The Sykaos Papers

E.P. Thompson

Bloomsbury 1988
A book review by Danny Yee © 1994
It's not often one of the world's best known historians turns his hand to writing science fiction. The Sykaos Papers stands in a long tradition of science fiction novels that use an alien or a human from an alien culture stranded on Earth as a device for critiquing various aspects of society. (Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land is perhaps the best known example of the genre.) While Thompson does employ many of the standard cliches of science fiction, however, he always seems able to find something new in them.

Oi Paz, a scout from the planet Oitar (where things are rather different) crashes and is stuck on Earth. Suffering severe culture shock, he eventually ends up as the subject of a military organised research institute, where he studies the researchers as they study him, in an entertaining anthropological duality. (The study of a scientific research community at work under military discipline is reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem's brilliant His Master's Voice.) When the fleet from Oitar arrives on the Moon, and the power balance between the United States and the Russians is disrupted, things really warm up...

Not unexpectedly, The Sykaos Papers does have a message (Thompson is, of course, a Marxist), but it never becomes narrowly didactic or polemical. The obvious Earth customs — money, the media, the military establishment and so on — come in for criticism, and Thompson also finds room to poke fun at less obvious targets such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the French. But the tone is always humorous (The Sykaos Papers is an extremely funny book), so this never grates.

Social critique of this kind is only as good as the construction of the alien culture used for comparison. I won't give any of the details away, since the anthropological research provides part of the interest of the book, but Thompson has done a remarkably good job of producing a plausible but completely alien culture. (This can not be entirely uncorrelated with his brilliance as a historian.)

As a novel The Sykaos Papers is not so outstanding — fiction is obviously not Thompson's natural genre — but it contains more than enough in the way of interesting ideas to be worth reading, and is also highly entertaining. The Sykaos Papers is strongly recommended.

May 1994

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%T The Sykaos Papers
%A Thompson, E.P.
%I Bloomsbury
%D 1988
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 0747501173
%P 482pp