I’ve had a great deal of luck with the Brian Aldiss books I’ve read so far—Non-Stop became one of my favorite novels from the 1950s, and Greybeard was an impressive pastoral apocalypse that foreshadows and predates Children of Men. Having very much enjoyed those two, I hoped to continue on finding more great Brian Aldiss novels, and picked up several of his other books from the same era. The Dark Light Years is one slim volume from the same period as Greybeard whose back-cover blurb promised a read based off a unique and interesting idea. To my dismay, several bloggers whose opinions I value gave it lukewarm reviews, but I continued on undeterred.
Humanity has met many species of semi-sapient lifeforms on its expansion across the galaxies, but had never discovered another intelligent race before. That changed when a group of explorers ran into the utod. Hippopotomi-sized, two-headed mammals that wallow in mud and their own filth, traversing the galaxy in wooden spacecraft, the utod are gentle creatures who feel no pain, can change their gender, and communicate in a complex series of whistles and hoots from their eight orifaces. Needless to say, humanity’s gut instinct on first contact is to gun down all but two of them. Taken back to the London Exozoo, the sharpest human minds attempt to converse with the remaining creatures, only to see them fail every man-made test for intelligence. Meanwhile, the utod refuse to open communications with this strange race of two-legged creatures whose second orifice is hidden under clothing, and who shun the holiness of a middenwallow in favor of abject cleanliness. By the end, it becomes one man’s destiny to live with the utod and learn their ways.
Aldiss’ novel is an unmistakable tale of first-conflict woes, the errors of humanity’s anthropocentric assumptions about the nature of intelligence. The utod are a complex and highly evolved race, which the reader sees from those chapters from the utod’s point-of-view. But the cultural distance between the races, and the assumption of what makes a life-form intelligent and civilized prevents the humans from seeing the utod as anything more than alien hogs, let out to wallow in filth by some unseen owner, whatever real intelligence built that spacecraft. One human leader announces to the captured utod that “civilization is reckoned as the distance man has placed between himself and his excreta.” For the utod, where excrement is a sign of fertility, it is cleanliness that is the sin. The human scientists are left with a loaded philosophical question: is space travel instinctual behavior, like birds flying south for the winter, or is it a gauge for intelligence?
The story is more than a prolonged poop joke, and is in fact a deft satire of western civilization’s basic assumptions about “lesser races.” That this novel comes from a British author lends added weight to the story, giving it a strong feeling of postcolonialism. And a timely one, too, as the story was written while the European powers worked to extract themselves from (or hold on to) their African colonies. At one point, the novel’s human scientists attempt to approach the utod not as animals but as Africans. (Not to single out the UK, as the book also references the treatment of Native Americans as an example of imperialism and cultural subjugation.) As a critique of human arrogance and cultural-based expectations, The Dark Light Years is a brilliant idea and Aldiss seems to have a lot of fun with it (judging from the infrequent aside).
The actual execution, however, is less than perfect: Aldiss writes with an obvious tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that I found a bit distracting, and constructs his intolerable human characters in such a way that they are blind to any possibility that the aliens are intelligent. The plot jumps across several minor characters whose relevance is negligible, all of whom are lifeless—one very underdeveloped but important character isn’t introduced until the last few chapters. The utod are bizarre enough to defy logic and hygiene, and reading them as anything more than a fictional construct requires some suspension of disbelief. In short, the novel is clearly a stacked deck, slanted more towards social satire of human inadequacies than existing as a believable story. But it’s well-executed social commentary, and I think that is its saving grace—it is the type of satire where hyperbole makes it all the more biting.
The Dark Light Years has a brilliant idea for satire—the execution falters, though the ending in particular is very well done. It’s a dark and cynical novel that deals with some of humanity’s worst failings: the sliding-scale expectation of what is civilized and intelligent, and the exclusion of races that don’t match those self-defined criteria. The utod are a bizarre construct, but the humans’ treatment of them follows the same trajectory of how 19th-century imperialists treated other “uncivilized” cultures. Instead of ethnocentrism, we have anthropocentrism. As a story, it’s not the best Aldiss book I’ve ever read, and aside from the brilliant ending it doesn’t quite live up to its premise, held back by flat, under-developed characters. Other SF writers have explored the same theme with more success—Lem’s Solaris comes to mind. But the idea behind it is mature and poignant, simultaneously a damning indictment and hilarious black comedy. Somewhat recommended to general SF readers, and more heartily endorsed if you share a similar cynicism or are fond of bleak satires.