Star Above It, A by Oliver, Chad, 1950

Star Above It, A by Oliver, Chad

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Genetics, and culture. To me those are to me two of the most interesting topics for genre writers to tackle. Ive rambled on enough already about Octavia Butler and her ilk on other pages herein. But other than Michael Bishop and Mike Resnick, I have stayed away so far from the authors who write anthropological SF. If you have never read either of the authors mentioned above, or Ursula K. Le Guin, or this author, Chad Oliver, then you probably have not seen this subtopic treated well. To put it bluntly, Oliver is the best. With just a few exceptions noted below all of his stories are top notch. His writing style is clear, and though he is not a ball-hider per se, he does take his time getting to the point of his stories. I think that he is comparable in style and focus to Clifford Simak, Ray Bradbury and Octavia Butler. Those of you out there fortunate enough to have read Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions already know who Oliver is. His amazing story King of the Hill was included in that anthology. Many of his stories have to do with his fascination towards culture in general, though even where he is at his most livid he keeps his focus on the preservation of the biological. Apocryphal stories about Oliver show that more than a few elements of his own life are written into these tales. I've noted some of these elements below in the story descriptions, but perhaps most important to him was to show a true love and understanding of anthropology and other cultures, and an acute understanding of the inevitable conflict that occurs when a powerful culture encounters a weaker one. That, and fishing too. Oliver really brings all of this to life in these stories in a spectacular manner.

Especially because we are aware that Oliver was a field anthropologist, its not too hard to see that one of his primary motivations for writing these stories was to explore what happens when a weaker or "primitive" culture encounters a stronger one. But what makes these stories anything but repetitive is that Oliver focus on a different dynamic each time, including ethics, religious morality, tradition, law, war, and many others. And I think the most amazing aspect of Oliver's tales is that almost every time he has a big surprise for in store for you that shakes your beliefs about what a "primitive" culture actually is. And believe you me, even if you do not yet realize it, you have some pretty deeply seated and almost hard-wired beliefs in your head about what they are. This book will change all of that for you, and without being trite, will probably change you too. But, if I were to put on my sardonic hat, what I think we are dealing with here is largely autobiographical, or at least wishingly so. To demonstrate what I'm trying to say here, I think its best to turn to a quote by the man himself. In Guardian Spirit which is probably the best anthropological SF story ever written, Oliver posits thus:

Who knows what we destroyed when we sailed into strange harbors without ships and our diseases? We never saw our natives until we had corrupted them.

With one or two minor exceptions, every story in this book is about as pure a shot as any anthropologist could ever hope for to examine a new culture. Single ships, or at least no more than two or three people, blasting to new planets to live with tribes of natives as the natives lived, finding and taking every opportunity to learn something new and more importantly, put together a picture of something alien and different. For those of you who still have no idea what I'm blathering on about, if you liked Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you should love these stories. If I had a sixth star in my pocket, I'd pin it to this book for sure. Here's the stories:

BLOOD'S A ROVER, 1952, by Chad Oliver, originally published in Astounding: Conan Lang is a highly respected sociologist who is a member of a government organization called Process Planning. Lang and a group are sent to Sirius 10 to perform a secret and highly distasteful job. When they arrive Lang and a young crewman set up camp and await contact from the simple natives, who have been contacted by the highly advanced Earthmen before. A few nights later they are given a slaughtered pig, some woven mats and a strangled infant. Lang leaves a knife and a few other items, and the next day more trade items are left. Lang and the youth then approach the natives and are invited as friends for a feast. The natives of Sirius 10 called the Oripesh are nomadic farmers who must uproot the village every year because the "ricefruit" that they grow destroys soil and renders it incapable of production the next year. In preparation for sowing for next year the village is planning its uprooting feast. The eldest son of the village chief befriends Lang and shows him his intended wife, a stunningly beautiful woman who is obviously deeply in love with her fiancee. The two are incredibly happy and hopeful for the future.

During the feast Lang announces that he has some gifts for the tribe, and unveils an enormous ricefruit that grows with little damage to the soil, thus eliminating the need to remain migratory. The Oripesh are shocked, and the village mystic calls Lang evil for the damage that he will do to their way of life. Lang proves his virtue by walking through the embers of the bonfire, and pretends to take his leave in anger, when in reality his feet are about to fall off and he can all but stifle his screams of pain. But because he passed the test the natives accept the gift of the new rice fruit. Lang is put onto a trade vessel where he is healed. The vessel is on three-year circuit, so that is the earliest his is able to return to Sirius 10.

When he comes back he sees the vast changes that have come to the Oripesh. The old and powerful wise men of the Oripesh have been relegated to the trash heap, and the Oripesh have learned the value of an economy that is capable of producing a surplus. Since the tribe no longer needs to migrate, property values have become important, and those that accepted the new strain of ricefruit early on now own all the land in what has turned into a central city. Mystics and chieftains of the past who fought the new crop now work the soil for the businessmen who control their lives. Lang looks for his friend, the eldest son of the former chief, whose fortunes have fallen. His beautiful wife has left him for a rich man and the son is miserable. Lang offers to help him become wealthy, but the son walk away in disgust of Lang and his ways.

With the changes in the economy social power is now divided inequitably between the landed and the landless. Slums have built up and slavery has become viable. Through he disintegration of the nomadic culture and the acceptance of the new society economic classes that have developed and political power has centralized in a king who trickles benefits and wealth down the ladder all the way to the slaves.

As a sociologist, Lang finds what he has done to these people only barely tolerable because of the reason why. Humanity has developed FTL drives and has learned three things. First, the Milky Way is populated by human beings only. Second, the humans of Sol are the most advanced in the entire galaxy, and almost all others are sociologically at primitive levels. Third, every other galaxy we have reached is populated by non-human beings, almost all of which are as advanced as humans of Sol, and they have few if any primitives. We know that there is an intergalactic invasion coming, and unless we can raise the millions of human planets in the Milky Way to an advanced technological level before it starts, this galaxy presents the best option for colonization by other races. Lang has done his part time and time again to preserve humanity, even if it destroys beautiful and desirable ways of life for other humans. Lang returns from this job as angry at himself as usual, comforted only by the fact that he has been doing this job so long that he is due for a promotion. He gets that promotion, and learns that Earth did not invent process planning, but instead is the subject of a much more highly advanced race of humans from a close star who don't have the character necessary to go out and do so much damage to other human races. I know that I have said this in the past about other stories, but this time, I mean it seriously when I say that this is probably the best genre story that has ever, ever, ever been written. Oliver had a way of applying sociology and anthropology to stories that really added much to his already amazing writing skills. Even if you never read the rest of the book, this story alone is worth the entire price of admission.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

THE LAND OF LOST CONTENT, 1950, by Chad Oliver, originally published in Super Science Stories: Very short story about an enclave of humans who live underground, and whose society is dying off after a devastating nuclear war. Those few who have survived underground have done so only because of a rigid adherence to a set of rules governing behavior. But as the society starts to die a man and wife explore outside of the main caverns, trying to prove the ancient legends that there is another world above. For the crime of trying to reach the Roof of the World the two are condemned to death, but are rescued and urged to lead a faction of dissidents to the surface. This story really is about how change is necessary to survive, the change here being the defiance of the instructions of ancient Gods.

THE ANT AND THE EYE, 1953, by Chad Oliver, originally published in Astounding: Quinton is a UN spy who is on duty on Procyon III when he is called back on an emergency basis to Earth. Computers that analyze all information on Earth have identified a risk that may develop in the American southwest in the next thirty to forty years. Oliver seems to be relying on the power of modern computers a bit much here, but the Quinton's organization's job is to root out catastrophic risks and eliminate them well before anyone ever realizes that the threat could exist. In this case, a man named Weston, who is a bit of a sociopath, has become interested in politics, and the fear is that he will move far in the political world and may eventually orchestrate a nuclear war. Quinton's group operates extra-legal, and has to be as subtle as possible. They go to Weston and offer him a job on Mars which Weston turns down because there is a local election coming up in Galveston which he stands a big chance of winning. Quinton bribes another politician to run against Weston, then from behind the scenes orchestrates a smear campaign against Weston. Weston's wife tries to take direct action against Quinton, but is disarmed before she can do any real damage. In the end Weston is "kicked upstairs" to Mars where he can do no damage. This is an interesting spy story that seems pretty deeply rooted in Cold War fears. The most interesting part is that the UN group has to put quite a bit of effort into interpreting the results that the computer kicks out, and does not know for quite some time what the threat actually is. Of this Oliver writes:

Who was he, this man set by chance into the fuse area of an explosive situation yet unborn? What was he doing now? Was he a genius of a sort, or just an ordinary guy who happened to be living in the wrong place at the right time? He could be anything, Quinton realized. An idiot can change history as profoundly as a brilliant man - or even a germ.

ARTIFACT, 1955, by Chad Oliver, originally published BY Ballantine: Dr. Saunders is called on an emergency basis to a secret military base in New Mexico where it is revealed to him not only that the U.S. government has launched a secret mission to Mars, but that the crew has returned with an artifact. Saunders examines the object and sure enough, its a hand held scraping tool. A new mission is cobbled together quickly, and Saunders is sent to Mars where they first uncover more evidence of a tool using animal, then find a diminutive humanoid dressed in skins with a spear and an atlatl. They approach the man and make friends by trading items. The native notices the crew's helicopter and motions for a ride. While in the air the native observes the operation of the chopper, and successfully pilots the machine himself. He then takes Saunders into a cave system where Saunders is shown an enormous cavern with thousands of pictograms, depicting everything from hunting activities to higher math. This is a very hopeful story that makes use of an idea found frequently in Oliver's fiction, which is that you cannot judge the sophistication of a race by the fact that they sometimes use crude tools, live in the open or in primitive dwellings, and dress in skins.

ANY MORE AT HOME LIKE YOU?, 1955, by Chad Oliver, originally published by Ballantine: A geeky looking humanoid named Keith crashlands his saucer in the Hollywood Hills region of L.A. He is scooped up by the LAPD right away and put into the system. Since he is recognized to be an alien because of his ship he is transferred around the system until the State Department gets a hold of him. As he is passed around from agency to agency he slowly begins to tell his story. He is a member of a hyper advanced race of beings that rule a very advanced civilization, and he is an emissary to the newest inductee, Planet Earth. The officials put him in front of the UN where he orders an end to all war and mandates that humans begin to act as one. Right after that he escapes and runs away back to Los Angeles. When he arrives he goes to a well known linguist at UCLA and begs for help. It turns out that Keith is the equivalent of a PhD candidate and he is doing his dissertation on a linguistics issue. The last time Earth was visited was 974 A.D., and he has returned to test his pet theory that a predicted shift from Old English long vowels to diphthong types has occurred. He meant to land in Arizona where nobody would see him and he could conduct his research, but landed in the wrong place. He is also a citizen of a near by planet, and in fact there are many, many civilized worlds out there, but they are too far away from each other for a galactic civilization to be workable. Pretty much everyone in the galaxy does their own thing and leaves everyone else alone. He lied because he was instructed that should he ever be captured, the best thing to do is just tell his captors what they want to hear. After listening to many humans as he was transferred around, he decided he had better either be a conqueror, or an inclusionist, so he made a choice and ran with it. The professor gave him the books that he needed to finish his dissertation, then helped him get back to a distress pickup. One of the funniest stories genre stories I have ever read (though you mileage may vary).

REWRITE MAN, 1957, by Chad Oliver, originally published in MoF&SF: Highly complex story told in a PKD-like voice about a time traveler who alters a man's newspaper everyday in a convoluted plot to convince his wife to leave him and marry someone else. The interloper is from the future and has learned that should the wife produce children with her husband, humanity is doomed to become slaves to a race of supermen, but if she mates with someone else, the meek will have defenders. Very good story that defies description.

THE EDGE OF FOREVER, 1951, by Chad Oliver, originally published in Astounding: This one is even more complex than the last, and again relies on the theme that you can not judge the civilization by any tendency to use primitive technology. In this story humans have been on a planet called Rohan for a few years. They have encountered a local tribe of aborigines who live in huts in the valleys. On this planet storm energy builds in the upper atmosphere for approximately ten years, then all at once over six or eight months just storms like mad. As the next storm approaches the humans prepare for the devastation, and the locals move up to caves. Once the storm hits everything is fine for a few months, then the humans start to develop severe cases of cabin fever. One so affected convinces the leader of the expedition to leave during the storm on urgent business, before the leader learns that he is dealing with a mad man who has access to the nuclear pile back at the base. The leader gets vital help from the locals, who have some big surprises up their sleeves. This one alone also is worth the price of admission.

THE BOY NEXT DOOR, 1951, by Chad Oliver, originally published in MoF&SF: This is a horror story. Ho Hum.

A STAR ABOVE IT, 1955, by Chad Oliver, originally published by Ballantine: Fantastically good time travel story. A temporal researcher who has been allowed to travel back to Mezo America in 1445 to conduct research has bribed a time machine guard in 1885 Arizona to allow him to take 50 head of equus caballus (horse) back with him. Being that this is 80 or so years before Cortes ever comes to the region there will be a massive shift in power by the time he arrives which puts our entire civilization at risk. Wade, an agent tasked with eliminating the problem, conducts lots of background research on the researcher before going on his mission. He is also given very detailed hypnotraining, and disguised as a priest so that he can travel through the region unmolested. When he gets back to Tenotchtitlan and Tlaltelolco he goes to the priests at several temples and tells them that four-footed devils that are coming with demons on their back must be destroyed immediately, then finds the horses themselves and gives them an irritant so that they will behave erratically so that the locals are more likely to fear them and thus kill them. He does not kill them outright because he cannot be sure that they are all in that one paddock, so he wants to turn the locals against them. When he meets the researcher, Hughes, he learns that all his plots have been foreseen and everything he has done so far has been for naught. Hughes' girlfriend gets the drop on him with a shotgun, so Wade has to think fast on his feet. Hughes has done this because he is in love with his girl and they want to have kids, but he does not want to bring a family into an empire that is destined to die a horrible and pathetic death. Always the best reason for this kind of action, this story really is amazing, and the setting is excellently drawn. You really get the feeling that you are walking through Tenotchtitlan and Tlaltelolco as Oliver describes it. Unfortunately Oliver also posits that once changes are made in the past, the universe kind of lops off the changed branches of reality from the tree of time. This is not an unheard of theory, but if it is the way things work, he never explained why the present still existed. Oliver is not a hard SF author, though he certainly has his archeology down, but this hole was just a bit too big for me to see across.

THE MOTHER OF NECESSITY, 1955, by Chad Oliver, originally published by Ballantine: An odd little story where the main character is actually a social system that is modeled after the city state. It actively goes out and destroys our way of life, then moves in to fill the cultural void. Not my favorite.

NIGHT, 1955, by Chad Oliver, originally published by Ballantine: Set on a planet where the average day is 20 years long, three humans have been sent as squatters by big industry. This planet has a race of humanoids on it that have not advanced enough to invent pottery. The Earth government that has allowed the squatters to go to this planet has very strict laws regarding primitive cultures. They may be exploited, but only after being inculcated to our ways slowly and with great oversight. Because mounting an effort like this takes a great deal of time, squatters are sent by industry to make industrial claims to planets where the indigenous races are not very culturally advanced. Two of these squatters are very new, and learn that the third, who has been there for years, has been giving the natives metal axes. They confront the elder squatter, who tells them that he is trying to break the culture, then rebuild it into something that can withstand the onslaught that is coming. He wants to make sure that in 30 or 50 years when we get there, they are sophisticated enough to deal with the con-artists and businessmen who are coming to make money, and will not fall to the same fate of native Americans.

TECHNICAL ADVISOR, 1953, by Chad Oliver, originally published in MoF&SF: Story with an ironic twist about a consultant to the movie industry who agrees to do a SF show about Martians using the Moon as a base for attacking Earth. The main consultant convinces the production team to film on the Moon. The production moves to the Moon, where the main consultant captures the whole team and takes them to his real home, Mars. There they will be put to work in the Martian entertainment industry consulting on a TV show about Earth.

BETWEEN THE THUNDER AND THE SUN, 1957, by Chad Oliver, originally published in MoF&SF: Dr. Shaffer has been contacted by the UN Extraterrestrial Office about a secret planet where life has been found. The civilization there is primitive, so according to UN law we are not allowed to interfere with them at all. However, on one continent we have learned that a scourage is starting that threatens to kill everyone. Teamed up with a Mexican ecologist, Sandoval, Shaffer is sent on an undercover mission to help, then get out. The team is allowed to take their wives because the trip will be so long. They are sent on a military ship where the command is also allowed to take wives, but because of the inclusion of the team and equipment in the limited space of the ship, the crew could not bring theirs. When the team arrives they learn that the main race of farmers on that continent have been over-farming their land, which has led to soil damage, erosion, and destruction of water sheds. Sandoval and Shaffer begin their work of gradually getting the natives trust, then working with them to repair the ecological damage. While they are running their project the crew gets the itch and goes into the city and rape a few local women for relief. Shaffer goes to the admiral for help controlling his men, but is rebuffed. The admiral knows that his men need this, and since they have a shortage of women, he does not try to control them. This begins a series of conflicts that spiral out of control when two crew members, drunk, rape and murder a chief's daughter. The natives pick up their torches and advance on the ship. It does not end well for the locals, as the admiral is forced to shoot them all. This story is about how even with the best intentions, strong cultures can still destroy weaker ones.

TRANSFUSION, 1959, by Chad Oliver, originally published in Astounding: Ben Hazard, a member of an archaeological team, has been given access to a time machine. He uses it to travel back in time to observe progenitors of man in situ, but is shocked that he is never able to find any. In fact, he is also not able to find any fossils. His team systematically checks going backwards in time, and learns that 25,000 years ago a space craft unloaded 50 males and 50 females in France, and presumably in other parts of the world too. They also buried fossils in the appropriate locations that correspond with where we find them starting in the 1860's. This story is loaded with cliche, but is still very well written and is pretty interesting. I'm holding back here; there is plenty more to read.

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY, 1959, by Chad Oliver, originally published in MoF&SF: A fly fisherman who owns some rental cabins in Elkhorn Valley notices that someone is burning down all the newer structures in town systematically. At the same time, fishing has gotten very tough in his town. One day he gets a letter from a competitor a few towns over with pictures boasting of excellent fishing. The fisherman goes to the river to fish and think, and encounters an alien fishing in the stream. He talks to the alien who invites him to his ship, where he meets a bunch of other aliens, all of whom are on a vacation fly fishing trip. He learns that they are in love with his town, and are not only fishing the streams dry, but burning all the new "ugly" structures to keep the town exactly the way it was. Worried about his future, he shows them the picture of the enormous fish and tells them how beautiful it is on the other side of the mountain. Winking to himself, the fisherman knows that the one thing a fisherman cannot stand is knowledge that someone has a better spot than them. Of course, they clear out quickly.

GUARDIAN SPIRIT, 1958, by Chad Oliver, originally published in MoF&SF: Absolutely amazing story that is worth the purchase of the rest of the book. Hell, both volumes! Two men, Arthur, an anthropologist and his botanist team mate are sent for a two year trip to a previously unexplored planet around Pollux. The first night they are there they hide and watch the natives at a festival where an adult male burns himself to death on a bonfire. The next day they visit the tribe with gifts of sewing machines, portable steam engines and firearms. None of the natives are impressed. Arthur settles down to figure out why they don't want these labor saving devices, and notices that the tribe has no children, no aged, no shamans, no sickness, no oral histories, no hero myths, and they refuse all attempts to influence them. They do have a form of ancestor worship, and revere what they call the Old Ones. A few months later the tribe picks up to move south with the herds that they hunt. As time goes by Arthur becomes more and more confused, but gradually starts falling in love with the tribe's lifestyle, lamenting his outsider status. Arthur eventually figures out that the tribe is immortal. In a tribe of immortals the most important cultural trait has to be consistency, because only a rigidly maintained balance will keep the tribes alive through the years. For example, if a bow an arrow is all that is needed, and a rifle will tilt the balance of power among various tribes, then who will want a rifle? What strikes Arthur hardest is that the tribes, who he presumed to be primitive, know this, and resist urges to acquire cool new gadgets that they know will destroy their way of life. Arthur continues to live with the tribe and is eventually told that if he wants to escape his feelings of loneliness and separateness, he will have to go up to Thunder Rock and wait for four days without eating, then speak with the Old Ones. He does so, and acquires not only acceptance by the tribe, but a guardian spirit that goes everywhere with him and gives him advice. This is an incredible story with a great reversal in it. Arthur came to Pollux V to tempt a primitive civilization and winds up realizing that non only is the tribe more sophisticated than he, but that they are happier, so he goes native.

THE GIFT, 1974, by Chad Oliver, originally published by Doubleday: A colony of humans live under a large, opaque metal dome on a colony world. Right after they landed some ventured out from their dome and were caught and eaten by the humanoid natives, who have an iron age culture. Thirty years before the story started, contact from Earth was cut off abruptly for unknown reasons. It has never been reestablished, and following vessels have stopped. The colony has started to die out, as they are stagnating under the dome. A totalitarian regime has found its way to power, and the government strives to keep curiosity about the world outside the dome down to a minimum, and uses a combination of oppressive measures and propaganda to do so. However, the government takes care of everyone, and provides comfort, security and safety. An old man, the head of an underground resistance, convinces his son to leave the dome by a secret exit and see what is out there. The son works up his courage and does so. Once outside he finds a very old woman in a field, dying. He wins her trust and picks her up an takes her back to her tribe by following smoke rising from cooking fires. The tribe is grateful for what he has done, and gradually accepts him into their ranks. The boy goes back and forth between the domed city and the wilderness, and compares the two culture's virtues and drawbacks, and eventually realizes that the only way for him to survive not only is to leave the dying city, but to take all the youths with him and build a new culture and race with the natives. This very good story is about the plasticity of culture and is a very loose metaphor for re-birth. On a more anthropological level its about how an advanced culture and a "primitive" culture each have something to offer one another.

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN, 1981, by Chad Oliver, originally published by Ace: An anthropologist is in Kenya with a team, studying the Kwaruna, the last hunter/gatherer tribe in the world. They prepare and have a feast and the next day the government sends trucks to move the tribe to farms. Not my favorite.

A STICK FOR HARRY EDDINGTON, 1965, by Chad Oliver, originally published in MoF&SF: In exchange for 3/4 of his wealth, the remainder for his family only, a very wealthy man contracts with a company to exchange his consciousness with that of a member of a primitive tribe somewhere in the world. Eddington, the man, hates his boring life, his young and cold wife, and feels completely washed up at the age of 51. At the end of the story a plot is revealed.

OLD FOUR EYES, 1989, by Chad Oliver, originally published by George Zebrowski: Interesting story about a down on his luck reporter who is about to be evicted from his tar-paper shack that is now surrounded by multi-million dollar homes, as he meets an intelligent rodent that has never been discovered before.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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