A couple of years ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing more than 75 vintage science-fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 67.
Even before its release, Avatar was pelted by accusations that it borrows too liberally from others’ work. That invariably happens when any movie enjoys the sort of success James Cameron’s film has enjoyed, but the list of supposed sources seemed a little longer with Avatar than usual. I have considerable problems with Avatar, but its lack of originality doesn’t bother me.
For starters, I think originality gets mislabeled and a bit overvalued. Whether storytellers mean to or not, they usually end up offering another of the infinite variations on a finite number of stories, and with good reason. Here’s a thought exercise: Would you rather watch a well-done movie about a cop investigating a crime that isn’t what it seems, or one about a super-intelligent muskrat who translates Homeric verse, communicates with the ghost of Abe Lincoln, and can teleport to the moon? One has been done many times and lends itself to repetition because of its persistent resonance. The other not at all, and with good reason: It’s a new idea, but it stinks. Often, creators accused of unoriginality have just hung clichéd elements off a reliable structure. (That essentially is my problem with Avatar, but that’s an argument for another time.)
In creating Avatar, Cameron clearly cast his mind back to the science-fiction adventures that made him fall in love with the genre in the first place. Which brings us to Naked To The Stars by Gordon R. Dickson. Dickson’s name ought to be familiar to anyone who’s ever scanned a bookstore’s science-fiction shelf, if only because he’s always there. The super-prolific Minnesota author wrote more than 80 novels and 200 short stories, according to his 2001 obituary in The Guardian. He also kept busy through his final years, dreaming up other worlds as his lifelong struggle with asthma kept him housebound. Winning popularity and acclaim, Dickson won Hugos, served as the president of the Science Fiction Writers Association for a few years, and seemingly never lost his audience, even though his name isn’t one of the first dozen or so rattled off in lists of the genre’s greats.
Since Naked To The Stars is the only Dickson book I’ve read, I’m not sure how it fits into the rest of Dickson’s work. (It isn’t, as its title might suggest, another entry in the Man From Planet X series.) I liked it, though. Set in a near future in which Earth—now unified under a single government and dominated by the military—has set out to conquer the stars, it has a vivid, page-turning quality, some strongly presented themes, and one image I doubt I’ll forget soon.
Cal Truant serves as our hero and window to a time of galactic conquest. A soldier with a soulful streak that doesn’t always work in his professional favor, Truant begins the novel on the planet of the Lehaunan, a small race of furry creatures who have decidedly mixed feelings about humans taking over their planet. Dickson describes the Lehaunan as waist-high humanoid creatures who look like “black-furred raccoon[s].” (You may be picturing Ewoks, like I am; Dickson later co-wrote a series of stories starring the comical Hoka, which some consider a direct influence on George Lucas’ furry imps.) Cal and his fellow soldiers can easily justify Earth’s expansion to the stars, parroting back the imperialist lingo into which they were born. Dickson, on the other hand, clearly doesn’t buy it. The tension between the might-meets-right logic of the world he’s created and Cal’s awakening conscience drives the book.
I’ve never read Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, but I know enough about it via Paul Verhoeven’s movie and second-hand sources to sense that Dickson was playing against Heinlein’s militaristic universe here, a notion the Cambridge Companion To Science Fiction confirms. People and incidents alike contribute to Cal’s growing disillusionment, a change of heart that eventually provokes a galactic crisis and turns him into a terrorist by the book’s end. He’s haunted by memories of his pacifist, bookstore-owning father, whose views made him the victim of a witch hunt. Cal is also frightened by a fellow soldier’s descent into bloodthirsty madness. But mostly, he spends the book gaining the gift of empathy.
Dickson relies on some stock elements, particularly a love interest simply there because the book needs a love interest. And the book doesn’t conclude so much as taper off to an overly preachy end. But Naked To The Stars would still be a subversive gem in the mold of one of Harvey Kurtzman’s war comics for EC—setting up a rip-roaring space adventure and then getting beneath the surface of what such adventures mean—even if it ended after only two chapters.
The opening finds Cal heading to a Lehaunan town in the midst of a delicate truce. He watches as Tack, another soldier, draws a picture of a bunny rabbit for a young Lehaunan who’s been pestering them:
“…a bunny rabbit. See.” Tack was pointing at a sketch he had drawn and put in the young Lehaunan’s hand. “See the ears? Bunny rabbit. Say bunny rabbit.”
“Burr…” said the young Lehaunan. “Burra… brrran—”
Annoyed, Cal chases the furry kid away. He hasn’t seen the last of him, however. Soon, the truce breaks down, forcing Cal to join the fighting that leaves many Lehaunan dead, and one Lehaunan child next to his mother’s corpse:
He was holding a grimy piece of paper out to Cal.
“Burraba…” said the young Lehaunan diffidently.
Cal stared at the scarcely recognizable sketch of a long-eared rabbit on the paper.
“Burr… abbut?” said the young Lehaunan.
There was a coolness on Cal’s face in the blowing wind. He put his fingers to chin and cheek and they came away wet.
Unable to forget that moment of cultural communication gone horribly wrong, Cal experiences a breakdown and has to reenlist and retrain as a communications officer. He takes his memories into his subsequent trip to the planet of the Paumons, another world in the way of Earth’s intergalactic manifest destiny. Eventually, he goes native.
Shades of Avatar? Sure. But I couldn’t tell you whether James Cameron ever read Naked To The Stars. They tell a similar story, but they also draw on a shared tradition of using science fiction to recreate lessons from the past for use in the present out of the material of the future. We can travel to distant lands and take our profits by force, but our souls end up paying a terrible price for our fortunes. The stars shine down on other planets with the same indifference as they do here, but the notions of right and wrong we carry in our hearts travels with us.
The Demon Of Cawnpore, by Jules Verne
“‘A reward of two thousand pounds will be paid to any one who will deliver up, dead or alive, one of the prime movers of the Sepoy revolt, at present known to be in the Bombay presidency, the Nabob Dandou Pant, commonly called…’”
Treasure Of The Black Falcon, by John Coleman Burroughs
“On the cold, early morning of September 3, 1947, the giant submarine Ellen Stuart, her engines idling, her propeller stationary, sank quietly into the black, unknown depths of the North Atlantic—carrying thirteen men and a girl upon one of the oldest quests in the world.”