Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Tue Sep 10 22:23:48 EDT 1991

Raymond's Reviews #143

%T Alien Tongue
%A Stephen Leigh
%I Bantam Spectra
%D August 1991
%O paperback, US$4.99
%P 327
%G ISBN 0-553-28875-X

This book enwraps a first-contact novel by Stephen Leigh in two essays by Isaac Asimov and Rudy Rucker on aliens and the first contact problem. The obvious flaw in the result is that the whole is less than the sum of its parts; the essays, while mildly interesting, add nothing to the novel.

The subtler problem is that Leigh's aliens don't work. This is very odd; Leigh has shown, in books like the Hoorka trilogy, The Bones Of God, and Crystal Memory, that he is a gifted author who can well convey the sense of wonder and strangeness necessary to SF, and that he has a strong sense of logical and emotive detail. But because the aliens don't work, the plot doesn't either, and because the plot doesn't work, all the effort put into the central characters goes for naught.

Why don't the aliens work? Start with one irritating biological detail. They're avians, and like Earth birds they are supposed to defecate casually and reflexively wherever they are, leaving their floors and public spaces encrusted with birdshit. Now, if there is one iron law in biology it's that organisms cannot tolerate an environment overloaded with their own waste products (because if they could, the waste would have been metabolized to something useful rather than wasted).

Their psychology doesn't work either. We are also supposed to believe that the avians are incapable of lying and find it almost impossibly difficult to entertain the idea of a lie. And yet, they've built spaceships. Maybe you can believe that sentients could evolve to the point of doing experimental science without being able to handle counterfactuals and represent them to each other as truth. I can't.

They're also presented as caste-ridden and rule-bound to the extent that one of lesser status will stand still to be killed by one of higher without protest or even feeling in the matter. In fact, late in the book one uses this as a sentience test! And yet they are supposed to display sufficient individuality and mental flexibility that one typical low-caste alien can grasp the human world-view and eventually kill his own clan matriarch. Sorry, I don't buy this either.

The real problem here seems to be that the story Leigh wants to tell is How Contact with (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) Humans Corrupted The Noble Savages --- a tired myth which looks even sillier than is its normal wont when the aliens are so obviously contrived to be corrupted by the Innate Perfidy of (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) Human Nature.

One of the more persistant forms of nonsense floating around in our culture is the idea that human beings are somehow uniquely damned, or especially vicious or violent or deceptive relative to other animals. Thus, we often hear that Man is the only animal that lies/rapes/makes war/self-intoxicates, etc. etc.; and SF writers of the more cynical variety enjoy posing human nastiness against morally superior "innocent" aliens.

It doesn't take much study of animal ethology to show that all these claims are false, and in fact they are best analyzed as hangovers from Judeo-Christian myth. Nevertheless, even writers much less concerned with moral and religious themes than Leigh's past work has shown him to be often fall into dramatizing them. The result, as in this case, is usually a regrettable mess.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Tue Sep 10 22:23:48 EDT 1991

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>