Unearthly Neighbors: A hugely satisfying novel of first contact

Unearthly Neighbors by Chad Oliver science fiction book reviewsUnearthly Neighbors by Chad Oliver

The conventional wisdom for aspiring writers has long been “Write what you know,” a piece of advice that Cincinnati-born author Chad Oliver apparently took to heart. Greatly interested in the field of anthropology, Oliver, over the course of seven novels stretching from 1952 – ’76, as well as four collections of short stories, eventually carved out a place for himself as one of the leading lights in that curious subgenre known as anthropological science fiction. And the author was hardly a dabbler in his chosen scholarly field. In 1961, he wrote a doctoral thesis (under his real name, Symmes Chadwick Oliver) entitled Ecology and Cultural Continuity as Contributing Factors in the Social Organization of the Plains Indians (you can purchase it in book form on Amazon, if that title doesn’t intimidate you too much!); his textbook The Discovery of Humanity: An Introduction to Anthropology is widely regarded; and he ultimately became the chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. To be succinct, the man knew his field. And happily, as I’ve just discovered after reading my first piece of Oliver fiction, the man could spin a wonderful yarn, as well.

The book in question, Unearthly Neighbors, was the author’s fourth novel, and was initially released as a 35-cent Ballantine paperback in 1960, when Oliver turned 32. The edition that I was fortunate enough to acquire was the Crown Classics volume from 1984; one of the cute little hardcover books comprising its Classics of Modern Science Fiction series. For this first hardcover edition of Unearthly Neighbors, Oliver made some changes to the first three chapters (mainly to eliminate some inadvertently sexist elements, he tells us in the afterword), and the result is the definitive edition of this classic tale of “first contact.”

In the book, the reader makes the acquaintance of an anthropology professor in Colorado named Monte Stewart. Stewart’s comfortable life is given an abrupt jolt one evening when he is told by a U.N. representative that a humanoid life form has finally been discovered, on the ninth planet of the “nearby” star Sirius. Stewart is asked if he might be interested in forming a team to make Earth’s first contact with an extraterrestrial people, an opportunity that Stewart naturally jumps on. Thus, with his anthropologist wife and six others (an archaeologist, a linguist, etc.), the team makes the 11-month trip to Sirius, and finally alights on a new world.

But making that initial contact proves anything but simple for the eight scientists. Although the residents of Sirius 9 look vaguely like Earthmen (with the exception of their overly large jaws and extra-long arms, with which they brachiate among the trees), they have produced nothing in the way of artifacts — no tools, no weapons, no buildings, nothing — and evince absolutely zero interest in communicating with the Earthfolk. Before long, three of the scientists lie dead, killed by the natives’ wolf-like pets as the result of a misunderstanding, and a grief-stricken Monte wonders whether or not a rapprochement can ever be reached with this most aloof of peoples. But the anthropologist perseveres, and his attempts to get to know the so-called Merdosi, and to effect a breakthrough of sorts with them, comprise the bulk of this beautifully written novel.

Unearthly Neighbors is a very realistic book, and indeed, author Frederik Pohl, in his 1960 review, was compelled to write that “few … have been as able as Oliver to convince us that this is the way first contact is going to be.” The mere fact that the 8.5-light-year transit from Earth to Sirius 9 takes all of 11 months, even with the ship’s “hyperspace field,” alone clues the reader in that this is not a novel of whizbang space opera, but a sober look into Earth’s possible near future. Other realistic touches: The space journey, rather than being a marvel, is revealed to be one of great tedium; the weapons that our Earth crew employs are merely shotguns (no ray guns in this novel!); the world of the Merdosi is remarkably similar to ours; and the four deaths of Monte’s companions (and of one Merdosi, as well) are unfailingly shocking. As for our “leading man,” Monte, he makes for a hugely likable Everyman character, but with his unkempt beard and slight build, he is hardly the picture of the traditional hero.

Monte gives the book its rich vein of what I can only call warm humanism, as he reflects on such things as how being sick and then getting well is “perhaps the oldest and most fundamental of all human joys,” and as he thinks to himself that a bath is “one of the great unappreciated blessings of civilization.” Monte is the one who also gets to pose the novel’s big questions, such as: How can I communicate with an alien when I don’t even fully understand myself? Does being an alien imply being only physically different, or isn’t it more a matter of a difference in basic ways of thought? Must one resort to violence, even when the provocation is great? Is blind retaliation ever justified? And, most significantly, where does an intelligent ape leave off and a primitive man begin? (The front-cover blurb on that original Ballantine edition ran “Inferior Man or Super Apes?”) Monte makes for a wonderful character, and the reader’s sympathies are squarely with him, even when he commits one hugely surprising act of violence near the novel’s midpoint.

Unearthly Neighbors (the title was apparently supplied by the publisher; Oliver’s original title for his book was Shoulder the Sky, which suggests a greater sense of the weighty responsibility taken on by Monte and his mates), as mentioned, is a beautifully written work. Oliver employs plain, simple language here, often using short, incantatory sentences, a la Philip K. Dick. The atmosphere in the book is marvelous, and the reader is made to fully sense the alien planet, to feel the blistering heat of Sirius as well as the tug of the world’s greater gravity. The Merdosi truly are an alien people, not because they look a bit different, but rather because they THINK differently. Ultimately, the book is a hopeful and optimistic one, in the finest tradition of Star Trek, as the people of two worlds work together to bridge a chasm almost as great as all those light-years. I was left very satisfied by Chad Oliver’s work here, so much so that I have already picked up a few more of the author’s novels (1954’s Shadows in the Sun and 1971’s The Shores of Another Sea, both in mini-hardcovers as part of Crown Classics’ series) to read one day soon. As Scottish critic David Pringle has said, “Oliver is underrated,” as any reader who experiences Unearthly Neighbors will most likely agree…

Published in 1960. Monte Stewart was an extremely intelligent, somewhat contentious anthropologist with a sense of humor and a nonconformist approach to life. As an expert in his field, he was chosen to approach the first apparently human-like form of life ever to be encountered on another planet. Here was the chance he had been waiting for all his life – an opportunity to make contact, to investigate, to ascertain the facts about an altogether new man-like species, with the added knowledge that the peace of the worlds depended upon the establishment of friendly relations. But Stewart and his team of experts couldn’t get to first base. They tried for weeks – then vicious unreasoned tragedy struck their camp. What had gone wrong? Who were these ‘people’? Why had they attacked the humans? Stewart had failed in his mission; but for his own peace of mind he had to discover the answers, and he had to do it alone.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. This sounds wonderfully thoughtful and mature in his handling of human-alien contact, which makes sense when I consider Oliver’s background in anthropology.

    • sandy ferber /

      “Thoughtful and mature”…wish I’D said that….

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