Sunday, February 06, 2005

Biggle: The Light That Never Was—Illuminating Unintended Consequences


Lloyd Biggle, Jr.'s The Light That Never Was is a complex story simply told. The artists of planet Donov are all human with one exception (a swamp slug), and they're all hacks nowadays (except the aforementioned slug). Although the classic views are still there, and the incredible light of Donov that once inspired master artists, the scenes are appreciated now only by tourists, and those who paint souvenirs to sell to them.

But there's a change sweeping the human-settled universe. On world after world, people who had lived in harmony with animaloid sentients suddenly rise up in riots and massacre their non-humanoid neighbors. This wave of change sweeps over Donov without effect, for Donov has no sentient animaloids—that is, until Jaward Jorno comes home.

Jorno is an incredibly wealthy local who arrives on Donov ready to put his family's large estate to use as a refugee camp for the brilliant mesz, natives of Mestil. And while refugees are not allowed on this world, Jorno learns of a loophole in Donov law that says artists may stay for as long as they like. So 3,000 alien animaloid refugees become artists.

Now that there are animaloids on Donov, will the wave of riots touch this planet as well? Fighting this trend is the World Manager Ian Korak and his lovely grand-daughter Eritha, Korak's First Secretary Neal Wargen (who is secretly the head of the Secret Police, and not so secretly in love with Eritha Korak), and Arnen Brand, who provides a home for the slug and sells its artwork to finance a little refugee work of his own.

Biggle uses the concepts of art well in his work. This novel explores the urge to create, the pain of knowing one's work to be second-rate, the difference between creating art and "putting paint on canvas", and the role of the art critic. The artistic topics are background, however, to the detail of this particular painting. One of the characters is a tragically flawed personality, acting in ways that have doomed dozens of worlds. Minor accents illustrate the spiteful sterility of bigotry and the liberating effects of tolerance. But the major theme of this artwork is even more sweeping: Is it enough to do Good Works? Or must one actually accomplish good?

There are books that are worth rereading, whose stories remain fresh. Like a great painting, they reward the viewer each time they are approached. Biggle's novel is a Goya, at least. Perhaps even a Hieronymus Bosch.

Notable quote: "Democracy imposed from without is the severest form of tyranny."—Lloyd Biggle, Jr., in Analog, April 1961.


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