Saturday, April 19, 2014

Bow Down to Nul by Brian W. Aldiss

ISFDB image; cover by Gaughan
My peregrinations around southern Iowa recently brought me to a used bookstore where I found some exciting bargains.  Among these was a copy of Brian Aldiss's Bow Down to Nul, Ace F-382, from 1960.  It is one of those old paperbacks that is a little shorter than most; is there a name for this size?  My copies of Maza of the Moon (also from Ace, F-321) and Preferred Risk (from Dell, R114), are also this odd size.

Science-fiction blog superstar Joachim Boaz has suggested that Bow Down to Nul was not one of Aldiss's more impressive works.  On the back cover I am assured, however, that this is "a great science-fiction novel."  Who to believe?  There was only one way to be sure, and this weekend I read the (relatively short at 140 pages) novel.

The galaxy contains four million civilized worlds.  The nul, a tripedal race, control this vast empire.  A brief prologue in which we meet a disgruntled nul colonial civil service officer, recently sacked from his position on Earth, gives us a glimpse of nul society; the nul are arrogant and their government, including administration of planets like Earth, is increasingly corrupt. 

Back of my copy
Reminding me of the efforts of Cato, Cicero, and Edmund Burke, politicians somewhat more honest and dedicated than the average, to improve the administration of the empires of their days, one of the older nul officials back on the capital planet (two years flight away) gets word of conditions on Earth, and sets out to investigate.
With two years notice, however, the abusive and corrupt commissioner running Earth (perhaps he is supposed to remind us of Julius Caesar, Verres, or Warren Hastings?) has time to build Potemkin villages and bribe and threaten people in hopes of presenting an innaccurate picture of Earth conditions to the investigator.

Our main human characters are the interpreter who finds himself practically a man without a country, suspended between both nuls and humans who seek to dominate or manipulate him, and the head of the human guerrilla resistance.  There are also a bunch of minor characters, including a love interest and lots of humans and nuls who get killed in the course of the skullduggery that makes up so much of the plot of Bow Down to Nul.  One of the interesting things about the novel is how all the characters are either knaves or screw ups; you could see this as a very pessimistic book.  

I actually enjoyed most of Bow Down To Nul; for over 100 pages it is a brisk-paced entertainment with some pedestrian elements, but also some things that are very cool.  The nul are actually pretty interesting aliens.  Ten foot tall hulks who weigh a ton, the nuls' mouths and sex organs are hidden from view.  The nuls are very private, and express little emotion; we are told that there are no nul poets, and that it is common for nuls to not know each others' sex.  Nuls find the human face, which is so expressive, to be disgusting and/or fascinating.  In an effective horror scene we learn that the corrupt ruler of Earth is some kind of pervert who likes to embrace human women and stare at their faces while they recite poetry.  In another, lighter, scene, a nul looks through a museum of human art and the only piece that speaks to him is a piece of linoleum.

Hey, shorty

The setting, the alien race, and the basic plot are good, but in the last third or quarter Aldiss seems to lose control of the story a little. He undercuts the tension of the tale by presenting us with the knowledge that our heroes have survived the crisis, and then telling us how the plot was resolved in a flashback. Some may find it annoying or disappointing that the plot is resolved by a bunch of blunders and coincidences; all the plans everyone has been making and trying to put over fail, and the human rebel leader and the honest nul politician are the biggest screw ups. The corrupt nul is disposed of offscreen.  Maybe Aldiss is trying to say that politics and history are driven not so much by great men as by chance, but it does feel like Aldiss, after working to come up with the aliens and setting, slacked a bit when it came to finishing up his story.

In a "Note from the Author" on the last page of the book Aldiss mentions A. E. van Vogt, saying that he (Aldiss) aims to write simple stories, not complex ones like van Vogt's.  Aldiss, judging by how much he talks about the Canadian author in his history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree, has thought a great deal about van Vogt.  (Besides calling van Vogt "an inspired madman," he suggests there is a chance that George Orwell's 1984 was inspired by Orwell's reading of van Vogt!)

I liked Bow Down to Nul (also published as The Interpreter and at one point as X for Exploitation - none of these titles is actually a very good reflection of what goes on in the book) more than Joachim did.  I liked the aliens, and all the little hints that we are supposed to see the nul empire as being like the Roman or the British empires.  But the book does have some real problems.  I'm giving this one a marginal, maybe moderate, thumbs up.  I wish Aldiss had taken some more time and some more pages to come up with a better ending.     

1 comment:

  1. I could not agree more with your assessment. I really enjoyed the work for the first half at least. And then it the easiest rebellion to dethrone the Nulls EVER!

    Aldiss wrote much better works. And, perhaps, as a 50s novel this is an intriguing work for some academic look at colonialism in SF.