Advanced Civilizations and Clever Monkeys – more of why I love sf/f
In the very first sentence Del Rey establishes that we are on a starship and that the viewpoint character, the captain, is not human—since he is looking through a set of trinoculars toward a small blue planet. The ship was on a cargo run to a colony world when they encountered a cloud of antimatter moving through deep space. In the course of mapping the cloud, the discovered radio signals coming for a star system they thought uninhabited.
It’s obvious that they are approaching Earth, which has an inhabited space station in orbit around it, so the story was meant to be set a short distance in our future. They establish contact with the strange two-eyed beings who call this world home, and in a few days the two species have managed to figure out how to communicate.
Del Rey gives some explanations for why this is so. The aliens have much larger and more complicated brains than humans. Because they evolved a way to delay signals from the third eye, they perceive time differently than we do. Their language expert is amazed to realize that humans only have a language of few tens of thousand words, since the most uneducated of the aliens has a vocabulary of several million.
All of this learning is just window dressing for the main problem of the tale. That cloud of anti-matter is moving toward the solar system, and when it arrives bad things will happen. Live on Earth will likely be wiped out by the gamma radiation caused by the light smattering that will his the Earth’s atmosphere, but then things will be much worse when the bulk of the antimatter cloud hits the sun.
The aliens came to warn them, but can’t really offer any help. Their ship is too small to carry more than a handful of humans, and it took them many years to get to Earth as it was, no other ships will be able to reach them before disaster hits.
The captain agrees to leave the humans all of the science books he can, even though he explains that his civilization’s technology couldn’t possibly be used to evacuate billions of people. Then the aliens goes on their way.
Fifteen years later, the captain and the cargo ship return to their home world, and are shocked when a high ranking government official is sent up to greet them. And with the government official is a human, the first person they met, the woman who was the Administrator of the space station.
The revelation at the end of the story is that humans figured out that the alien’s natural way of perceiving variable time had limited their ability to understand all of the implications of their warp drive technology. Thus in a few years, the humans had built engines and ships much more powerful than anything the aliens have, and have managed to save themselves.
This particular story didn’t wow me. Maybe it’s because I’ve read too many stories where the twist is that the obviously inferior humans turn out to be more clever than the superior aliens. Legendary editor John W. Campbell, Jr, used to insist that no story published in his ‘zine could ever show humans to be inferior. They always had to be better than the aliens one way or another.
The difference between this one and a typical Campbell-approved tale is that the aliens aren’t malevolent. The aliens want to save the humans, they just don’t believe it is possible to do more than warn them.
Besides the predictability (which might be more my fault because of the types of sci fi I had read during the years before), the other problem is there isn’t really any conflict in the story. Because it is from the point of view of the aliens who don’t believe they can do anything and who go about their business after the warning, all of the drama of a human population finding out impending doom, scientists and engineers struggling to master another race’s physics and engineering, et cetera, happens off screen. It’s all, “Poor monkeys. They seem nice enough, but they’re doomed because they aren’t advanced enough to have already colonized the stars.” Followed by, “Surprise! We’re more clever than you thought!”
That sort of “twist!” story is entertaining the first few times you encounter it, but after you’ve seen a dozen or more, the story needs to do a bit more to really stand out. The most interesting aspect of the story, as it is, is the notion that have a third eye would change the way a species perceives and understand time and temporal relationships. One of the almost throw away lines in the early part of the tale involves the language expert being flabbergasted that human languages only have a few tenses, and even then only the verbs!
That made me stop for a few minutes to think about how adjectives and nouns could work differently in English if we had different versions of the words for past, present, future, and so forth.
As I said a couple of weeks ago, not every story has to be a masterpiece. And even if the story is merely not bad, but it makes you think, that’s a good thing.