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Daniel F Galouye came up with a brilliant idea when he wrote Dark Universe in 1961. In the short novel that follows that he fleshes out the idea with a good story, a well-rounded plot and reasonable characterisation.
In other words, Dark universe stands the test of time in ways that James Blish A case of conscience in my first Classic Sci Fi article doesn’t. Yet, Dark Universe is a bit like Evolution man a neglected book. It doesn’t appear in lists of best Sci Fi novels, whereas for late fifties/early sixties novels in the genre I think it should. Not that Dark Universe is perfect it does have flaws, some typical of the Classic Sci Fi of its time. But, the flaws are transcended by a pacy story, a good denouement and the idea itself.
I want to encourage you to read this forgotten classic, so that I won’t reveal much of the story or the plot. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment.
This is a post-apocalyptic novel. The Survivors live deep underground in two clans the Lower Level and the Upper Level as far from the original world as they can get. In each of the clan levels a central echo-caster (with clack stones) provides sound for the inhabitants to view their world. The Zivvers another clan of mutants who view their world by means of sensing heat are considered as enemy. Dangerous mutated soubats fly the corridors and sometimes steal livestock and attack the survivors.
Their legends tell of the Original World where man lived alongside the Light Almighty (a concept of which they can no longer conceive) and away from the ultimate evil, Radiation, with its two Lieutenants the Twin Devils Cobalt and Strontium. The Lower Level Survivors venerate a relic known as the Holy Bulb. “So compassionate was the Almighty (it was the Guardian of the Way’s voice that came back [to Jared] now) that when He banished man from Paradise, He sent parts of Himself to be with us for a while. And He dwelled in many little vessels like this Holy Bulb. (Wikipedia)
Jared the son of the Prime Survivor of the Lower Level is an adventurous young man due to become a survivor himself in the near future. Jared does not believe the religious explanations of his clan and is consumed by the quest to discover the meanings of light and darkness, which he believes are real things. Jared is highly skilled in the use of ‘click-stones’ in his hands and other tricks to echolocate his environment in the tunnels and caves beyond the comfort of home. He is so skilled that his powers are mistaken for those of the Zivvers and he can even fool the Zivvers briefly that he is a Zivver.
Jared is a likeable viewpoint character and a good focus for the book. His attitudes towards women are reasonably enlightened for the beginning of the 1960s and the lead female character Della is reasonably believable for what is basically a cameo role, as are the other characters that Jared interacts with.
As the book opens, Jared and his companion Owen are chasing a soubat, which leads them across the barrier that leads to the original world. They discover the Monsters that are beginning to disturb their universe and barely escape…
The brilliant idea
The brilliant idea is of course echolocation and Galouye’s designing of a credible world where sound is the only means of interpreting one’s environment. Galouye obviously put a great deal of thought into creating this world and making it believable. The ways that Jared uses his ears and sounds to delineate his environment is beautifully described. We believe it and we believe him!
I first read Dark Universe as a teenager and have a couple of times since. An article in a newspaper (discussed below) stimulated me to reread it when I was thinking about writing about my old science fiction books. I really enjoyed my reread of Dark Universe because the brilliant idea seemed as fresh and as well-executed as I remembered it. I hardly groaned at all at the story and read it avidly to the end.
A mild critique
Kate Sherrod in Goodreads liked Dark Universe and gave it 4-stars but she is initially critical:
It’s tricky to do a whole lot of world-building in just 154 pages, even if that world, as in Daniel F. Galouye’s Dark Universe, is small and confined by nature. The trick is to be telegraphic, to let every line convey something about the plot, characters and setting all at once — or to just let the world building take care of itself, let the reader’s imagination do that work. I realized, as I read through this, that I prefer the latter.
I mention this because right from the first page, Galouye made the choice I favor less, and went a little overboard, to the point of raising goose eggs on my noggin with his invented slang and cursing and expressions of folk belief. This is a post-apocalyptic (nuclear war), underground world, and, as the title might just suggest, one in which there is maybe not so much light, but that does not mean that every other word coming from a character’s mouth needs to be “Radiation this” and “Light that.” To say nothing of substituting “period” for “day” in the context in which “gestation” means, more or less, “year.” How could I not snicker like an adolescent?
I can’t disagree with Kate Sherrod because it is a valid point and well-put. I can think of other science fiction authors that I admire (for example, Sheri S Tepper) in admittedly longer books who do tend to follow the fiction convention of letting the reader discover the world. Charles Dickens was a past master, letting the reader’s imagination round out his creations. Indeed, in Dickens’ lesser books the readers often overrate Dickens because they have supplied the imagination and are enamoured of it.
Dark Universe is pulp fiction, however, and in late fifties/early sixties science fiction the size was constrained (~60,000 words in this case, sometimes longer) and the convention was to be telegraphic to set the scene (type 1 above) and then to allow the reader’s imagination scope to develop. Similarly, the use of unfamiliar word’s, such as ‘period’ for day and ‘gestation’ (9 months) to replace year was intended to introduce the idea of unfamiliarity. Sometimes in classic science fiction this could be really irritating, but I don’t think that Daniel Galouye offends overly.
About Daniel F Galouye
Daniel F Galouye (pronounced Gah-lou-ey) 1920-1976 was born in New Orleans. He obtained a BA from Louisiana State University and then worked as a reporter and editor primarily for The States-Item after the war. The States-Item was a New Orleans afternoon paper that was merged into the Times-Picayune in 1980.
During World War II, he served in the US Navy as an instructor and test pilot in Hawaii, receiving injuries that led to later health problems. His retirement was due to failing health, related to the injuries sustained during his Navy service. His health continued to decline until his early death at age 56. Richard Dawkins regards Galouye as one of his favourite science fiction writers.
In the 1950s and 1960s Galouye wrote novelettes and short stories to various science fiction magazines, sometimes writing under the pseudonym Louis G. Daniels. He wrote five novels. (Wikipedia)
The novel Simulacrum 3 became World on a wire a 1973 German two-episode TV series by Werner Fassbinder, which was re-released in 2011 onto the Arthouse circuit. The same novel was also made into a movie called 13th Floor in 1999.
Presumably Daniel F Galouye would have been familiar with sonar during his time in the war, and may have even come across human echolocation, but he also may not have. Wikipedia says human echolocation was known from at least the 1950s and that a book on human and animal echolocation was published in 1959. Whether Galouye had any great familiarity with echolocation and the practice of humans echolocating or not, he certainly did an excellent job of describing it.
I first heard about Daniel Kish about a year or so ago. I don’t think it was as long ago as 2012, when there were several stories on ABC radio programs in Australia. As soon as I did hear about Daniel Kish, I immediately thought of Dark Universe and vowed to reread it.
Inspired by the struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, disabled activists began to demand control of their care and their organisations. Daniel Kish and Ben Underwood are the best known of the recent human echolocators. Both were diagnosed with retinal cancer and had their eyes removed at an early age. Both refused to accept their blindness as a permanent disability and both were prepared to put their body on the line and suffer pain in order to transcend their disability.
They both taught themselves echolocation and use techniques (usually not stones), but tongue clicks and other methods to orient themselves in the real world. The techniques used by Jared in Dark Universe are noticeably similar to those used by Daniel and Ben (who both ride bicycles by the way and get around on their own) and are thus seemingly authentic quite an achievement for Galouye in 1961.
Daniel Kish and Ben Underwood are both amazing and inspiring and I would encourage you to read or view some of the material below.
Ben Underwood died in 2009 at the age of 16 from the same cancer that took his vision. Daniel Kish runs a non-profit organisation for blind access and teaches teenagers how to navigate new locations safely. Kish originally was resistant to using a white cane but now does so to expand his mobility.
Key words: Daniel F Galouye, Dark Universe, science fiction, Classic Sci Fi, James Blish, A case of conscience, Evolution man, human echolocation, Daniel Kish, Ben Underwood, blindness
Kate Sherrod’s Review of Dark Universe 2013
The Wikipedia biography of Daniel F Galouye forms the basis of my biography above.
Wikipedia on Dark Universe
IMDB Filmography on Daniel F Galouye
Wikipedia biography of Richard Dawkins
Wikipedia on human echolocation
Donald R Griffin Echos of Bats and Men, Anchor Press, 1959 (Science and Study Series, Seeing with Sound Waves)
Article on Daniel Kish
Michael Finkel The blind man who taught himself to see Men’s Journal March 2011
This is a thorough and readable article on Daniel Kish (9pp).
Videos of Daniel Kish
BBC in Brughe (2 min 23)
TedxGateway talk by Daniel Kish Mumbai 2012 (22 min 56)
Videos of Ben Underwood
Ben Underwood (1 min 49 sec)
Ben Underwood The boy who sees without eyes DocuFilm TV (46 min 39)