I was pleasantly surprised by Gordon R. Dickson’s intelligent and occasionally thought-provoking The Alien Way (1965). Considering he’s famous for his military sf Dorsai! saga, the lack of epic space battles — i.e. inter-species conflict in the traditional manner — came as a shock. There are a few instances of violence but they’re few and far between.
The ultimate message is a cautionary one — only when the pattern of human nature (its instincts, reactions, ets) is understood can non-violent contact be made with an alien species. We react to protect our species just as animals react to protect their young. Of course the aliens have to come to this realization as well..
Brief Plot Summary (some spoilers)
In 2007 A.D. (a 2007 with huge interstellar spaceships and some highly fanciful technology) humanity discovers Ruml people. The extremely intelligent and technologically adept Ruml, think humanoid bears, had previously come into contact with six other planets and “colonized” them. From the human perspective the Ruml appear violent and animalistic.
On a patrol a Ruml named Kator discovers a human space wreck decked “bait” — an virus impregnated earthworm. The virus allows Jason Barchar, a zoologist, to enter Kator’s mind and see what he sees and feel what he feels.
Jason, by following the actions of Kator after his discovery of humanity, slowly decodes the Ruml’s complex culture based on the notion of Honor (think Klingons). Honor loosely translates to the drive for familial (and hence racial) survival. The Ruml organize their society by the precise relationship to the head of each Family allowed a palace on the Homeworld. For example, Kator’s full name is Kator Secondcousin of Brutogas.
Kator believes himself near perfect individual and thus blessed with the Random Factor needed to found a Kingdom — more precisely, a family organized by his descendants’ relationship TO him.
Kator decides to do all he can to lead the expedition to the Muffled People’s Homeworld (Earth)… Jason must learn enough about the Ruml culture to stop Kator AND before his own superiors start a war.
Final Thoughts (again, spoilers)
The most admirable quality of The Alien Way is Dickson’s development of the Ruml people and their culture. Jason, through Kator’s eyes, is able to slowly understand them and figure out a way to prevent a violent conflict. The Ruml are not one dimensional. Jason has to to fight against his own preconceptions and the preconceptions of humanity in general in order to understand the Ruml culture. For example:
“I’m not asking you to listen to a set of differences and then conclude the Ruml aren’t like us! I’m asking you to believe they’re not like us to start off with and use the fact of their not being like us as a starting point to understanding their differences of beliefs and thoughts and actions!”
The most glaring shortcoming is apparent in the last third where Dickson indulges in absolutely needless repetition (the same zoology lecture THREE TIMES). Likewise, the few minor action sequences are wooden and predictable. The technology tends to verge on silly. For example, the Ruml send “investigators” in the form of stones and small animals to chart, map, and assess the entire surface of the Earth.
All in all The Alien Way is a fun, albeit occasionally wooden, contact novel!