“The Thieves of Galac”

Sweets from a Stranger coverNicholas Fisk’s aliens, it seems, are always fallen. The Trillions are the technological remnant of a vanished civilization; Grinny is seeking a new home because her species used up their old one, as is Talis; and in “The Thieves of Galac”, decadent aliens have ceded control of their empire to servant machines. “We are decadent”, says the President of the Galacs, just in case there’s any confusion. I’m planning to read one more of Fisk’s novels — A Hole in the Head — in part because it’s more recent than anything else I’ve read by him (1991), and in part because, at least according to The Encyclopedia of SF, it is “a harrowing tale of the Earth at the brink of ecological catastrophe”. Earth is so often a site of sanctuary for aliens that I’m interested to see how Fisk handles humans using up their world.

Anyway. We don’t start with the Galacs. We start with Tal, 11, and his sister Mala, 13 (Fisk is always scrupulous about telling us how old his characters are). They live a somewhat desperate life on an Earth being mined by the Sentinel machines of the Galacs: “dull metallic spheres the size of footballs” that squawk instructions, and seem to have like stealing broken things. Mal laments that they’re stuck on Earth when they could have got out; their father insists the Earth is their home.

And then, with marvellous abruptness — “Light years away, in the artificial, mobile world they had made for themselves” — we’re whisked away to the Galac council, who lament their decadence until the President offers this inspiring rejoinder:

“Of course!” he cried. “We will bring them back! Use them again! The old ways! Don’t you see? We created the world in the old ways, the simple ways! We used the skills of our hands — the old tools and equipment and sciences! And we are the people we were then! Older, I grant you, too old, perhaps; even our memories fail us. But on Earth, they still use the old ways, the pioneer ways. If such savages can do it, surely we can build anew — using the old ways!” (27-8)

Practical knowledge is always valued in Fisk’s work. The first third of Antigrav (1978), in which three children discover a stone with antigrav properties, is given over to experimenting, working out how much weight the stone can lift, what factors affect that weight, which direction it pulls in, what can be done with differently balanced weights hanging off it, and so on and so forth. So the Galacs, inspired by primitive Earth, set about learning how to do things for themselves again, and in the process Earth is somewhat repaired. Then, on the Galac world, the Sentinels revolt, until the President switches them all off with the push of a single button.

It’s a very peculiar piece, this: lots of different bits stuck together at odd angles, not at all as neatly shaped as “Sweets from a Stranger”. There’s no moral here, except perhaps the properly science-fictional one that sometimes the real story is happening elsewhere, and any effects on humanity are just by-products.

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