By Chad Oliver
First Published: 1954 | Find it on amazon.co.uk
The Book: Anthropologist Paul Ellery discovers that the small Texas town of Jefferson Springs is actually an imitation of small-town America created by the aliens who now offer him a chance to explore the universe…
The Review: I’m currently buying the occasional secondhand SF novel from charity or secondhand bookshops, basing the choices on a) an intriguing cover b) an author I’ve not heard of. This has thrown up some interesting discoveries, of which Shadows in the Sun is the latest (Thank you, Oxfam Lancaster).
First published in 1954, re-released in 1965 in paperback, and most recently by Hachette as part of their Gateway series in 2015, Shadows in the Sun is an entertaining take on alien invasion stories. Chad Oliver was, I’ve discovered, the working name of Symmes Chadwick Oliver, a highly-regarded writer of anthropological SF. He twice held the Chair of the Department of Anthropology of the University of Texas in Austin, where this novel is partly set, when Paul flees the invaders town to find solace with his longtime , much put upon partner, Anne.
Oliver, who also wrote Westerns, focused on the themes of anthropology, humaniform aliens and alien contact and this story is packed with all of these. But unlike much of the cinematic SF of the 1950s when Shadows was first written, the aliens of Jefferson Springs are the product of a peaceful, million-year-old galactic federation, on Earth because of a shortage of living space for humans across the galaxy. So the aliens have moved in, literally next door, edging ‘real’ humans out of town over a 15-year period until only They remain.
Except anthropologist Paul Ellerby smells a rat when he decides to take up an academic challenge and study, not Native American cultures or the tribal culture beyond America’s shores but his fellow Americans instead; his suspicions that they’re nothing so mundane confirmed very quickly into this engaging novel, when he sees several “immigrants” arrive in a spaceship.
Challenging one of the town leaders directly, instead of bumping him off – something these aliens can’t do, bound by a code of laws thought up way ahead of Star Trek’s Prime Directive – the alien leaders seek to turn Paul and make him part of their society, a primitive among the super human.
Paul quickly realises that these alien humans are in fact far from super human and all are as much prey to their emotions and prejudices as his own kin. This advanced galactic human civilisation might regard Earth humans as primitive savages, destined to be confined to reservations (our cities, it turns out), but there are numerous factions railing both for and against the “Sol Project”. Even “primitive” Paul can see the colonial model is as flawed for the aliens as it has been for various Earth empires, but will he choose to help these galactic invaders, become a naturalised “one of them” – or find some other path?
Ellery’s choices are stark. Should he warn the Earth of these bureaucratic invaders? Who would believe him? Or, perhaps, join the galactics – but lose his Earth identity, perhaps never returning to his home world? Or is there another choice – stay on Earth, with the woman he loves, and hope society does not destroy itself through nuclear war?
I read the 1965 New English Library edition of this absorbing SF tale (the cover copy a marvellous exercise in book marketing suggesting, perhaps, a quite different story), crammed with great and of intriguing ideas that must have seemed fresh when the book was first released. It certainly delighted its reviewer at the American Anthropologist, who advised readers “anthropology definitely comes of age in science fiction in this unusual book.” (Other, later reviews are equally encouraging).
There are no ray gun fights, no aliens taking human skin, no grandstand finale – in fact, for me, the finale could have been left more open than it is. But nonetheless, this fifty year-plus old novel proved an engaging read, and quite why it’s not been rediscovered and adapted as the basis for a TV show is beyond me.
Suitably enthused, I’m off to hunt down more of Chad Oliver’s work. The Mists of Dawn looks promising, for a start…