Retro when retro was lame, yet stylistically curious (3/5)
Bertram Alfred Young (B.A Young) was best known as a drama critic from the 1960s to the 1990s, but was still able to make a unimpressionable dent in the genre of science fiction with Cabinet Pudding (1967), a rather strange look at British politics in 1996 where the prime minister is a pot-smoking West Indian, and in 1979 with the lamely titled The Colonists From Space. I bought this at the Neilson-Hayes Library annual book sale in Bangkok for 20 baht (65 cents). I was charmed by the simplicity of the cover and the over-simplicity of the book’s title, both of which stood in contrast to the book’s relative modernness—1979.
Though the cover may be have a retro paint scheme and imaging of magazines such as Amazing Stories, Fate Magazine, and Astounding Science Fiction, the cover for The Colonists From Space was done by Ionicus (1913 – 1998) who, more famously, drew the book covers for P.D. Wodehouse novels (Penguin editions) which portray an idyllic English countryside and home life. Ionicus, actually diagnosed as colorblind while in the navy, also drew the covers for a handful of other William Kimber’s publications from 1977-1987, all horror books aside from this lone science fiction portrait.
Inside dustcover synopsis:
“When the green men from the flying saucers land in the Cotswold valleys, they set about their task of civilising the natives with all the pride and integrity the natives themselves once displayed in the virgin lands of Africa. As the Empire is forged on Earth, the chroniclers on the home planet record the adventures of the colonial pioneers with the same fertile imagination that is another context bred Sanders of the River and Tarzan of the Apes.
B. A. Young presents a series of accounts, some from the colonial point of view and some from the native, which tells the story of the exploration and conquest of England by the invaders from outer space. Part science fiction and part satire, this story sometimes has a curiously familiar ring. Light-hearted though it is, is has something to say about the qualities of the imperial spirit.”
The pastoral serenity of Cotswolds, England is dominated by bleating sheep and other roving ungulates which dot the scenic counties of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. There lives a young boy named Raymond who schemes of defending his home against alien invaders is, or rather when, they invade. Concomitantly zipping through the system are the Skrahl, and aboard that Space Corps vessel is Cadet Dan, who serendipitously discovers Planet 7156 C/s/3 (aka Earth). Though only a cadet, the honor of first footfall and spearheading the first foray is given to the cherubic, green-skinned, humanoid boy.
The humans ponder upon the implications of first contact and concern themselves with congeniality and good manners: “How could comforts be ensured? Should any alteration of our atmosphere be contemplated to ensure that the strangers would be able to breathe it? Would our climatic conditions prove suitable, and if not, how could we vary them?” (16). Yet, when the landing party arrives and eventually makes contact, the Skrahl take the defensive and prepare their battlefield, their grounds of war with the humans—the initial verbal debate. The conscientious Skrahl adhere to their debate protocols and the conventions of debate warfare, but Cadet Dan eyes the opportunity to play the very game the humans do: be brash, abrupt, loud, ignorant, immature, feisty, and irrational. Regardless of his strategy, Dan loses this debate against his designated opponent—the 8-year old named Raymond of Gloucestershire.
The actions of the locals of Gloucestershire stump the colonialists. The invaders don’t really put all that much effort into understanding the ways of the English, the Europeans or even the Earthly ways in general. It seems as if the villagers “amuse themselves by taking pictures of everything they see and either printing it on sheets of paper or transmitting it electronically on ground-glass screens in their homes” and “hunger for such simples goods as long-playing gramophone records and a coarse blue cloth called denim” (46). They can’t make any sense of the English language with all of its erroneous pronunciations, so they dub the country of England by a more phonetically correct name—Ingland.
This single-minded materialism of the humans penetrates the elastic culture of the Skrahl, who export the same popular items to their home which become fashionable at the universities… one of which Raymond attends. Seemingly under the patronage of Cadet-cum-Captain Dan, Raymond is actually gathering information about the alien race in order to plan a counter-insurgency cell which he will call the Inglish Independent Insurrection.
Raymond sneaks back to Earth and maintains a low profile in the physical sense, yet still heads his organization’s efforts to cast off the yoke of alien imperialism. Various strategies to fight the colonialism include raiding weapon depots and planting moles within the aliens’ human servants; Captain Dan realizes that Raymond is behind the counter-insurgency and aims to capture him in order to understand the logic behind the assaults—the Skrahl have given the humans better denim and more long-play records, thereby giving a higher standard of living.
The novel, by its cover alone, looks like a juvenile science fiction novel and its undertaking reeks of either juvenilism or amateurism: humanoid aliens with green skin and yellow blood, saucer cities, saucer spacecraft, and atomic gadgets. Remembering that B.A. Young was a journalist by trade and satirist by quirk, the reader can take note three distinguishing facets of this semi-precious novel.
(1) Nearly each of the fourteen chapters is written with a distinctive prose, unique format or unusual angle of attack: first-person narrative, academic overview with footnotes, casual recount of an amusing incident, diary entries, etc. The introduction of the novel was written by the fictional Emeritus Professor of Earth Studies, Dejah, who compiled the portions of the book to provide “a comprehensive yet readable survey of what colonialism really is” (13). The montage of writing styles is mildly interesting in the macroscopic sense, but… no, it’s mildly interesting at best.
(2) His attempts at humor are reflective of his satire on English life. Some inclusions, such as the native human fixation on denim and LPs, fall flat even when repeated at length throughout the novel and even when the same materialistic possessions are used as a bribe. This garners a smile. Only one chapter of the book provided an excellent perspective on alien logic and use of the author’s humor: chapter 5 entitled “Green Hills of Gloucestershire” is an adaptation of an edition which appeared in the magazine Punch under the title “Symbiosis”.
(3) The opposite side of the humor in satire is the more constructive side of pointing the finger of colonialism back on the colonialists themselves—the British. I’m not a historian nor am I keen about Britain’s past colonialism to pick up on the nuances about having the tables turned, but it’s obvious enough that the author is prodding the British collective ego. The Skrahl take their land, change their laws, issue their own licenses, occupy their industry, overthrown their government, and then wonder why the humans are so pesky about the colonization. A few post-WWII examples of stepping out from the shadow of British imperialism: India (1947), Burma (1948), Malaya (1957), Cyprus and Nigeria (1960), Singapore and Kenya (1963), Malta (1964), Guyana and Barbados (1966).
The Colonists From Space is pedestrian for the average reader, but perhaps notable for someone seeking the odd morsels of British sci-fi (i.e. me), a post-WWII decolonization historian or a juvenile reader. It’s weird because the plot simplicity contrasts the unique collection of each chapter’s distinctiveness; it’s silly because the humanoid aliens are so much like the conniving humans yet their alien logic tends to get the best of them; and it’s interesting because of the colonial context of the old British Empire. If you can immerse yourself in one of those three—weird, silly or interesting—then you may enjoy this novel to a greater degree than I did… but because it assumes all these contrasts and stands out as an oddity by its retro cover, I think she’s a keeper for my collection.