Oliver, THE WINDS OF TIME

This science fiction novel, from 1957, is by an author known for anthropologically informed works; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chad_Oliver.

(The edition I read, the only edition I have, is a 1975 Avon Equinox trade paperback, one of its “SF Rediscovery” series that ran some 27 volumes. (http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pubseries.cgi?4). Alas, I didn’t acquire all of them, but I do have at least half of them. Page references are to that edition.)

The novel opens as a contemporary man, Weston Chase, is caught in a storm in the Colorado mountains and stumbles into a cave occupied by, as it turns out, an alien being, Arvon, who has hibernated in this cave, along with four associates, for thousands or millions of years.

A huge chunk of the middle of the book is devoted to Arvon’s tale. (In a recurring plot crutch of SF novels of this era, the aliens quickly learn English, rather than human characters learning the alien language or pretending that some kind of translation device exists.) Arvon tells about his ship, the Good Hope, that traveled through ‘not-space’ using a ‘distortion field’, from the planet Lortas, with a crew of nine. Their mission was to find other planets and other species whom they might connect with. Their own culture has peaked, and they need others to contact, to learn from and grow. But again and again, they’ve found only three types of natives on other planets: primitives in the Stone Age; pre-industrial, war-like cultures; or technological cultures that have blown themselves up. He describes having landed on a planet of Alpha Centauri, and finding only a dead city, overwhelmed with sand.

Their next try took them to Earth. But their field drive failed and their ship was wrecked. And so they used their ‘sleeping technology’ to wait thousands of years until, perhaps, a technological society might emerge on this planet. There are some vivid scenes depicting their encounter, in what is later called Asian, with local tribes, before the survivors’ retreat into a cave…

And so in the present Weston Chase is faced with trying to help these aliens build a spaceship to return to their own planet, here in 1956 America. They head for Los Angeles, and..

(spoilers follow)

Chase, still nominally a captive, is cooperative, but the surviving aliens soon survey LA and decide their cause is hopeless; the technology doesn’t exist to build the spaceship they need. They release Wes, who returns to his home to find his wife has given him up and taken up with another man. With nothing left of his old life, Wes gets an idea: using the aliens’ sleep serum, he convinces them all to go back into sleep, himself included, and wait. He knows Earth won’t blow itself up. And so thousands of years later they all awake, emerge, and see a gigantic spaceship flying overhead. They made it, he’s still young, and still has time.

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The overriding concern here is about whether an advanced industrial society will blow itself up or not. This was a grave concern in the 1950s, only a decade or so after Hiroshima, and though the Cold War has passed, that concern hasn’t gone completely away. It’s an obvious answer to the Fermi Paradox—if planets and presumably life are so common, why haven’t we met, or at least heard from or seen evidence of, other intelligent species? Well maybe because they all blow themselves up, within a time-scale that makes coexistence of intelligent species over billions of years unlikely. Indeed, some current thinkers aren’t sanguine about humanity’s future; Harari, e.g., thinks we might have only another 1000 years, and sooner than that the effect of climate change might curtail continued technological development by its survivors.

As science fiction, this book is all too typical of the way aliens are depicted in most early science fiction, and in some varieties of ‘space opera’ to this day. They act and sound just like humans. The play similar roles: captain, navigator, novelist, anthropologist, etc. Their ship has a library, and even a bar, on board. SF has only rarely tried to imagine truly alien beings, but the standard of aliens as just like humans except for funny clothes or facial features has become entrenched in popular culture via Star Trek and Star Wars. Indeed, reading some of these 1950s SF novels, as I’ve been, it’s been startling to see how exactly the clichés of that era inspired Trek and Wars in the ‘60s and ‘70s and have become unshakeable decades later.

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Other interesting notes and quotes:

  • The aliens’ reasoning about the plausibility of other intelligent races, referring to themselves and equivalent creatures as ‘men’ and ‘human beings’, p48-9: “Man was not a rare animal in the universe, and it was the height of egotism to imagine that he was. All isolated peoples believe that they are the only human begins in the world, and when a planet thinks itself alone, before the ships go out into space, it is difficult for the people on that planet to conceive of other human beings elsewhere among the stars…  It was not that man was foreordained, built in from the beginning. It was simply that the evolution of intelligence, of the ability to develop culturally, necessarily proceeding along the road of trial and error, change and modification. A culture-bearing animal had to be warm-blooded, for he needed the energy, he had to be big-brained, he had to have free hands and specialized feet. A manlike form was the mechanical answer to one trend of evolution, and if conditions permitted he came along sooner or later.”
  • There’s also a clever line of reasoning, p74, about the wisdom of finding a cave to hide in. The aliens came down in Asia, but decide to hole up in what was then a mostly empty continent, in Colordao. “He pointed again to Europe. ‘One day, when ships get good enough, men with a fairly complex culture will cross this ocean here, or possibly the other one; it doesn’t matter. They’ll find a virtually untouched land, and they’ll take it from its original settler. Then that area will boom, and that’s where you’ll want to be.”
  • There’s quite a bit of detail at the end about Los Angeles, covered with “a gray pall of fog, mist, smoke, and that special urban effluvium called smog” p127. Union Station, Hollywood Freeway, Sunset Boulevard, Beverly Glen, UCLA, Santa Monica. The opening of the story, p16, mentions Chase’s “home on Beverly Glen off Sunset” and his “Westwood office.” Oliver seems to have known LA, and the Colorado mountains, fairly well.
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