It seems that fifty years ago the only recommendation an author needed for his latest work was his own. Indeed, on the cover to Bow Down to Nul is emblazoned the following: “Galactic empires have always intrigued me . . . .” Author Brian W. Aldiss, Englishman, “had the chance of seeing at first hand, the uneasy relationship existing between ‘imperialists’ and subject races in India and Indonesia,” as he notes in the coda. This might seem to inform his work, add depth to what appears (judging by its cover) vacuous genre fiction. Rather, it sets reader expectations too high (“Here’s a work from someone who knows!”) and the text struggles to escape its claim to contextual authority. In other words, its boring.
Earth is “a Class 5c World in System 5417 of Galactic Administration Sector Vermillion,” and its facilitators, corrupt, remain unwilling (even after nearly 2000 years of subjugating our planet) to recognize the various “Earthian” languages; they understand them as dialects. But this isn’t the most egregious form of planetary mismanagement.
The novel’s inciting incident is a letter drafted by Nul whistle-blower Wattol Forlie, recently sacked from his administrative position (“Third Secretary to High Hiscount Chaverlem Par-Chavorlem, Galactic Commissioner”). The letter is received by Signatory Armajo Synvoret, who decides to investigate Forlie’s formal (previously drunken; see: prologue) charges. What Synvoret finds is a planetary population sublimated to Nullian bureaucracy. At this point in my reading, I paused to consider Aldiss’s credentials. If the author had first-hand knowledge of and experience with British imperialism in its final stages, then perhaps this book (albeit metaphorically) might reveal what led to its demise. Rather, Aldiss spends much time with establishing the forms of administrative corruption on Earth and the lengths to which the current administration is willing to cover its tracks.
In an early chapter, the administration on Earth decides to move the entire planetary capitol (and its human occupants). Apparently, Earth’s capitol exceeded Nullian parameters regarding size; think of the fire marshall’s rules regarding maximum occupancy. In the end, the humans win (as we always do) and the spirit of freedom remains vibrant, if constrained, by the rules of committee.