by Gideon Marcus
There’s a change a comin’. I’m sure you’ve seen heralds of its passage. Last summer, hundreds of Whites and Blacks took to the buses and rode into the South, flouting the segregated busing laws. Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are rallying their brethren to fight centuries of oppression. For the first time, the Democrats look to be out-Civil Rightsing the Republicans (who would have predicted that in 1948?) Yes, the country is heading toward a long overdue shift, a final resolution of the crisis born in the original Constitution and only half-fought in the bloodiest war of American history.
It’s no surprise, then, that we’re seeing this war play out in science fiction as well as reality. Speculative literature constitutes our thought experiments, letting us see worlds like ours, but with allegorical players or, perhaps, a great time shift. Some authors approach the topic tangentially, for instance depicting Blacks as fully integrated in a future setting. Others, approach the subject head-on.
SF author J.F. Bone is a bit of a cipher. I have almost no biographical information about him. I do know that he started writing a few years ago, and his works have a certain thoughtfulness that elevates it above the run of the mill. His recent Founding Father was a fascinating look into the mindset of a slavemaster, made particularly chilling by its light tone.
Bone’s latest work is a novel called The Lani People. It is a more straightforward investigation of prejudice and discrimination, set 5000 years in the future. It is the tale of Kennon, a veterinarian contracted to provide medical services for the herds of planet Kardon. To the animal doctor’s surprise, one of the herded species is the Lani, a breed of biped virtually indistinguishable from human beings save for their tails. Yet, despite their obvious intelligence and clear resemblance to people, they are legally animals thanks to a centuries-old judgment on their status.
The result is as horrible as you would expect, with the Lani subjugated, regulated, and degraded creatures, the cruelty of their plight accentuated by the indifference with which it is perpetrated. It is obvious to the reader that no sapient should be treated this way, and certainly no human. And yet, the blinkered Galactic society cannot tolerate as equals even the slightly different.
The situation is made even more complicated for the conflicted Kennon – he falls in love with the brilliant Lani named Copper (and she with him). Yet he cannot even think to express his feelings. It is only when he begins to substantiate his hunch that the Lani really are human that he can open his heart to her. But then, of course, that just opens the bigger can of worms: how do you right such a horrible injustice?
What I find interesting about Kennon is that he can’t initially make the jump to appreciate all sentient life as equals. He can’t love Copper for who she is, regardless of race. Rather, he must instead prove that Copper is a human being before he allows himself to love her. Nevertheless, by the end of the book, he recognizes the small-mindedness of that specist view:
“Our minds are still the minds of barbarians—blood brothers against the enemy, and everything not of us is enemy. Savages—hiding under a thin veneer of superficial culture. Savages with spaceships and the atom.”
One can’t help draw parallels with our current race relations environment. This nation still has a long way to go toward realizing “the proposition that all men are created equal.” There is still a sizable portion of our population that maintains that dark skin is somehow a mark of inferiority, even though it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that human blood is human blood regardless of the color of its package. That deeply ingrained bias won’t disappear immediately just because it isn’t supported by evidence. In this regard, The Lani People is ultimately over-optimistic, even naive, in its resolution.
Laudable subject matter aside, you probably want to know how the book reads. Well, it’s good. Bone’s never turned out anything poorly done, to my knowledge. I think I would have enjoyed more of the veterinary aspects of the story in the first half (Bone is a Dr. of Veterinary science up in Oregon); it’s a kind of science one doesn’t often see portrayed. There are some bits of the romance when both Copper and Kennon wrestle with their inability to express affection that feel almost Burroughsian (read the end of any Edgar Rice Burroughs novel and you’ll understand). The characterization is somewhat expository. The theme of the story is subtly conveyed in the first half, more heavy-handedly delivered in the latter.
Nevertheless, it’s a solid work, and it may make people think. Kennon’s journey is one we all should and must take if we ever want there to be harmony on Earth. And harmony on Earth surely must be a prerequisite for harmony with whomever we find amongst the stars.