Among friends


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‘You –’ The human words came out almost unrecognizably mangled by the narrow jaw and near-lipless mouth in the dark-furred face. ‘You are the Fisherman!’

‘Yes,’ said Jase. He nodded, with the inclining of the head that was the Ruml gesture of respectful assent.

The Keysman stopped staring. He pulled himself erect. He was an older Ruml, wearing a harness with many Honours clipped to it, and the hair of his upper body was almost uniformly grey.

‘I trust,’ he said formally and precisely in the Ruml tongue, ‘that I am among friends?’

‘Yes,’ said Jase in Ruml, ‘Keysman. Here you are among friends.’

The Alien Way by Gordon R. Dickson, 1965

Reviewed by Everard Cunion in December, 2016

If this story, a half century old as I write this review, was required reading by all those who make war or negotiate for peace, I suspect there would be less war. Like all good stories about first contact with alien space-faring beings, it is not really about aliens. It is about people. People with some differences from us. To use a Daniel Dennett analogy, the aliens are just people with some dials turned right up and other dials turned right down.

Kator bent his head in acknowledgement of the compliment. He saw that the Inspector who had just spoken wore the badge of the Hook party – like himself and all the Brutogasi. The Presiding Inspector, as well as the other senior, wore the emblem of the Rods. It occurred to Jason for the first time that perhaps the whole Panel had wished to express its approval of him – naturally, the Rods could hardly make such an expression. Jason glowed inside, and his lungs felt filled with fire.

With one exception, which I describe under Criticisms, the story packs its punches into few words. For example, we are given no clue as to the difference between Hooks and Rods; it is irrelevant. Just like us, it seems that the Rumls instinctively form clans that compete with each other and erect walls of misunderstanding. Republican versus Democrat. Liberal versus Conservative. Hawks versus doves. And so on.

That scene describes Rumls on their home world, in which Kator Secondcousin of the family of Brutogas, is the viewpoint character. Jason Burchar, the central human character, is a naturalist, an expert in bears. I hope that you do not notice – as I did not on first reading – that the second mention of Kator has his name misspelled Jason. It is not a typo. A crucial component of the story is the invention of a means by which the reader, via the viewpoint character, can share the experiences of another individual, whether human or, as here, alien. Perhaps surprisingly, I did not find it confusing either before or after I became aware of it.

Kator Secondcousin and Jason Burchar are markedly different, yet they are both to some extent isolated from others of their respective races; a characteristic of many central characters in Dickson’s sci-fi stories. Like Dickson himself, I suspect, they tend to find themselves at loggerheads with their fellow beings, not because they are found lacking in some required physical or behavioural standard, but because they can see – by reasoning about a body of knowledge unfamiliar to others – what others cannot see.

He stood watch alone, like a single armoured and sworded soldier of the Roman legions in a pass at night, facing north towards the German wilderness, the darkness and the sound of stirring hordes. The legions he guarded were all asleep in the camp behind him. He had never felt so alone in his life.

The Alien Way book cover

The cover art illustrates a kind of fishing expedition in which a wrecked spacecraft serves as bait.

If you have ever experienced an ‘alien’ moment wherein familiar things and actions seem barely comprehensible, you might appreciate this book’s presentation of Jason Burchar’s predicament.

He woke, struggling and crying out. Hairless faces were all around him. Hairless hands were getting him to his feet and guiding him down fantastic corridors and into a cage that rose upward.

We are so used to viewing other animals from our lofty position among life on Earth that it takes a special skill to show us how differently other beings might perceive us (if they had any ability to perceive us). Dickson goes into that in great depth in his later novel Way of the Pilgrim, but in The Alien Way he introduces the concept. It is always surprising. For example:

It was fortunate, he went on thinking as he turned away from the screen, that the Ruml had not encountered this planet of the Muffled People first before landing on the other planets with alien, semi-intelligent creatures on them. The first, unsophisticated reaction of a race of men unused to the sight of alien life would have stimulated them to exterminate the Muffled People out of sheer revulsion. And that would have been other than honourable action.

The Muffled People are us humans who, having no fur, wear clothes. The ‘race of men’ are the Rumls.

The background of the Rumls seems to me well researched. That is, the biological basis of the Rumls’ behaviour is based on that of bears. Dickson has extrapolated from bears to a derived species with human-like consciousness, but with critical differences based partly on their omnivorous diet – in common with humans – and partly on the different civilisation in which they live, in which young Rumls are separated from their mothers before attaining full consciousness. (Dickson uses a similar theme, but applied to humans, in Lifeboat, which he co-wrote with Harry Harrison.)

The Rumls, unlike any other non-human species we know of, are people. Bear people. With hopes, fears, and ambitions.

As soon as they were out of the pouch long enough to comprehend the concept of Honour, he would tell each of them, personally, of the man from whom the name they bore was derived. And of the part those three honourable men had played in the Founding of their father’s Kingdom on the planet of the Muffled People.

Dickson is as adept at describing predicaments on the ground as in space. Here, Jason is on the run from the authorities:

Thunder muttered off in the distance, and the rain streamed down. Straightening up, he beat on the metal surface of the door with his fist as he swung it open.

‘Meter reader!’ he shouted and went into the hallway without stopping, letting the door bang shut behind him.

‘Right downstairs!’ shouted back a voice from the clattering, steam-bright kitchen entrance to his right. No one stepped out to look at him.

Kator and Jason meet on several occasions, either in person or, as here, via a recording playback device:

Facing him was the figure of the native he had seen by the stream, but with the walls of a room behind him instead of the outdoor scene.

The native took the container of burning vegetation from his mouth.
‘Greetings. I trust I am among friends,’ he said in Ruml as perfect as the native mouth and lips could pronounce. ‘Greetings to Kator Secondcousin Brutogas and to all those honourable Heads of Families who will be viewing this back on Homeworld –’

Kator sprang from his platform.

Provenance

The sport of comparing the predictions of future technology embedded in sci-fi stories with the eventual reality is as applicable to Dickson’s work as anyone else’s. In 1965 the space program used the mainframe digital computer as a key element (at least in the USA) but the personal computer was an unknown concept.

The Broker ran a practiced eye down the list and then turned to his computer connection and checked out the current values of the items on the list, worth by worth. When he was done, he nodded thoughtfully, typed out a total, and passed the list back to Jase.

Despite Dickson’s incorrect interpretation of evolution (see farther on) which does not really matter in terms of the plot, he makes some valid points, including that we are all aliens from each others’ viewpoints. That was Dickson’s speciality. In his other stories, not just alien species, but humans with some dials turned right up or right down are central characters: A 90-year old woman who organises children, the disabled, and the old to defend her home planet from invaders while the young men are all away at wars on other worlds. A conscientious objector who wins a battle by playing Spanish bagpipes. And Dickson brings the reader to empathise with religious extremists who, when not away on other planets fighting for anyone who will hire them, fight among themselves…

He should have been a diplomat.


Criticisms

The story does not move as quickly as his later novels including the military sci-fi Dorsai trilogy, for which he is perhaps best known.

He uses up pages of dialogue explaining, in a roundabout and unclear manner, the genetic basis of human behaviour (and that of animals and plants) that is, to maximize the reproduction of your own genes. Unfortunately, he then reverts to pre-Selfish Gene popular view (possibly promulgated by the consortium of capitalism and religion) which also confuses his later novels:

‘…tell him the problem’s with both races, ours and the Ruml. Both of us have an instinct to preserve our race and improve it through survival of the fittest…’

Is it worth mentioning that any instinct that placed the well-being of the species, the nation, or the company ahead of that of the individual (and his or her close relatives) would itself be extinguished quickly by natural selection? However, bear in mind (no pun intended) that The Alien Way was written more than ten years before Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene was published and clarified what, in retrospect, seems obvious.

He unnecessarily capitalises words such as the Muffled People, Honour, Founding, and Broker. (He wrote it before automatic spelling checkers were available, let alone style checkers.)

Assessment

A second, alien, viewpoint seen through the eyes of the primary viewpoint character might sound like a narrative disaster. (In my view, multiple viewpoints in written stories – unlike in films – ordinarily destroy the ‘suspension of disbelief’ necessary to this kind of fiction.) However, Dickson’s technique carries it off perfectly, even when stretching it by deliberately referring to Jason when he means Kator — because, by using an advanced technology, we experience Kator’s life via Jason.

It is an extraordinary story by one of the greatest writers.

Related (internal links)

Armageddon tired of books without pictures—my review of Diary of a Spaceperson by Chris Foss, 1990

Armageddon II: Solar Wind—my review of Solar Wind by Peter Jones, 1980

Blade runner blues about language and consciousness

New clear days—my review of The Amtrak Wars book 1, Cloud Warrior, by Patrick Tilley

See also (external links)

Gordon R. Dickson Wikipedia entry

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, Wikipedia entry

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