Book Review and Analysis: Alien Planet (1932)
by Fletcher Pratt
If you'd rather not read my review, I have a review on my Booktube Channel!
A commendable effort for its time (90 years ago), but today this novel reads as dry, slow, and unremarkable.
Plot Alien Planet is a found-text story recounted by a man named Alvin Schierstedt explaining his journey with an alien to the alien’s homeworld.
The novel is frustrating in many ways. Alvin gets no character development what-so-ever and the alien, Ashembe, even less so. I believe that Pratt was convinced that the readers would be so blown away by the fantastical elements of the story that he didn’t need to include much character development. I can’t tell you a single thing about Alvin other than he’s a bondsman and likes taking his summer vacations on the lake. He has no personality, and there’s no mention of a family, his upbringing, or anything really. Ashembe is laughably bland for an alien. He looks like a typical white dude but with a bald head. I mean, sure, convergent evolution is a thing, but this is ridiculous. On the cover, there are multi-legged aliens. These do not feature in the story. What a let-down. Most of the novel involves scientifically dated (or implausible) descriptions of technology and way too much telling and not showing. We learn everything about the aliens’ social structure and culture from what Ashembe tells Alvin, not from Alvin’s experiences.
What I did like were the various planets albeit as improbably (and inaccurate) as they were. And Pratt clearly put a lot of effort into trying to be realistic; it’s not his fault he was born on the wrong side of the fin de siecle.
And the ending? In truth, I liked it, because it was unexpected. It did feel like the author wasn’t sure how to end it though.
While I didn’t dislike this novel, it was very dull with few redeemable qualities.
2 / 5 Cometary Cars!
There's a lot of science and technology in this book. I’m not going to get into all the ways the science was wrong, right, or semi-correct; there’s just too much, but I will talk about a few of the gadgets. I will say that Venus does not have any swamps on it. The parts on Venus and Mercury were ridiculous and somehow boring.
Tensal Helmet - if Ashembe listens to things while he sleeps while wearing it, he learns them. The footnote says this was based on a real study at Pensacola on naval officers, teaching them radio.
3-D Chess! I wonder if Gene Roddenberry read this novel? According to Pratt, it requires a “super mathematician” to play. There’s a footnote where Pratt claims that there were pages about how to play but they would be of “no possible interest” to the reader. Yeah, ok, nice excuse.
Shoraru - This is the ship. I have no idea what it looks like. Alvin says it’s curved, but I don’t understand how Ashembe built it out of next to nothing. It goes 16 times the speed of light, apparently.
There’s also the typical old school sci-fi tech focuses: a "heat ray" (plasma gun), food producers, zoom calls, etc
Analysis - Here be Spoilers!
It’s clear this novel was attempting some sort of social commentary, but it’s not entirely consistent in its message. It doesn’t appear that the aliens have a society that’s any better than that of the Western world (I mean, maybe it’s a little better than 1920 when the book is set).
There is a blatant critique of capitalism conflicting with democracy, which is valid. It’s even more relevant during the 30s, right after the Great Depression.
But then Ashembe explains how his culture assesses children for malevolent intent and executes ones who don’t conform. I’m not really sure what argument this is supposed to be, or who it is for, unless it’s some sort of satire.
The aliens are pretty much atheists. There’s a funny part where Ashembe confuses Alvin’s explanation of Christmas (our great religious festival” - very inclusive, Alvin) as a “heliocentric solar worship marking the turn of the year”.
I think what he’s trying to say, if he’s even trying to make a statement, is that there are no perfect societies, that even those that appear to be perfect and orderly have flaws and hidden dark sectors. I'm more inclined to believe that he was trying to think up something outlandish and this was what he came up with.
There’s only one woman in the whole book (ok, there are two more, but they don’t speak and are on the page for all of three sentences). She shows up on page 124 of 188. Her name is Tandanu Kabu (so she gets a name at least). Of course, he rescues her (more than once) though she does assist him. As such, she wants to have his kid. She has sexual agency and it doesn’t appear women are vilified for sex out of wedlock like on earth at that time. Ashembe explains that “if they have children while in the hunting ground, the responsibility is their own. But in cases where it happens, the mother is nearly always of a high type fitted for a lofty administrative or scientific position, and receives due credit for her courage.”
And in Ashembe’s society, men and women, according to him, are equal and “women are in all professions”. But other than two women on the science council (who don't speak) and the two women at the party (who don't speak), we don’t see a lot of women anywhere else. All the aliens Alvin talks to are men, as are most of the background characters. So, it was what I expected for a novel from this time period, but at least the alien society claims to be equal.
There are no people of colour in the book - even Ashembe is a white dude - nor anyone from the LGBTQAI+ community. This was not surprising. I did like that Alvin was not a typical sexist guy from the 1920s. Granted, he has no personality at all.
The most interesting thing about this book is how it is a found text narrative, to be honest. On my Old School Sci-Fi ranking, it gets a 9.5 / 20 for diversity/inclusion/stereotypes, 7 / 15 for awesome sci-fi elements, and 5 /5 for the cover (because it's bangin').
*I will give a novel a 1 if there is no representation at all. A book would get a 0 if there was disparaging characterization or horrendous stereotypes.