Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Exiles on Asperus

Exiles on Asperus - John Wyndham

Aahh, some good old fashioned Boy's Own tales; ray guns and alien races; life on Mars and Venus and elsewhere; the future foretold. This is a collection of three stories from Day of the Triffids author John Wyndham. Two, Exiles on Asperus and The Venus Adventure, from the early thirties and the other, No Place Like Earth, from 1951.

The stories all look askance at the human race, using the horrors perpetrated in the name of colonialism as a model for how we will behave in space. The alien races are all far more moral than they are depicted. In Exiles on Asperus, Sen-Su, leader of the Martian revolution says: "They have made quite a bogy of me on Earth; I assure you they exaggerate. It has been Governmental policy to malign me - Governments have to create thorough-going villains. In private life we should call them liars, but in public life they are propagandists."

We also meet, on Asperus, a species of alien not unlike large bats called the Batrachs who at first seem to simply swarm like insects and to have no moral sense. However, they prove to be highly intelligent and their use of behavioural modification and aversion therapy to manipulate humans foreshadows A Clockwork Orange. Their development has been hindered by the awkwardness of their limbs rather than any lack of intelligence and the story raises philosophical questions about our treatment of the animals we share Earth with.

The Venus Adventure tells the story of a evangelist who believes that the end of the world is nigh. He convinces one of the world's richest men to fund the building of an 'ark' and they escape the impending doom by heading to Venus. Hundreds of years later an adventurer sets out for Venus and finds that the humans have split into two factions who have become very different over the years. One has tried to hang on to their knowledge and civilization while the others have followed the creed of the preacher - "What's naturals right" - in a way echoed more recently in Pol Pot's Cambodia. This creed and interbreeding from a small population base has created a group who are inbred and vicious. When travelers from Earth arrive, proving that the Earth didn't come to an end, they are seen as blasphemers.

The later story adds the fear that the end of the world may be nigh as the few remaining humans on Mars can look into the sky and see "millions of fragments which now circled the sun as an inner asteroid belt." The Earth has been rendered thus "by accident, carelessness or irresponsibility." The narrator starts "to see himself and the other Earthmen with something like Martian eyes - as neurotic, acquisitive, and with values which were sometimes suspect. He had begun to wonder whether 'drive' was always the virtue he had been taught it was - whether it might not sometimes be the expression of instability or poor integration."

These stories are pulp fiction at its best, using the skeleton of the story to deliver philosophic ideas and to speculate on what may come to pass. There may not be an atmosphere on Mars or Venus that can support life but in terms of how humans continue to mistreat each other and the planet they live on these stories are smack on the button.

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