Book Review: The Shores of Another Sea, Chad Oliver (1971)

(Michael Booth’s cover for the 1984 edition)

3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)

Suppose that one day man landed on some distant planet.  Why would he have come, what impulse would have driven him across the darkness and the light-years?  Could he explain, and would he even try?  If he set out to explore that fearful world, if he trapped some specimens, what would he do if he were attacked by monstrous beings he could not understand? (135)

Chad Oliver is a well-known proponent of anthropological science fiction.  John Clute (of SF encyclopedia) proclaims him “pioneer in the application of competent anthropological thought to sf themes.”  Despite being relatively prolific between the 50s-70s (a handful of short stories appeared in the 80s), The Shores of Another Sea (1971) retains a distinctly 50s tone, style, characterization, and positivist outlook.

This is a first contact story of the classic mold mixed with a few minute, but intriguing, implications of more philosophical undercurrents.  Two themes dominate the work: 1) An overwhelming nostalgic longing for a past way of life more similar to our ancestors (the joys of the hunt, closeness to the land, the simple pleasures of life) and 2) The speculation, à la Stanislaw Lem, that first-contact is not as simple as we would like to imagine.  The alien life that we might encounter has the distinct possibility of being so different and unrecognizable that we might not even think that it’s sentient.

The impact of the promising and almost allegorical premise–a man and his family out in rural Kenya trapping baboons for medical experimentation who witness aliens who might be conducting similar and equally sinister experiments–is ultimately weakened by Oliver’s overly mundane and descriptive prose.  At points the feel of reading a story straight out of Texas Monthly about hunting some form of wildlife becomes overpowering.  For context, Chad Oliver taught Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin and felt deeply about the Texas landscape.

Occasionally the work takes a reactionary stance against contemporary SF, this probably due to Oliver’s frustration with the changes in genre precipitated by the New Wave movement and 60s literature in general.  For example, comments such as this one sneak into the narrative, “the writing that was currently much admired seemed to deal exclusively with sex hang-ups and the feeble joys of drug addiction” (58).  Of course Oliver’s American hero Royce Crawford, a mouthpiece for the author himself, discovers that there is still a market for “more or less factual stories about hunting and fishing” (58) and it is this “factual” turn that informs the telling of The Shores of Another Sea.  

By far the most impressive element of the work was the depiction of the Native Kamba people from Kenya.  Oliver is very careful to avoid the majority of the standard clichés: Royce laments “Mutisya, Wathome–they were good men.  They had resources that he had not expected.  He hated the barriers between them [i.e. they are in his employ].  Their differences were small indeed.  Skin color, background, wealth […]  Men were men, that was all” (141).

Vaguely recommended — especially for readers intensely devoted to SF that homages, and oozes, the 1950s.  Despite my slight disappointment with The Shores of Another Sea I still want to get my hands on his short story collection Another Kind (1955) and his earlier novel, Unearthly Neighbors (1960).

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

Royce Crawford, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, restless in his office job signs on to something more suitable for his tastes, i.e. trapping baboons in Kenya to be shipped to the US for medical experimentation.  Of course, this type of job also allows for extensive hunting on the side of various exotic animals which Royce greatly enjoys.  He brings his family along with him, his wife and two children, and comes to deeply respect his employees, men from the local Kamba people.

Soon however, he starts to notice a series of strange events — baboons mysteriously escape from their cages.  Eventually a man is found near the baboonery that appears to have been killed by the beasts!  Royce soon deduces that there is some force at play—the baboons stop acting like baboons and appear to be controlled.  The parallel set-up is Oliver’s aim.  Man experiments on the baboons, who, despite their status as primates (and thus genetic similarity to man), are held as little more than brutes.  And, these unexplained aliens who seem to be also experimenting, in their own way, on the baboons.

The tension increases and a showdown, the best written portion of the novel, is imminent. Thankfully, Oliver’s vision is more similar to the later movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) than Alien (1979).

(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1972 edition)

(Bob Pepper’s cover for the 1971 edition)

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: The Shores of Another Sea, Chad Oliver (1971)

  1. Coincidentally, yesterday, I just read Oliver’s novellete “Transfusion” (1959)–Excellent. I’ve also read his novella “Blood’s a Rover” (1952), which was Pretty good. I definitely keep my eye out for Another Kind!

    • Yes, I’m very interested in his 50s works. This definitely felt like it was written earlier — I wish the philosophical themes were explored at greater length and more importantly, in a more poignant manner (the book is 159 short pages in my edition so I’m not talking about making it a 300 page tome!).

  2. Since I praised this as Oliver’s best novel, I hope this hasn’t put you off him too much. It has been a few years since I read it and perhaps the fact (as I surmise) that I’m a generation beyond you made me less sensitive to/bothered by the “50s vibe.”

    I will agree that he’s not a great prose stylist but how many SF writers are? : )

    • Don’t get me wrong, I love 50s SF and hopefully my blog’s frequent reviews of 50s SF illustrate that! (strangely, as a product of the late 80s I tend to dislike SF from my own lifetime). My issue with this novel was only in part the utterly banal prose (I find Kornbluth, Miller Jr., Sheckley, etc all better writers)…. Also, his anthropological interests were not really on show in this work. The philosophical undercurrents were afterthoughts. It failed as a mood piece as well because it tended to verge into stretches extolling the virtues of hunting in a way more similar to a non-fiction article than a piece of literature.

      As for the prose stylist point, I can name quite a few off the top of my head — Michael Bishop, Effinger, Brunner when he wants to be, Silverberg when he wants to be, M. John Harrison, Ballard, Sheckley (sometimes), Le Guin, Josephine Saxton, Brian N. Malzberg, Joanna Russ, Kit Reed… etc.

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