I Speak for Earth by Keith Woodcott
Ace Books, 1961
Price I paid: none
“One citizen of your planet shall go to the capital of the Federation of Worlds. He shall live there for thirty days. If your representative can survive and demonstrate the ability to exist in a civilized society with creatures whose outward appearance and manner of thinking differ from his own, you shall pass the test. You will be permitted to send your starships to other planets of the galaxy.
If he fails the test, if prejudice, fear, intolerance, or stupidity trip him up, then your world will be sealed off from the stars forever!”
This was the ultimatum from space. The task before our world then was—who shall go? What man or woman could be found to take this frightening test for the whole of humanity and be certain not to fail?
It’s an edge-of-the-seat science-fiction thriller.from the inside flap
First off, let’s talk about this cover art. It’s the best, right? The two main things about it are that it’s by Ed Emshwiller and it’s the best art that anyone has ever put on the cover of an Ace paperback. I’m sure this is a contestable statement, but I don’t care. I stand by this statement and shall continue to do so for as long as I can bear it in the face of mild confrontation.
This is part two of the Ace Double from the last review. Despite Wandl being the reason I got the whole shebang in the first place, I Speak for Earth was the one I was looking forward to. Yeah, partly for the cover, but mainly for the plot. Of course, we all know how wrong plot synopses from the publisher tend to be, but I figured that the book would be worth reading regardless. After all, Keith Woodcott was a pseudonym of John Brunner, whose last book I reviewed was…aw heck, it was bad, wasn’t it?
Whatever, a lot of people like Brunner, and the ones I’ve talked to also didn’t like The Wrong End of Time, so I came into this book thinking positive thoughts about him. Most importantly, those thoughts turned out to be justified. This was a great book.
It was, however, great in some ways that need qualifying. It’s got some severe of-its-time problems that will need addressing. Nonetheless, the book strives to make a point that is not only positive but is still relevant to this day, something that might have disappointed our dear author. But now I’m just teasing you, so let’s get into it.
We start by meeting Gyul Kodran. He’s an alien from somewhere in the vicinity of Spica. He’s addressing the United Nations. Gyul Kodran has been observing humanity, publicly, for some time. He’s been interacting with us, even choosing to revive Esperanto so that he can talk to humans without favoring one language over another, remaining neutral.
And hey, this is our first instance of how the book favors Western Civilization to the expense of the rest of the world, but you can tell Brunner was trying to be well-meaning. The idea of a neutral world language is great. I’m a budding Esperantist myself, but I don’t kid myself. It’s a conlang based on European languages, not “Earth languages.” It’s not neutral because it, from its creation, ignores everything from Navajo to Mandarin to !Kung. The fact that it had some Greek in it was a surprise to me, honestly.
Gyul Kodran tells us that his—and the book scores points for lampshading the use of this pronoun, since we don’t know if Gyul Kodran is male or even is from a species where that is a relevant idea—decision is that while humanity has a long way to go before it reaches the level of Galactic Civilization, it might well be able to join it. The problems, he says, are that we’re so liable to hate on one another for the stupidest crap. We need to get over that. After all, if things like skin color set us off on xenophobic wars against one another, how will humanity react to nine-foot-tall flea people? Heck, one of the reasons nobody knows what Gyul Kodran looks like is because he’s well aware that he’d be hated. He knows a lot about us.
The solution, then, is a Test. One person, a representative of the best humanity has to offer, will be sent to live among the Galactic Community for one month. If he or she can survive, then Earth will be allowed to enter the Federation. If not, it will be barred from entry forever. Any attempts to leave the Solar System will be met with hostile force. There is no appeal. We have one year of prep time.
This book is one of those “humanity is special” narratives, but by golly, it’s one that does it right! The obvious route Brunner could have taken was to spend the next year finding the Übermensch to save us all. This is the plot that would have happened in about 99% of novels with this premise. Instead, Brunner did something awesome. He accentuated the human community over the individual. As a result, humanity does what we do best.
Once it becomes clear that there is no way to safely allow a single person to represent our entire species, the scientists get to work. They’re going to build the Superman.
Then we meet Joe Morea. Joe is your classic white dude spaceman genius, and as a result he’s basically our viewpoint character for most of the book. Joe is told that he’s to be selected as a candidate for this Space Test. He’s hesitant at first—I got the feeling that this was one of those “If you jump at the chance you’re not the right person” kinds of things—but he goes all in after some convincing. Over the course of a large part of the rest of the book, he’s tested physically and psychologically. The science team tries to discover if Joe has any phobias floating beneath the surface. After all, it would be terrible to discover he’s terrified of spiders right around the same time he meets the Spider People of Arcturus Prime, right?
Of course he passes all the tests with flying colors, so he’s sent to meet the other finalists. They are:
- Rohini Das, an Indian mathematician and poet
- Stepan Prodshenko, a Soviet physicist and gymnast
- King Ti-Pao, a Chinese biologist and painter
- Lawrence Tshekele, a Nigerian linguist and educator
I cribbed basically all of these little bios from the first page of the book, which is a list of characters. Normally I dislike it when that kind of thing is in a book. I figure that the author wouldn’t need it if they just did a better job of distinguishing and developing their characters. In I Speak for Earth, it turns out that Brunner didn’t need a the page because he did a good job of distinguishing and developing his characters. Also the book was super short and didn’t have very many of them. What gives?
Another large chunk of the book features Joe getting to know these other people. A lot of mutual respect forms, with little to no animosity. In fact, this book doesn’t have a lot of conflict at all. That’s kind of the point?
Having this diverse set of characters is great. Brunner, and through him, our main viewpoint character for the time being, treats them all with the respect they are owed. These people are the best humanity has to offer, and there’s never once any attempt to contradict that fact based on their race, sex, age, religion, or whatever.
There are some icky bits, though, and it’s partly due to the time this book was written and partly due to Brunner’s own unconcious prejudices that come from being on the colonizer’s side. These bits tend to be on the subject of Africa.
Lawrence is a joyful character and one of my favorites, but he also tends to give voice to some unfortunate tropes. I can’t think of any way to describe it other than to say that when he talks about Africa, he talks about it like a European, and it’s kind of gross.
He’s the one that frequently says that going to this alien world will be similar to a native African—sometimes the word “savage” is used—being transported to modern New York. I get the point that Brunner is trying to make here, but it’s handled so poorly. At its worst, we get a statement comparing Europe’s “2000 years of civilization” versus Africa’s “two generations” of it.
Because the only real “civilization” is the one with industry and capitalism? Is that what our author is saying? Or is it more insidious? That the only “real” civilization is the one run by white people?
And to have our African character be the one to give voice to these sentiments is…gross. I think maybe Brunner was actually trying to avoid being gross by having Lawrence be the one to say them, but it was a misstep.
The civilizations arising from India and China don’t get treated this way, so I feel like it’s less of a race thing than a vague sense of “progress,” but maybe I’m just trying to make excuses for an otherwise very good novel.
So after the characters get to know one another and go through some trials together, we get to find out the truth of what’s happening. The Test will not be taken by one person. It will be taken by six. Earth scientists have discovered a way to transfer the personality of one person into the body of another. Even better, it’s possible for one person to hold on to several of these personalities. We don’t get much detail on how, exactly, this is supposed to work, but that’s okay because it’s not the point of the book.
Joe is to be the host for the other personalities. Joining the other four will be Dr. Fritz Schneider, the scientist who created the process. He tells us that he has tested the process once before. He was able to merge his personality with his wife’s. He says that the process is incredibly intimate: After thirty yeas of marriage he believed that he knew everything about his wife, but was quickly disabused of that belief. Now we’re doing it with six people who have known each other for a few weeks.
This is the reason I love this book. The message is that the community is far greater than the individual, and that a diverse community is even better than a monolithic one. It’s only when we work with one another that we can succeed against the greatest odds and against our greatest enemy: ourselves. It’s not the aliens that are going to take away our future, it’s our own stupidity. And this is how we fight against that.
And that’s what happens. Our six people get merged into one and spend a few pages getting used to the idea. They learn to work as a unit. They’re able to communicate so much faster than with speech, so their strengths are immediately on display and able to combine into greater strengths.
By the time all this happens, we have about thirty pages left in the book. It’s a short one, about 120 pages, and it ran at a breakneck speed.
Gyul Kodran shows up on time and takes our team on board his ship. Instead of a journey, it just happens that the team wakes up on an alien planet with no recollection of the passing of time. They also have no guides, no food, no information at all. It’s almost as if they’re supposed to fail…
There’s a fair amount of wandering around for the final pages, with our folks all using specialties to figure out what’s going on by working together. For instance, the combination of Rohini’s math skills and Stepan’s gymnastic skills mean that they’re able to accurately calculate the gravity on this planet. Stuff like that. It’s nice.
The first aliens they meet look like ears of corn. They don’t seem especially friendly. Other aliens show up, and our team finally meets Gyul Kodran in his true form (a brown thing), and the overwhelming impression our heroes start to take away is that they are neither expected nor wanted here. It’s very strange.
While exploring, our team follows one of the Corn People in an attempt to see what it’s doing. They hope to learn something about it. After a while, it falls down and stops moving. A bunch of other Corn People show up and announce that humans are terrible! They just stand around and watch while other sentient creatures die!
Our heroes quickly see this for what it is. The Corn People hate the humans and want them gone. It’s Lawrence who compares it to the colonial tendencies of Europeans to set arbitrary tests for non-whites, just so they can fail and justify oppression and feelings of superiority. Since there was no way for the humans to know anything about what was going on, there was no way for them to help.
But they get put on trial anyway. It’s at this point that the individual personalities start to fade and become an amalgam, which the text calls Man. I hate that this book consistently referred to both humanity and this gestalt creature that is 1/3 female as purely masculine, but it was the sixties and everybody was doing it. It’s not like I’m shocked.
Anyway, Man defends humanity and states that the real villain here are the aliens, who are afraid of humans. Man states that all of the alien species it’s met on this adventure are homogeneous groups with no distinct personalities. Humans are an anomaly to them, capable of working together despite differences, although they choose not to do so more often than not.
It’s a big speech that goes on for about a page and it’s pretty great. At one point I started to get afraid that the book was going to refute its earlier point and become a polemic about the power of the individual, but of course that never happened. It was much more subtle than that.
The book argues that a successful community is a diverse one, where every member has its own strengths to add to the group. The communities of the Federation, however, are stagnant. Moreover, they’re afraid of the changes that a species like humanity would bring about to their galactic community.
In short, Humans are Special. We just also have Problems.
With all that said, Gyul Kodran says that he was on humanity’s side the entire time and declares that it has passed the Test.
We cut back to Earth, and it’s bittersweet. The final chapter chooses to focus not on the victory, but on what was lost in the process. We’ve gained a superman—the gestalt consciousness in Joe’s body came back to Earth—but we’ve lost six individual humans in the process. Humans with families and friends and lives. The book ends with that in mind, balanced against a worldwide parade of victory.
Damn! What an ending!
I can understand it if some folks think this book might be a little on the preachy side. That’s understandable. It’s not exactly subtle. Still, it’s some preachiness that needs preaching, and the book has multiple examples of why, most of which remain relevant.
For instance, after the Test is announced, we get this glimpse of a guy on the street hollering about the unfairness of it all. These aliens claim to be tolerant, but why can’t they tolerate our intolerance? Huh, answer me that? Hypocrites! Not trustworthy!
I mean, when I read that paragraph, it sent chills up my spine. It was “So much for the tolerant Left,” right there in text, hollering at me from across fifty-eight years of humanity not learning a damned thing.
Is the book a Masterpiece? Nah. It’s fine and its heart is in the right place, but some parts didn’t age well at all. It’s a fine message, but in the light of the passage of time, it seems like some of the details contradict that fine message.
Nevertheless, the book is a decent rallying cry about how we can all do better in the future. It manages this both through its explicit moral and its implicit tendencies to downplay non-European cultures in a way that goes against that explicit moral.
It’s a book that says “You can do better than me, and I hope you do.” I doubt that this was Brunner’s intention when he wrote it, but that’s fine. Time’ll do that to a book.
It’s a book that tried.
3 thoughts on “I Speak for Earth”
My guess is that John would have regarded this as a very fair appraisal.
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I have always respected Brunner more than I have enjoyed him. His ideas are ambitious, but his characters never quite let me engage with them. My favorite work of his was The Traveler in Black, in which the traveler, by definition, had no character, so identification didn’t matter.
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