse than had the Native Americans! In all, yes, The Dark Light Years is a lesser Aldiss affair, but one still worth, uh, wallowing in…