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The Dark Light Years by Brian Aldiss4 stars

In my more introspective moments, I find myself wondering how anyone could possibly not love a novel with dialogue like, “I pronounce all this to be land belonging to the Triple Suns. Let defecation commence.” Lest you think this is some sort of put-on, rest assured that The Dark Light Years is, decades after it was first published, still one of the most biting, hilarious, almost Swiftian satirical SF novels ever written. You might not know that from the horror-novelish cover of this ancient edition pictured here (the original 1964 Signet first US printing). But in truth, you’re in for both a dazzlingly original approach to the well-worn first contact trope, and wit worthy of Douglas Adams into the bargain.

Harlan Ellison, in his inimitable way, remarked glibly that this book was “all about shit.” There is of course a little more to it than that. In The Dark Light Years Aldiss became one of the very first SF writers to explore what it really, really might mean to be alien. What if the human race encountered an extraterrestrial species that was clearly advanced, in many ways beyond anything we could possibly imagine — and yet what if their ways and customs contravened everything we considered to be endemic to a civilized, sapient culture? The Utods are just such a species. Both philosophically and technologically advanced beyond our understanding (their spaceships are made of wood!), they literally wallow in their own filth. Defecation is tied into everything — religious ritual, family bonding, even basic communication.

So it should come as no surprise that when humans first encounter these beings, we consider them dumb animals and shoot them full of holes. It is only through the intervention of Master Explorer Bruce Ainson — who has come along in a scientific capacity on the military ship that has happened to plop down on the same world upon which the Utods had landed only hours previously — that two surviving aliens are brought aboard the Earth vessel and brought back here for study. Whether or not they are intelligent at all is a matter of some controversy on Earth, since they have resisted all attempts at communication on the part of their captors.

But what the Earthmen don’t know, and cannot even suspect, is that the Utods are simply ignoring them, are entirely indifferent to them. Interestingly, the surviving Utods consider the massacre to have been a good thing, a right and proper stage in their life cycles, and are in fact vaguely resentful they were not allowed to go on to the next stage, as it were, with their companions. Meanwhile a concerted effort is underway to locate the Utods’ homeworld.

Throughout the novel, Aldiss is moving at lightning pace, dealing with politics, militarism and jingoism, philosophy, social conventions, the duties of science, all with the same degree of alacrity and wit. Some passages are just laugh-out-loud funny. But the primary question raised here is: just what does “civilization” mean, anyway? Who are we anthropocentric humans to say we are better than anyone simply because we may not be able to understand them? In its way, it’s a sharp rebuke of the deep history of imperialism and subjugation of less developed cultures and races that Westerners have engaged in, to our great shame. But I don’t think that soul searching and breast-beating was the sole agenda when Aldiss wrote this novel. A pinch of humor and a dash of honesty get the job done every time.