Way of the Pilgrim by Gordon R Dickson

February 17, 2010 at 4:25 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

I never thought about it much, but Earth under alien dominion, as a setting, is really underused in science fiction, especially compared to the unceasing barrage of post-apocalypse books, TV shows, and movies.  Not only does it have a visceral punch, it’s useful for examining imperialism, the right to governance, and other themes which are certainly not uncommon.  Perhaps John W. Campbell’s preference for stories that exalted rather than humbled humanity is to blame, but if so he’s exerted even more of a lasting influence than I would have thought.

Anyway, Way of the Pilgrim bucks the trend and is set on near-future Earth a few years after its conquest by an alien species called the Aalang.  Only a few Aalang live on Earth, but their vast technological superiority makes their rule absolute.  The main character is a linguistic savant who is valued for his rare ability to cope with the difficult Aalang language.  He works as a “courier-translator” for the Aalang’s planetary governor.  In this role, he works unusually closely with the aliens and thus, more than just about any other human, understands their culture, respects their strengths, and fears their power.  He also hates them, and this slowly overcomes his fear and turns him to rebellion.

As a psychological invention, Dickson’s Aalang are very interesting, far more believably alien than most.  They see their subject races, including humans, as qualitatively inferior.  Their word for human is invariably translated into English as “beast”.  This is obviously galling, but in their favor, Aalang society has almost no crime, no dissent, and little inefficiency.  Needless to say, they were not impressed with the human society they found on Earth.  Aalang believe their obvious superiority gives them the right to rule, and that their rule is in fact benevolent.  The book doesn’t spend a lot of time on this allegation, though it paints a picture of a very orderly Earth free of the violent and the destitute.  Of course, this improvement was achieved by stamping out much of human culture, as well.  As cattle humans are useful only insomuch as they can meet the Aalang’s prodigious industrial needs, so they have little need of culture.

Despite their technology and social organization, the Aalang are very inflexible and frequently seem incapable of abstraction.  It’s hard to believe such an unimaginative people could have made so much technological progress, but there are intriguing hints that the Aalang weren’t always this way.  Long ago their homeworld was conquered by an alien race, and they have dedicated themselves to its reconquest at any cost.  Over the millennia, it seems, they have purged anything that doesn’t contribute to that goal.  I thought that was a particularly interesting aspect of the book’s world, how this conquered race had weaponized themselves down to their own psychology, so that if they ever reconquered their home they wouldn’t know what to do with it, but unfortunately Dickson isn’t too interested in this.

Most of the book is centered around the psychological journey of the main character, Shane, as he continues working for the Aalang while secretly fomenting rebellion.  And this is where the book runs into trouble.  Shane is, to be blunt, a gigantic jerk.  I initially hoped that this was a result of his close contact with the aliens.  Perhaps his immersion into Aalang thought has cost him his ability to relate to fellow humans?  Alas, no, the book ends up attributing it to his pre-invasion childhood.  Over the course of the book, Shane grows as a person until, by the end, he’s still arrogant and verbally abusive but he feels bad when other people die.  I’m afraid I needed a little more progress than that before I could root for him the way the book expects me to.

Even worse is the book’s approach to romance.  Dickson was born in 1923 and, well, he employs some very old-fashioned patterns.  Shane sees a pretty young woman in trouble and, probably because she’s attractive, risks his own life to save her.  Needless to say, they fall in love.  She spends the book looking nice and serving as motivation, since at the beginning of the book Shane doesn’t care about liberating humanity, but otherwise has little to do.  When they talk, she frequently calls Shane out for being a jerk, which makes it seem like she “loves” him out of some obligation since her life was saved.

At the end of the book, Dickson succumbs to a common SF failing of pulling a totally new and implausible metaphysical idea out of nowhere and expecting this to provide a satisfying ending.  I’ve read so many books whose endings are sabotaged this way I can’t fault him too much for it, but it was still disappointing, especially given how convincing the earlier psychology had been.

If you’re interested in portrayals of alien culture and thought that are successful in portraying non-human thinking, this is worth reading, but most will probably do better elsewhere.


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  1. Aalaag, not Aalang

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