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 73.
First off, for those playing along at home, no, you didn’t miss a column. I swapped the order for None But Man and The Duplicated Man. Why? I messed up. Sorry. Sorry too for taking a couple of weeks off. Vacation beckoned. But now I’m back and reading away as we near this column’s final days. It’s probably okay that I’ll be reaching the bottom of the box soon. The few books remaining are mostly titles I’ve put off reading for one reason or another. More troublingly, I’m finding that the pleasure of the project is getting spread a little thin as I hit the same authors, and the same sorts of stories, again and again.
For instance, I largely enjoyed Gordon R. Dickson’s Naked To The Stars, a book at least partly about how cultural misunderstandings can lead to war. And here he is again with None But Man, another novel partly about how cultural misunderstandings lead to war. Only it’s longer than Naked To The Stars, and not as good. (It also has a less-silly title, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Actually, I should clarify something I said above. None But Man is pretty much exclusively about how cultural misunderstandings lead to war. The opening chapter plants the seed of a mystery concerning the motives and plans of an alien race, and it isn’t resolved until the closing chapter. It’s a neat mystery, too, and the moments between the novel’s opening and closing that deal with it are compelling. But there’s a whole lot of other stuff in between that makes the book a slog.
Let’s start with the mystery. At the edge of the known universe, humans have established a series of colonies on worlds abandoned by aliens known as the Moldaug. Though the Moldaug called it quits, at least for a while, colonists live at odds with the Old Worlders of Earth, and the book opens in the wake of a long period of civil unrest. Some of it was even caused by the book’s hero, the oddly named Cully When. A former space pirate with revolutionary sympathies, Cully is trying to settle down as the novel opens. Only the galactic situation won’t let him. Taken into custody by Old Worlders fearing a colonial revolt, Cully learns that the Moldaug have decided to make a claim on their old planets. What’s worse, the Old World powers-that-be, led by Cully’s ex-girlfriend’s dad, may give it to them in the interest of avoiding a fight—and in order to put to rest fears that the Frontier Worlders, as they’re known, will turn on their Old World brothers and sisters.
So what’s really going on? The Moldaugs’ motives for reclaiming their old turf lie at the heart of the mystery. But to discern them, Cully will have to break out of jail, steal a spaceship, fight a rival among the Frontier Worlders, engage in fraud and deception, and then, in the book’s climax, have a long conversation. It’s almost perverse the way Dickson packs all the action into the middle of the book, then ends it with a long discussion of cultural misunderstandings. I wound up thinking of the recent Romanian film Police, Adjective, which climaxes with (spoiler?) a police officer being forced to look up words in a dictionary. (On the other hand, Police, Adjective has none of the to-the-death knife battles of Dickson’s book, much to the frustration of some viewers. But that’s a discussion for another column.)
The reasons behind their reclamation are too complicated to get into here, but they go down to the roots of their culture. Where Earth culture is grounded in notions of right and wrong, Moldaug culture depends on notions of respectability. Dickson throws in a character who explains these differences at length whenever necessary. Though his named Will, he might as well be called Basil Exposition, since he serves no other function. Then again, simply knowing stuff sets him apart from the other characters, none of whom are particularly well-developed.
Most of what Will knows comes from a real book called The Silent Language, written by American anthropologist Edward T. Hall. (Dickson has Will cite him by name, and thanks him in None But Man’s dedication.) Hall focused on communication across cultures, and how the letter and the spirit of communication aren’t always in synch. Citing an example from Hall’s book, Will tells the story of a Southwestern town whose residents were largely of Spanish descent, and whose approach to law enforcement puzzled and enraged visitors of Anglo-American heritage. Short version: The Spanish-American police were adamant about enforcing a speed limit, but lax in administering punishment to their friends and neighbors. Anglo-Americans were quick to disregard the speed limit, surprised to find it enforced, and appalled to see it punished with such laxity. The law is the same, but the two cultures’ attitudes toward it were markedly different.
None But Man blows that notion up to the size of a galaxy. Neat idea, and so’s the final twist: The Moldaug never really wanted the planets back, but felt compelled to claim them by the demands of respectability. But the execution comes up short. Dickson’s prose is functional over brief stretches, but it becomes a drag at book length, and by the time the book arrives at its it-was-all-a-big-misunderstanding punchline, what should feel like a big revelation reads instead like an anticlimax. I’ve discovered that some books get forgotten for a reason. The exceptions have made this project worthwhile. This wasn’t one of them.
The Duplicated Man by James Blish and Robert Lowndes
“The sky was fair that day; but for Earthmen, the fairest skies were foul, so long as they held the threat of demolition-bombs coming at random—aimed at nothing and no one in particular, but at everything and everyone in general.”
World Of Ptavvs by Larry Niven
“There was a moment so short that it had never been successfully measured, yet always far too long.”