Deconstructing an alien psychology for mutual benefit (4/5)
You can’t mention Gordon R. Dickson as an author without mentioning his Dorsai! series. I haven’t read it. So, now that that’s over with, as a reader, I have found that Dickson is an author with many highs yet capable of achieving the very low: his short stories in In the Bone (1987) were fantastic yet his novels Mission to Universe (1965) and The Forever Man (1986) were utter duds. Hitherto, I have yet to cast him from my bookshelves; The Alien Way and Way of the Pilgrims (1987) are his last chance for redemption. Lucky for him, The Alien Way had a winning combination of both the alien condition and the human condition.
Rear cover synopsis:
“Kator Secondcousin, of the family of Brutogas, only two seasons grown, found that the Random Factor was smiling upon him.
On a routine exploration mission, his scout ship encountered an alien artifact drifting in space. He returned to his native Ruml, determined to set his foot on the past of glory—determined that, against all the odds, he would win a Kingdom, and found a Famiy.
But Kator Secondcousin did not return to Ruml alone. All unknowning, he carried a tiny transmitter in his body, that opened his mind to a man on Earth. Kator’s plans for conquering his Kingdom would meet more opposition than he could imagine.”
Pesky, conniving humans have laid enticing relics in open space which they consider to be most likely visited by aliens. The human relics, derelict and open to vacuum, are not what they seem; what looks like a destroyed vessel is actually baited with a worm which transfers a sliver of a piece of equipment into the retriever. Once implanted in the alien retriever’s nervous system, the piece of equipment is able to transmit thoughts and sensations, at the speed of light no less, to the receiver on Earth. The technique had been perfected on Earth, but the implications for use on aliens causes a rift between the committee members involved.
A bipedal ursine race, calling themselves the Ruml, have sent a scout to a sector of space on a routine mission. There, one scout named Kator Secondcousin sees the derelict alien artifact and knows that the invisible guiding hand of Random Factor favors him. Killing his crewmate, Kator retrieves a bag from the relic and unknowingly infects himself with the sliver, thereby linking his mind on a one-way connection to a human named Jason Barchar back on Earth. Kator returns to his home planet and announces his discovery of the drifting artifact yet keeps mum about the worm, which he caches away.
In Washington D.C., the Foundation for the Association of Learned and Professional Societies has started the illicit program stated above. They are autonomous, without government oversight, and fully capable of handling immediate contact with an alien race. However, the six-member committee board is divided between keeping the project for themselves of handing it over to the government—Jason, the one who is able to see and experience the alien world and society—is member number seven who persists on voting to keep the project with the Foundation until he fully understands the alien society and thought processes.
Through Kator’s eyes, Jason witnesses, first-hand, the alienness of Ruml culture. The vicarious experience is so rich that Jason often hallucinates which reality is his own: the benign human world or the enigmatic Ruml world. As a mammalian sociologist, Jason is knowledged and experienced enough to be the first contact with a alien race similar to bears on Earth. Unlike humans, the singular motivation for the Ruml race is one of honor and honor above all else—honor for lineage rather than immediate family or self. In the eyes of the committee, the deaths witnessed and reported by Jason are indicative of barbarous race, but Jason hesitates to admit this; rather, Jason experiences of deep connection with the Ruml and aims to understand their basic intrinsic motivation. He stumbles upon one article which highlights the sensations and thoughts being delivered to him by Kator.
The scientists on the Ruml homeworld have been able to roughly locate the source of Kator’s artifact. Because of his righteousness and high degree of “luck”, Kator is assigned to be the honorary Keysman on the maiden flight to the home of the Muffled People (as humans care called because of the fabric they drape over their bodies) in order to investigate the prospects of colonization; with this advanced scouting mission, Kator hopes to one day found his own Kingdom and thereby preserve honor in his “family’s” memory. Jason, however, is privy to everything Kator has been experiencing and therefore knows of any plot or device the Ruml intend to use on Earth.
Modestly disguising himself as a human, Kator descends to the surface of Earth to investigate a cavernous underground bunker which may hide the human’s secret space defense fleet. Galloping to the subterranean structure, Kator crosses path with a human idly fishing in the creek, grinning with a cigarette lit between his lips. The conversation is terse and odd, but a connection has been made.
My synopsis and the book’s own synopsis don’t do the novel any justice; my synopsis may be too detailed while the book’s synopsis may be too vague. When the reader actually ingests the novel, the reader will discover that the crux of the novel lays with the parallel lives of Jason and Kator, how Jason becomes affected by the life of Kator, and how Jason has planned out the future of both the humans and the Ruml. Jason may appear, at times, unreasonably cocksure or errantly emotional, but the mind of Jason’s is moving in an idiosyncratic tangent toward a mutually beneficial result—the Ruml will succeed as well as the humans… Jason just needs time and the luck of “Random Factor” on his side.
Jason doesn’t err on the side of caution due to the strong influence of his intuition, which is akin to Kator’s belief that all the coincidences in his life can be attributed to the sacred Random Factor. While Kator’s unsupported belief finds him gambling with his future, Jason’s ironclad resolution is corroborated by his intelligence and research methods. Jason has observed bears in the wild and remembers a particular research article explaining the ferocity of the mammalian family, and while this all applies to bears on Earth, Jason intuits that the same theory can be valid for an ursine alien race. This sounds like a stretch to the reviewer but it’s allowed to pass… however, as Joachim has stated, having the same zoological rant thrust into my reading pleasure is a tad pretentious and annoying.
My last gripe is quite trite but the idea’s been rattling around in my head for ages—considering the vastness of the cosmos, the eccentricity of organic chemistry, and the sporadic divergent branching of evolution, how likely is it that an alien lifeform will be bipedal, human-sized, furry yet human in appearance when shaved, and able to be understood by Earthly zoological standards. I understand many aliens in SF stories are similar to the Ruml, but exceptions to the norm are rare yet often memorable (a plethora of aliens in James White’s Sector General series, Greg Bear’s Braids in Anvil of Stars  or Peter F. Hamilton’s Primes in Pandora’s Star , to name a few). While the Ruml’s physiology may be generic, Dickson makes utterly sure that their psychology is alien, yet still understandable by human standards. As Tom Braden says in George O. Smith's "Catspaw" (1948), "we cannot interpret the thoughts of an alien culture in our own terms and hope to come out right."
Dickson has redeemed himself by a very small degree. He concentrated on the foreignness of the alien mind and one man grappling with understanding that alienness, trying to prevent catastrophe and benefit both races—the Ruml and the humans. Dickson seemed to have forgotten the appeal of drastically different alien cultures in The Forever Man (1986), where penned a vexingly annoying cast with disastrous dialogue behind the drone-like culture of the Laagi, where xeno-anthropology takes a back seat to the bickering and ping-pong dialogue. This Dickson is a keeper but I’m not yet eager to gamble my reading time on another Dickson novel any time soon.