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Jul 04

I’ll wager xwaxboz quatloos on the newcomer

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 258 views

I’ll wager xwaxboz quatloos on the newcomer“: [v.long post alert]

Aliens in SF movies are mostly humans in rubber suits for a good practical reason. But since humans read books to find out about themselves, aliens in SF novels are mostly humans in quasi-rubber suits, too. The races in Larry Niven’s Known Space stories – the Kzinti, the Puppeteers, the Outsiders etc – are carefully non-human by look, but the embodiment as a culture of some human characteristic hugely amplified (Puppeteers = genetic cowards; Kzinti = too brave fr their own good etc). The Mesklinites in Hal Clement’s 1954 proto-New Wave classic Mission of Gravity are physiologically non-human – supertough little centipedes on a variable-gravity planet, comfortable at more than 200 earth gravities: the book is about cultural differences, but really the gap is that between a 21st-century human scientist-astronaut and a (let’s say) 10th-century human trader-explorer: Barlennan, the captain of the Mesklinite sea-vessel, is at least as clever as the humans he’s encountered, in many ways more courageous, extremely psychologically shrewd – he’s a kind of pirate-businessman after all – but just not learned enough to make the most of the encounter. He’s totally recognisable, though, culturally: Clement keeps reminding us he’s not human (“Barlennan extended his pincers in a smile”) but you forget just as quickly. It’s hard not to see him and his crew as humanesque centipeople.

The master of non-human alien characters is Frank Herbert, of course: and the pinnacle of his invention his two novels about the ConSentiency, his (far more demanding and subtle) take on Niven’s Known Space concept: Whipping Star and The Dosadi Experiment. The ConSentiency is the galactic society in which humans mix with Wreaves, Laclacs, Chithers, Preylings, Soborips, Palenki, Taprisiots, the Pan Spechi, the Gowachin and Calebans. Some of these are humanesque physically – the Pan Spechi specifically adopt this form – but Herbert works hard to create non-human cultures, bcz these stories are primarily about the drama of encounter with alien logics.

Dosadi is the second: it begins as a thriller about Dosadi, a prison planet whose occupants (despite being mixed-species) have deliberately been kept unaware of the existence of the rest of the galaxy. Dosadi is like the Gaza Strip mixed with Hongkong times a million: extremely brutal in conditions and spartan in resources; incredibly high-density in population. As a result the inhabitants, by Darwinian and Hobbesian cultural pressure, are vicious survivalist warriors-for-the-self, fiercely streetwise – so quick to read each other that to offworlders they seem telepathic – and they’re just about to be unleashed into the civilised settlement. Except at this point, oddly and intriguingly, the story switches away to a trial: those who set up this horrible experiment are to face judgment. The protagonist is McKie, a human (with a twist but I’m skipping many plot complications); but the court is Gowachin. The Gowachin are a highly civilised and cultured but also ruthless Frog-people: basic to their culture is the moment in child-development when Dad jumps into the tadpole pool and culls his tad-kids, so that only the smartest and swiftest survive. This adds a certain charge to proceedings: the court – or Court-Arena, as it’s more accurately known – is a bloody place, where advocates’ live are forfeit, and where judges can be killed as part of the, um, argument. The Gowachin prefer drama, subtlety and innovation to the establishment of mere truth: it’s a Nietzschean legal system, you might say. Anyway, the upshot is, that you read to the climax of this tale – and I’ve read it dozens of times – and it’s exciting and hugely entertaining and certainly feels like closure, and yet (actually) I don’t yet grasp Herbert’s (or the Gowachin’s) logic.

With Whipping Star, this goes double. Again there’s a good thriller plot: the Calebans are the aliens who brought the Jumpdoor to the ConSentiency (which allow you to travel across space in a moment, to wherever you want). Calebans have come under threat (more plot complications omitted), are dying or vanishing: and if they all go (or die) everyone from any species who used a jumpdoor (which is nearly everyone, countless trillions blah blah) will also die. The Consentient “World” – this galactic federation of species and cultures – will end in a moment. So far so James Spacebond obv: but what makes this one of my favourite books ever is the character of the Caleban, as she communicates and flirts with McKie. Calebans are VERY ALIEN INDEED (we learn how so in the denouement of the book); and the fun is the tricksiness of translation across cultural differences which really ARE differences [long extract follows, for flavour] .

“Connectives possess aspect of this constant you seek,” said the Caleban.
“What are connectives?”
“No –”
“– referents!” McKie stormed. “Then why use the term?”
“Term approximates. Tangential occlusion another term expressing something similar.”
“Tangential occlusion,” McKie muttered. Then, “Tangential occlusion?”
“Fellow Caleban offers this term after discussion of problem with Laclac sentient possessing rare insight.”
“One of you talked this over with a Laclac, eh? Who was this Laclac?”
“Identity not conveyed, but occupation known and understandable.”
“Oh? What was his occupation?”
“Dentist.”
McKie exhaled a long held breath, shook his head with bewilderment. “You understand – dentist?”
“All species requiring ingestion of energy sources must reduce such sources to convenient form”
“You mean they bite?” McKie asked.
“Explain bite.”
“I thought you understood dentist!”

Etc. There’s lots of this stuff (which I adore) and here the Caleban is relatively comprehensible. In fact I don’t think she’s ever just talking gibberish: I think Herbert could justify every sentence, every idea, every superweird round-the-houses locution. I think inventing a character both coherent (in the sense that you intuit an inner logic) and this alien (you just can’t lay the logic out, even after you entirely know what the Caleban is and why she sees the world the way she does) is a fantastic achievement. Whipping Star would be a terrific film, and actually it needn’t even be an expensive one (except for all the rubber suits).

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