(Paul Alexander’s cover for the 1980 edition)
At first glance, Garry Kilworth’s The Night of Kadar (1978) tells the familiar tale of colonization on an alien planet filled with mysterious and hostile forces. Beneath the surface, Kilworth explores the evolution of a religious society separated from its sacred landscape (the planet Earth) that gave birth to the first followers of the religion. This is an odd novel in the best sense of the word. I’ve discovered few 70s works that tackle Islamic religion and faith (yet alone any religion) in a non-judgmental manner. In this vision religion isn’t a tool of repression, it isn’t presented as antithetical to science, or a hindrance to societal development. Flaws reside within individuals.
While I found elements of the narrative problematic, I applaud Kilworth’s fascinating premise and thought-provoking ruminations on an Earth religion transposed to a new and bizarre alien landscape.
Recommended for fans of unusual 70s SF.
Brief Plot Summary (*spoilers*)
A colonizing seedship lands on an unnamed planet and divulges two thousand colonists before dismembering itself into tools, useful parts, and building materials. The colonists, grown and educated mechanically on board the vessel when it detected a suitable alien planet, emerge as 30-year-olds with implanted memories and strict societal roles. During the process, the ship detects a “small, indefinable trace of an alien presence” (11). The education machines are destroyed “halfway through delivering a crucial piece of information” (12). Half the colonists remain infants in adult form.
The half who received an education gained “a general knowledge of [Earth’s] history” as well as their “own specialized information which will make them skilled professionals” (10). Most importantly, they received religious knowledge related to their “purpose for being alive at all” (10). An Islamic future society launched the vessel and designed what education and artificial memories would be implanted in the colonists. The designers chose to minimize knowledge of the Earth-specific details of the Islamic faith in order for the colonists to find their own path to God.
The narrative follows the engineer Othman, who after a period of acclimation, emerges as the leader of the colony. He discovers that a woman, Silandri, was programmed to be his wife. A series of mysteries immediately beset the colonists. Who is the leader? Important classes of people (farmers, etc.) appear to be missing? Why were the education machines destroyed? Who are the strange mute humanoid stickmen who wander through the forest? And what is beyond the mountains on the mainland?
Othman, whose character undergoes a radical evolution over the course of the novel, desires above all else to construct a causeway from the island where they are stranded to the mainland (51). The “sea” cannot be crossed by conventional means as it’s a viscous and bubbling quicksand of gasses and unusual fauna. Occasionally the narrative shifts to Fdar, one of the crewmen with the intelligence of an infant, who has come into contact with the alien stickmen who have developed a form of communication via touch.
Othman must keep his people unified as they cross over to the mainland where a new series of challenges and revelations await.
The Night of Kadar contains a fascinating and respectful speculation, perhaps inspired by Kilworth’s extensive travels, about a possible transformation of the Islamic faith when transposed onto an utterly alien planet. While the colonists understand the importance of “Allah and Mohammed, and they were told that this was the God and and his prophet,” the specific Earthbound elements of the religion—be that the Kaaba in Mecca, the Koran, the Hadij, etc. (31). Instead, possessed by faith in Allah and His prophet Muhammad, the colonists must develop their own religious path and new rituals.
In Islam, Laylat Al Qadr (The Night of Kadar) was the night where Allah revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. Kilworth suggests that death will be the moment where the colonists will really understand their faith as the historical details, sacred landscapes, and important texts of Islam were not included in their education.
The other fascinating element of the novel was the role of dreams. Each character received a detailed implanted past: “It is a dream with stability and has none of the time-telescoping tricks, the supernatural elements or the sudden scene transformations of a normal dream. It is abnormal in that it is lived like an ordinary life” (75). Kilworth speculates that dreams could be used to anchor individuals severed from lived pasts and communal memories.
The Night of Kadar is filled to the brim with fascinating ideas. I am not convinced that all of them are brought together in a completely successful way. For example, in the few moments of tension within the narrative the action tends to end abruptly. It’s resolution is referred to later, often by another character. This is a narrative tick that grated on me and weakened the novel’s tense moments.
I plan on acquiring and reading Kilworth’s other early SF works: In Solitary (1977), Gemini God (1981), and A Theatre of Timesmiths (1984).
(Adrian Chesterman’s cover for the 1980 edition)
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