Friday, December 11, 2015

Subtitled: Humanity Can't Be Trusted

It's classical science fiction. I read it in 1969 when I was about 13 years old, but re-reading it now, I realise how much of it was away over my head. Not only has my head changed since then, but so have the times. Yet, the message comes out very clear in a way that only became popular later on: Humanity can't be trusted.

Robert Fairlie is an expert in languages, ancient and modern. He has been asked to help with a project for what he thought was the Smithsonian Institution. Instead, on disembarking at the air terminal, he's picked up and driven to a top secret facility in the New Mexico desert.

I suppose you guessed it -- it's a pre-Neil Armstrong we've-landed-on-the-moon story. On the moon, they made a shocking discovery: someone's been there already. Thousands of years ago, actually. There are the ruins of what was a space port and evidence that it was destroyed in an attack. Enough relics are found to enable scientists to recreate one of their space ships, but no one understands how they work, or where they're from. There's documentation, but in a totally unknown language. Also, voice recordings that play back on a strange machine they happened to find in one piece. That's why Robert Fairlie and other linguists were drafted.

Deciphering a language with no known references is nearly impossible. Almost ready to give up, Robert tries one more idea that has been plaguing him. Some of the syntax of the language reminded him of ancient Sumerian. He follows that lead, and sure enough...

The ancient astronauts are the ancestors of humanity -- Earth humanity, that is. Humans didn't start on Earth. What's more, they locate the original planet of humanity. Now able to read the how-to manuals, they get the ship into working order. The bulk of the narrative is the trip to a planet across the galaxy. Of course, Robert Fairlie has to go along, as someone has to talk to the people there.

One question remains, which is why the project seems so urgent. Who destroyed the base on the moon? Who was the enemy even more advanced and high tech than the ancestors of the Sumerians?

Before it became a Hollywood scriptwriter's cliche, Edmond Hamilton characterised DeWitt as the military heavyweight who's going to run roughshod over any obstacle to American interests. Christensen is the more level headed scientist who knows that there are more important things at stake. If it seems like an old and dusty scenario, give him the benefit. It was a much more fresh and daring thing way to express when Edmond Hamilton wrote it in 1960. When I first read it, America was still the good guy, playing the hero in Vietnam, "with God on our side". Military men were always depicted as knights in shining armour. Think John Wayne. Contrary to one of the other reviews I've read on the Amazon review page, it wasn't a tired cliche when Hamilton wrote it.

As it is, Hamilton presented a very well narrated story of human imperialism then and now. Who destroyed the base on the moon? Someone who knew that humanity couldn't be trusted.

No comments: