Ok, I admit, I bought this book because of the gorgeous red/helium-breathing alien/humans toting spears cover… Sadly, there’s very little behind the cover besides a standard uninventive pulp-ish romp. Aldiss expends little effort and as result the work lacks an interesting society or an involving plot and all the action takes place in the slip-shop last few pages. In short, it was a massive disappointment considering one of my all-time favorites is his earlier novel, Starship (review here). Vague inklings of interesting images do crop up every now and again but the work really isn’t worth reading unless you’re a Aldiss completest or interested in simplistic (mostly competent) incarnations of pulp sci-fi.
Brief Plot Summary
The huge hydrogen-breathing Partussians (Nuls) have controlled Earth (one of millions of worlds in their vast empire — surprising?) for thousands of years. All of Earth’s cities are long abandoned and the standard sort of Partussian city–with a hydrogen atmosphere–is built on each world as its capital (this concept is interesting, sadly, the cities are never really described). The Partussians exploit Earth for its natural resources.
Gary Towler, an Earthman, is a interpreter for the Nuls who refuse to learn the native languages on the planets they conquer. The Partussian central command, following up on rumors of their own extraordinary corrupt rule on Earth, send an investigator to check up on the governor. The Earth rebels contact Towler – because of his important role as interpreter – to expose the corruption of the governor to the investigator. However, most of his fellow humans think he’s working for the Partussians and treat him as a pariah.
The outcome of the “rebel against the overlord” sci-fi novel is never in doubt. However, most authors manage some tension, some drama, some interesting plan or trickery. That’s altogether absent — the final plan is laughable, hokey, and completed in three paragraphs. Towler’s character, the conflicted and somewhat cowardly interpreter, is the only positive aspect of the work. The work lacks descriptions, tension, plot, or interesting images.
(or, buy only for the superb cover art)
10 thoughts on “Book Review: Bow Down To Nul (variant title: The Interpreter), Brian W. Aldiss (1960)”
I am a fan of the cover art for a lot of the older sci-fi novels. Some of them are completely ridiculous (in a good way). Too bad the work itself was a disappointment.
Well, I still derive some enjoyment from reading these average works — haha… And, I really like some of Aldiss’ ideas… And of course, good art adds to the experience.
Fair enough. I can’t say I am familiar with any of his stuff. I may check some out now, however.
Well, if you do, start with Non-stop (1959) — variant title Starship… It was recently republished.
Those covers are hilarious!
I concur with pretty much everything you have said about this. NOT one of his best, by a long chalk. I think it was more a case of just paying the rent, with this one. The ‘three paragraph conclusion’, as you say, is terribly rushed and ill-thought out, and seems almost like a tacked on, child’s fairy-tale. With this work, Aldiss was attempting a critical evaluation of the worst aspects of British Colonialism (which he experienced first hand in WW2 military service) through the metaphor of Space Opera, but unfortunately it fails.
However, I do like the description of the irascible, fascistic, grotesque Nul’s. The scene where one of these huge monstrosities attacks one of the tiny human protagonists, trapped in an apartment with it, is thrilling and quite disturbing. But that’s about it, apart from a few other minor pleasures!
But the cover of the Ace edition! Jack Gaughan (not normally one of my favorites) at his best!
The colonialism metaphor fails completely — completely subsumed and defeated by the by the numbers pulp plot. One gets the feeling that it could have been so much more.
What did you think of The Dark Light-Years? I wrote a review as well a while back — the idea is beautiful. But the delivery is so shoddy… Non-Stop remains his best — but I haven’t read many others. I have The Long Afternoon of Earth lined up to read in the near future.
I haven’t read The Dark light Years yet, but I have heard mixed reports. I just read your review of it, which has put me off, somewhat. The best Aldiss I have read, so far, is Report on Probability A. It’s a masterpiece of speculative fiction, and is nominally SF. You may enjoy it, as It’s more in the ilk of ‘avant garde’ narrative, of the Stand on Zanzibar type (though I have yet to read that!). It can be difficult at first, but once you know where he is going with it, it’s unique and amazing. It is one of two more ‘experimental’ novels he tried in the late 60’s (the other one is Barefoot in the Head) first serialised in Moorcock’s New Worlds, but because they didn’t get the praise they deserved, at the time, and didn’t make much money, he went back to more mainstream SF. It’s a wonderful, very witty, but thought-provoking novel, ostensibly about parallel worlds, but much more, in an Absurdist/Existentialist vein…
I would say that I largely agree with your review, but I thought it a bit better than your description. The setup is more ambiguous than often in SF of that vintage, and the clear attempts to criticize the British colonial empire at least reveal some ambition. My review is here: http://rrhorton.blogspot.com/2017/09/ad-old-ace-double-bow-down-to-nul-by.html
I must confess, I read and wrote this so long ago that I remember little. And, as you can probably tell, I’d like to think that my reviewing chops have improved since then!