The Light That Never Was (1972) is an unusual take on space opera — there are no epic battles, voyages on spaceships, weird technology, or heroic figures. Instead, the swirling eddies of interstellar change descend on a tourist planet replete with legions of rather atrocious, silly, and easily maleable “artists.” The island of Zrilund on the plant of Donev is afflicted by a general artistic malaise — artists paint for the swarms of tourists which descend on the fountains and beaches of the island snatching up souvenirs.
Brief Plot Summary
Humanity has stretched out over thousands and thousands of worlds. Each planet is virtually independent from one another. Various intelligent species have been discovered but humans start putting them in camps, killing them, refusing to grant them any rights, and branding them with derogatory names (for example, animaloids). This massive anti-animaloid furor spreading across the populated worlds threatens to envelope the tourist-trap planet Donev. However, Donev does not appear to have any indigenous animaloids of their own.
A famous art gallery owner hears rumors of a new style of paintings drastically different than the normal tourist influenced fare. He investigates and discovers Arnen Brand living in a swamp with a swamp slog who “paints” at night. He decides to open an anonymous gallery.
At the same time, Jaward Jorno — a millionaire philanthropist — manages to save 3,000 intelligent Mesz animaloids from a massacre on their planet and sneak them onto Donev by supplying them with art permits. But is he really the philanthropist he claims to be? With 3,000 animaloids and weird animaloid art Donev becomes a tinderbox for anti-animaloid sentiment and potentially a massacre.
The “main” character of the novel is the rather banal First Secretary to the World Manager Neal Wargen who tries to prevent the disaster. He’s in love with Eritha, the daughter of World Manager Ian Korak. Eritha is the most interesting character, she desires to learn about the artists and plays a key role despite being an atrocious artist.
Final Thoughts (some spoilers)
The Light That Never Was is structurally a disjointed mess of a novel with no real characters (they are interchangeable names), no tension, and a complete refusal to develop the animaloid Mesz species into anything else than pseudo-human looking gentle folk.
That said, the focus on art and the making of art — especially during a period of definitive malaise — is well done. How often is this the MAIN thrust of a work? In Philip K. Dick’s masterpiece The Man in the High Castle (1962) the production of new “American” art in a world dominated by the Japanese symbolizes the slow rebirth of a society. Lloyd Biggle Jr. tries to convey the same thing, the near miss pogrom against the animloids transforms Donev’s artist population. However, Philip K. Dick’s characters are more intriguing and the prose far superior.
The Light That Never Was is conceptually more interesting than its delivery. Despite a focus ON art one gets the feeling that Biggle doesn’t know very much ABOUT art. Thankfully, Biggle is careful in constructing an irrational ignorance on part of the humans towards the harmless animaloids reflecting the social realities of his day.
Worth reading if only for the unorthodox subject matter. The ideas trump the delivery…