Monday, October 2, 2017

Naudsonce by H. Beam Piper

Unraveling a xenolinguistic conundrum
A contact team from the Terran Federation lands on a previously unexplored planet, soon to be named Svantovit after a Slavic god. The team’s job is to communicate with the planet’s native population and prepare them for Terran colonization and resource extraction. Svantovit is inhabited by an intelligent bipedal race with a civilization based around roughly Bronze Age technology. The team wants to introduce them to Terran tools and machines in order to accelerate their development and acclimate them to the technology necessary to establish large scale factories. The first step, of course, is to communicate. Despite their years of experience with xenolinguistics, however, the Terran scientists cannot make any headway in deciphering the language of the Svants (as the indigenous population has come to be called). Their native tongue does not correspond to the linguistic rules of any language the Terrans have ever encountered.

H. Beam Piper’s sci-fi novella Naudsonce was originally published in the January 1962 edition of Analog Science Fact – Science Fiction. In this story, Piper builds upon the fantasy of an anthropological explorer discovering a hidden culture in the wilderness, only in this case the wilderness is extraterrestrial and the natives have an alien anatomy. Like many explorers in Earth’s history, the Terran team has commercial motives for their expedition, but they also seek the benefits of scientific knowledge, cultural exchange, and galactic diplomacy. One of the great things about Piper’s fiction is he doesn’t confine himself to space operas or stories of astrophysical science. He writes speculative fiction about all branches of science, including, in this case, anthropology and linguistics. Piper has covered similar ground before in Omnilingual, his 1957 novella about scientists discovering an ancient lost city on Mars. Comparing the two works, Naudsonce is far less successful in capitalizing upon the joy of exploration and the thrill of discovery. While the science used to unravel the mystery of the Svants’ communication is interesting, the story just isn’t all that much fun. The Terran contact team, veterans in their fields, act as if such interspecies contact is old hat, and their blasé attitude is contagious.

Don’t expect to find any qualms about colonialism in this story. Piper acknowledges the moral sketchiness of imperialism, but doesn’t frown upon it. His libertarian political views are often evident in his work, and he makes it clear that an empire is OK with him as long as it’s a capitalist empire that thrives on free trade. For most of the story, the Svants are depicted as dumb primitives, just waiting to be exploited, though towards the end they start to develop more as characters and display some higher reasoning. Because it deals with the Terran Federation, Naudsonce is considered part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History series. The story takes place about the end of the 26th century in that timeline, but the Future History stories are only loosely connected, so no prior knowledge of that series is required to read Naudsonce.

If you want to know what “naudsonce” means, you’re going to have to read the whole story. It isn’t explained until the final sentence, and I’m not telling. Unless you’re a diehard Piper completist, however, I wouldn’t recommend reading Naudsonce. If you’ve ever daydreamed about being an anthropologist who discovers a previously unknown culture, and you want to see how that might play out on another planet, I would highly recommend Omnilingual.
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