Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Hands Off! By Robert Sheckley

First published Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1954.

One of the great strengths of SF is its flexibility. You can take a lot of other genres and lay an SF gloss over them. That’s why we get space cops, mil SF, noirish cyberpunk novels and of course, space westerns. This is another of the  frontier stories that keep cropping up in these volum, featuring a heroic prospector and some hijacking varmints.

Hands Off! is a tale of two spaceships on a remote and undeveloped planet. The first – the near-derelict Endeavour – is crewed by a gang of pirates ready to do anything in the name of loot. The second is owned by a hard-working prospector trying to make a living.

The twist, of course, is that the honest miner is an alien.

Sheckley presents two narratives in parallel. The story Agee, Victor and Captain Barnett of Earth begins:
On the ground, they sent up an orange and green parley flare, but there was no answer from the alien ship. The planet’s atmosphere tested breathable, with a temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit. After waiting a few minutes they marched out, freeze blasters ready under their jumpers.
About a page later, have elected to steal his ship, we meet the alien:
Kalen had stopped at this little world hoping to blast out a few tons of erol, a mineral highly prized by the Mabogian people. He had no luck. The unused thetnite bomb was still lodged in his body pouch, next to a stary kerla nut. He would have to return to Mabog with ballast instead of cargo.
It’s one of those SF writing workshop moments. In fact, I bet that any number of SF stories contain some variation of those lines, swapping out different pseudo-alien gobbledygook. It’s made clear that we’re dealing with an alien here and we’re given specific physical details to reinforce it – we don’t know what thetnight or kerla are, but we know enough about bombs and nuts to form a picture of of Kalen’s world, particularly when we picture these things in a stomach pouch.

In fact, Kalen is a working joe a bit like you and me, just trying to get through a bit of honest graft. He’s also from a naturally peaceful race and at first can’t fathom what’s going on.
They were shooting at him!
For a moment his thinking centres refused to accept the evidence of his senses. Kalen knew what murder was. He had observed this perversity with stunned horror among certain debased animal forms. And of course there were the abnormal psychology books, which documented every case of premeditated murder that had occurred in the history of Mabog.
Note the subtle use of alienating vocabulary here – his ‘thinking centres’, rather than his mind or thoughts. Sheckley never stops reminding us of the physicality of the Kalen; he has a number of other unusual physical characteristic, as well as the above-mentioned stomach pouch. However, Kalen’s ‘thought centres’ are entirely human in spirit, somewhat more so than the rogues who attempt to steal his ship.

Rather than a conventional contest of brute force, the victor in this scenario is decided through a classic battle of wits: who can best survive in the other’s environment? In the end it’s the tough clever alien that wins, despite his pacifist tendencies and the pirates are seen off, humiliated.

This is a really enjoyable story from an old favourite writer. His was definitely a name I looked out for and I read a few of his solo anthologies and novels. I haven’t read any of his stories for years, but this was really good fun.

Themes: The frontier, detailed aliens, humans are bastards, space pirates.

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