I recently read The Dark Light-Years by Brian Aldiss (1964). We all know I have a tendency to buy science fiction books that are worn-out looking and old with awesome covers. This cover is pretty great (and I'd heard of Brian Aldiss before), but it wasn't enough to push me to buy the book.To get to that point, I had to turn the book over and peruse the back cover. Utods, huh? Those sound pretty interesting... Wallow in filth? Why, I love to read about that. Let's just keep looking down to the Author Photo:
Yes. Yes, this book must be read.
In this book, the world of the Utods and the world of the Humans intersect. The Utods are an ancient race who live in a distant galaxy -- they have a highly developed biological system that coincides with the rotation of their planet between three distinct suns. Their social, cultural, and religious beliefs all center on the process (and product) of defecation (no joke), which they see as a gift that symbolizes the ultimate cycle of life where bodies enter the carrion stage and feed the trees on the planet, becoming once again part of the universe. So, the Utods basically sit around in wallows of dirt and shit all day.
They are also giant and kind of hippo-like with six retractable arms and two heads, one that talks and one that shits. They are peaceful, but went through a period of revolution in their culture many generations ago where a sect of Utods shunned defecation for cleanliness, invented all kinds of spaceships and things, but eventually died out in a big war between themselves. The remaining Utods kept the technological knowledge and use it to travel to and colonize other hospitable planets.
The humans run across a pod of Utods in their temporary wallow on a planet they are both exploring. When the Utods say something to the humans (their language sounds like high pitched squeaks and screams and comes from all their orafices), they shoot all but two of the group. A scientist on board on the ship makes them capture the remaining Utods for study instead of shooting them. But are they intelligent?
All the shit really makes it hard for the humans to see the Utods as anything less than animals. All the cleanliness makes it really hard for the Utods to see the humans as an intelligent, thinking race. Both groups are at a standstill and while they have a lot of philosophical discussions about what "intelligent life" really is, neither race really makes a breakthrough.
That is until a human is left on the Utod planet to spend a year understanding the race and learning their language, or teaching them English. This is a good assignment for a young explorer who wants to get away from Earth for awhile, but what happens when he is forgotten in the fallout from a planetary war and left with the Utods for 40 years? What can the humans learn from the Utods, and what can the Utods learn from the humans?
I liked this book -- its got a nice sense of humor, and a good mix of philosophy and action. Plus the little details about everyday life on future earth are fun (although sometimes a little dated and goofy).
[P.S. This copy is the original 1964 Signet Books printing, just in case you are geeky like me and think that's cool.]