The Shores of Another Sea by Chad Oliver
1961 was something of a banner year for Cincinnati-born sci-fi author Chad Oliver. In the first part of that year, having already released four novels of anthropological science fiction, he received his Ph.D. in anthropology at UCLA, a degree that would help him become an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin two years later, and the Chairman of the Dept. of Anthropology there in 1967. And in the latter part of 1961, and continuing into the following year, Oliver did research work in Kenya, for the National Science Foundation, studying both farming and herding communities of the indigenous Kamba tribe. As it turns out, his time spent in Africa served the author in good stead a decade later, when he set about creating his first sci-fi novel in over a decade, namely The Shores of Another Sea.
The Shores of Another Sea was initially released as a 75-cent Signet/New American Library paperback in 1971, with a beautiful cover by artist Bob Pepper. That same year, the British publisher Gollancz issued it as a hardcover volume, and two years later it appeared in Germany as a Heyne paperback under the altered title Die Affenstation (The Monkey Station) and featuring some wonderfully faithful cover art by Karel Thole. The copy that I was fortunate enough to acquire is the 1984 volume from Crown Publishers’ Classics of Modern Science Fiction series; a nicely curated series in cute little hardcover editions. I have previously written here of some other Oliver titles that appear in this Crown series, namely Shadows in the Sun (1954, and Oliver’s first novel written for an adult audience) and Unearthly Neighbors (1960, and Oliver’s last sci-fi novel before the book in question, although he had come out with an award-winning Western novel, The Wolf Is My Brother, in 1967). Like the other two Oliver titles in this series, The Shores of Another Sea includes a scholarly introduction by George Zebrowski, but sadly, unlike those other two, no afterword by Chad Oliver himself. And that’s something of a shame, because this 1971 novel of his, released when the author was 43, has turned out to be my favorite of the trio. An absolutely splendid piece of work that combines science fiction with chilling elements of cosmic horror, this book, I feel, was surely deserving of some sort of Hugo or Nebula Award nomination … an honor, flabbergastingly enough, that Chad Oliver was never given.
The Shores of Another Sea introduces the reader to Royce Crawford, a family man and outdoorsman who has made a living out of writing magazine articles on the subjects of hunting and fishing. But for the previous two years, Royce has worked at a “baboonery” in the wilds of Kenya, trapping the nasty-dispositioned primates and shipping them to a scientific institution in Houston for study. Royce has been staying at the baboonery with his wife Kathy and two young daughters, as well as a small but faithful crew of local workers, and when we first encounter him, he is a very confused man. His “hunter’s sense” has been telling him that his encampment is being watched. And in the days that follow, Royce’s problems only seem to multiply. While on a hunting trip, he hears a “whistling roar” in the sky and sees something streak across the heavens and descend not too far away. Afterwards, something or someone steals one of the baboons from his compound and, incredibly, tears another of the vicious animals apart. One of the African workers is found dead, unidentifiable footprints are noticed around the camp, and the baboon thefts continue. Eventually, a blazing fire endangers the baboonery, its cause unknown, and then real disaster strikes, as a torrential, drought-ending, days-long downpour inundates all of southern Kenya, swamping the roads and turning the environs into impassable mire.
And it is then, in the second half of Oliver’s book, when Royce and the baboonery are effectively cut off from civilization, that the story really kicks into high gear. While it is still downpouring, several baboons steal into the camp for food, are caught and caged, and are observed to have what can only be called an alien intelligence peering through their simian eyes. Royce decides to go by Land Rover and on foot to the home of a British plantation owner some 20 miles away to call for help on a telephone; a hazardous journey that ends in catastrophe. Matters are only made worse when Royce finds that whatever aliens might have landed in the vicinity and are taking over baboons have now started trying to occupy the bodies of human beings as well! And then comes the ultimate horror, as, in broad daylight, intelligent baboons raid the compound and forcefully carry off Royce’s 5-year-old daughter, Barbara. Thus, feeling both rage and very real fear, Royce sets out, with four of his loyal African workers, to the huge glowing sphere that has landed in a nearby grassland, to try to get his daughter back…
Now, just as there is a world of difference between the African novels of H. Rider Haggard – an author who had actually lived in and worked on the continent – and those of Edgar Rice Burroughs – who never set foot in Africa and made his tales up out of whole cloth (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”) – so too is there a heightened degree of earned verisimilitude in Oliver’s work here. During his months spent in Kenya, Oliver was immersed in both the land and its people … and it shows. Thus, the book’s many words in both Kamba and Swahili (fortunately, translated for the reader); the references to duka markets and shamba (gardener) boys; the ubiquitous Tusker beer; the accurate descriptions of baobab trees and euphorbia plants, the kudu and the oryx and the marabou storks; the mention of men’s kanzu garments, the East African god Mulungu, and the Kipsigi tribe. The book feels utterly authentic and credible, as regards its flora, fauna, African characters and general environment.
And The Shores of Another Sea works as an increasingly tense, absolutely unputdownable, first-rate thriller. I had hugely enjoyed those other two Oliver titles but had an even better time with this one simply because there is more at stake in this one for our protagonist; Royce Crawford is literally fighting for his life several times here, as well as for his daughter’s. Typical for Oliver, his book is beautifully written, in what Gary K. Wolfe, in his book Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers, referred to as the author’s “graceful, understated style.” Thus, we get evocative descriptions such as this:
…The sun was low in the red-tinged sky. The desiccated bush was hot and still. The gritty red dust was everywhere, like the patina of ages covering a landscape of the dead…
And Oliver gives his readers any number of remarkable scenes, including the inferno that Royce and his men battle for a full day; the capture of a few of the alien-possessed baboons; Royce’s dangerous trek to find a telephone; the remarkable scene in which he arrives at his friend’s plantation; and Crawford’s confrontation with the alien ship.
The book also contains several instances of the “cosmic awe” (as opposed to cosmic horror) that was so prized by Golden Age sci-fi readers, such as when Royce stares at one of the caged, alien baboons and reflects:
…He knows things I cannot know. He does not think as I think. He is trapped in a crazy body, locked in a cage, but he is smarter than I am. He might be able to do … anything….
Another instance of cosmic awe in this book: when Royce stands alone in an empty field and sees something – no, I should probably not say what – emerge from that enormous glowing sphere from outer space. And as I mentioned, the book also throws in some very definite instances of cosmic horror, such as the scene in which one of the characters – again, I should probably not say whom – is taken over by the aliens and compelled to fight Crawford to the death, and, of course, the plight of poor little Barbara, abducted by alien-controlled baboons and forcefully dragged back to their ship. Shocking moments, surely. That said, I might also add that the book throws in some pleasing moments of levity, such as when we’re told, regarding some baboons that had fled up into the trees for safety, “The books all said that they weren’t much good in the trees, but evidently [these] baboons had read the wrong books.”
As was the case with Shadows in the Sun and Unearthly Neighbors, Oliver’s central theme here seems to be man endeavoring to communicate with and coming to understand an alien species. And like Monte Stewart in the 1960 book, here, Royce Crawford discerns the uselessness of fear and especially violence when encountering the people of another world. In this book’s charming coda, we see that Royce, the professional hunter, has been changed by his experiences with the aliens, realizing that if mankind can get to know a completely alien race just a little bit, then we should surely feel more of a kinship with the creatures on our own planet. It is a lovely takeaway message. On a similar note, Royce had earlier realized his kinship with all the human races in this world. As he thinks of his loyal and brave African helpers:
…They were good men. They had resources that he had not expected. He hated the barriers between them. Their differences were small indeed. Skin color, background, wealth – what did they matter in the perspective of that alien sphere from the depths of space? Men were men, that was all…
Again, a right-on message, indeed. Royce, an apparent stand-in for the author here – who was also a pipe smoker, not to mention an enthusiastic fly fisherman – shows that he obviously takes away a lot from his stay in Kenya, as well as from his brush with the unknown. And speaking of the unknown, the aliens in this book do remain pretty much an unknown quantity all the way to the end, and our many questions regarding them remain open to conjecture. While some may complain about this, I felt it only made Oliver’s story more credibly mysterious. After all, not every encounter with extraterrestrial life can result in full enlightenment, can it? As Royce comes to understand, it’s not how the aliens look or what they reveal; “it was what they did that counted.”
The Shores of Another Sea, despite having been inspired by Oliver’s anthropological studies in Kenya, is, of the three titles in this Crown series, the least concerned with anthropological issues per se. That’s why I was surprised to read a blurb on the book’s back cover by Gregory Benford (another scientist who was also a science fiction author) that calls this book “probably the best anthropological SF novel ever written,” although no one could argue with his further calling it “powerful, convincing, and dramatic.” Actually, I have only a few very slight quibbles to lodge against Oliver’s fairly extraordinary work here. One minor point that I couldn’t quite understand was Royce’s sense of being watched even before the aliens landed nearby. And my other complaint (that is really not a complaint) is the fact that even a good map of Kenya was of no help in determining the exact site of Royce’s baboonery. The locations of the Tsavo River, the Kikumbuliu River and the town of Mitaboni just don’t correspond with what we’re given in the book, although it is entirely possible that this was a deliberate ploy on the author’s part. And really, these are very minor complaints, at best. Sci-fi author Dean McLaughlin has called this novel “the most marvelously understated first contact story I have ever found,” and really, you’d be hard pressed to find one more credible and convincing.
One final note: I see that the 2008 hardcover entitled From Other Shores collects Shadows in the Sun, Unearthly Neighbors and The Shores of Another Sea in one nice omnibus package (!), and it is one that I know will make any reader an instant fan of Chad Oliver. I for one look forward to reading much more from this terrific author…