(Bruce Pennington’s cover for the 1971 edition)
Fresh off reading Brian Aldiss’ wonderful Non-Stop I eagerly picked up a battered copy of The Dark Light-Years (1964) from a local bookstore. I was sorely disappointed. The Dark Light-Years is disjointed, muddled, and only occasionally thought-provoking. It’s even more frustrating since the premise is quite promising. I’ll valiantly try to disentangle the few enlightening and meaningful phrases, themes, and ideas found in this little ramshackle skeleton of a book. The work’s multifarious lapses in concentration and delivery makes this task inordinately difficult — and perhaps too tall of an order.
The Utods are multi-headed multi-limbed hippo-like mud-wallowing creatures which alternate genders. They live with their lizard-like parasites in large mud and feces filled ponds which they wallow in and philosophize. They journey between their planets in seedpod spaceships filled with their own filth. They feel no pain, are pacifists, and are happy.
Some humans encounter a bunch of them and their seedpod spaceship. Some of the Utods try to communicate with the humans but are impulsively slaughtered in cold-blood. Two are captured alive and the rest are dissected…
The humans of this future time live in ultra-hygienic conditions eating their synthesized foods and drinking non-alcoholic beverages. A few stalwarts still cook meat…
The “plot” (and I use that term as loosely as possible) follows the attempt of a bunch of scientists to communicate with the the Utops. Alidss throws some half-baked linguistic theory at the reader… He’s more interested in introducing hordes of secondary non-entity characters so he can fill up his page limit and stay away from the any interesting attempts at interaction between the humans and the aliens.
However, the complete inability of the humans to communicate with the aliens (who have chosen not to communicate) introduces the main theme of the work: the humans are so repulsed by the filth of the Utods that they are forced to reevaluate the meaning and criteria of the words/concepts sentience, intelligence, civilization, progress — not only as applied to the aliens but ourselves. Does our conception of civilization completely exclude all other forms civilization might take?
The Utods (luxuriating in their feces ponds) act as a lens through which to view mankind… Here glimpses of Aldiss’ ability shine through. Is space travel instinctual behavior? Is it a gauge for intelligence? What are the ramifications of a meeting a species possessing greater intelligence than man yet so antithetical to man?
And then a superflous amount of random disjointed secondary plot tidbits rear their little heads.
Despite desperately wanting to like the work, my initial interest turned to rabid dislike about two-thirds of the way through. Clocking in at a mere 128 pages one would expect a concise plot, an interesting central idea, with a few underdeveloped characters which perform their functions in a somewhat average manner…
Instead, a multiplicity of characters move in and out of the narrative. Some disappear all together. Ultra-minor characters are suddenly important and then disappear altogether. And then, some slipshod backstory is introduced when an ultra-minor character is suddenly the crux of the entire “plot”… The result is a frustrating morass of interchangeable non-entities. This is fine in a longer novel but in one of only 128 pages?
Another nagging problem Aldiss’ method of plot exposition — a large percentage of the events are rarely described as they happen. Instead, they are summarized later. This passive method makes the plot less engaging. This also means that Aldiss can shrink from describing how characters change or what causes them to change and instead just tells us simply that they changed!
The broad themes of the work are the only redeeming feature of the work since the aliens themselves, the characters, etc are hokey and unbelievable. What happens when man encounters an alien so alien that its sentience cannot even be gauged? Stanislaw Lem’s sci-fi ouvre explore this theme in great detail with penetrating philosophical insight. Aldiss on the other hand relies ENTIRELY on the frustrating dichotomy between his aliens and man. Subtlety isn’t in Aldiss’ vocabulary.
It’s unfair to compare Aldiss to Lem since Lem is a genius. But The Dark Light-Years‘ flaws aren’t in the ideas but in the delivery. The poor attempt at a frame story, deficiencies in basic exposition (reliance on passive storytelling), and the overwhelming desire to make every character a bit part muddles all of Aldiss’ central themes. The parts are here for a great classic sci-fi novel — instead, we’re greeted with a rather shoddy skeleton…. and half-formed thoughts…
It’s a shame really since the ending is surprisingly good.
Almost worth finding…