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Oliver, Chad

Entry updated 3 April 2023. Tagged: Author.

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Working name for his sf of US anthropologist and author Symmes Chadwick Oliver (1928-1993). Oliver was born in Ohio but spent most of his life in Texas, where he took his MA at the University of Texas (his 1952 thesis, "They Builded a Tower", being an early academic study of sf); he then took a PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and became professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he remained in some capacity until his death. His sf work consistently reflected both his professional training and his place of residence: much of it is set in the outdoors of the US Southwest, and most of his characters are deeply involved in outdoor activities. Oliver was always concerned with the depiction of Native American life and concerns: The Wolf Is My Brother (1967), which is not sf, features a sympathetically characterized Native American protagonist. Most of Oliver's sf, too, could be thought of as Westerns of the sort that eulogize the land and the people who survive in it.

The sf plots that drive his stories – like, in The Winds of Time (1957), the awakening of Aliens held in Suspended Animation for hundreds of centuries – tend to be resolved in terms that reward a deeply felt longing for a non-urban life closely involved with Nature, whether on Earth – or on some other planet, where exercises in Uplift tend to be moderately successful, though in the strong "Blood's a Rover" (May 1952 Astounding), a novella which disregards what was already in sf stories being called the Prime Directive, he treats the goosing into "civilization" of a humanoid species on another planet as a seemingly unmitigated tragedy; the ultimate motive for this interference – that Earth itself is being similarly uplifted by Secret-Master humans from an more evolved planet in order that Homo sapiens everywhere will be ready for an inevitable extra-galactic Invasion (see E E Smith) – fails to lessen the melancholy of a vividly depicted wrench from Pastoral to Dystopia. It may be suggested that when the marriage of folk and land had been dissolved as far as Texas was concerned, and when the cultural implications of uplift could not be conceived of without irony, he returned deliberately to the past, before the destruction had properly begun: his last novels, Broken Eagle (1989) and The Cannibal Owl (1994), are traditional Westerns. His last sf stories, like "Old Four-Eyes" (in Synergy 4, anth 1989, ed George Zebrowski), are tragedies of Ecology.

Oliver's first published story, "The Land of Lost Content", appeared in Super Science Stories in November 1950; his short work was initially collected in Another Kind (coll 1955) and The Edge of Forever (coll 1971), the latter containing biographical material and a checklist compiled by William F Nolan; the later Selected Stories sequence – comprising A Star Above It: Volume 1 of Selected Stories (coll 2003) and Far From This Earth: Volume 2 of Selected Stories (coll 2003) – assembled most of his best work, most of which appeared before 1960. He collaborated with Charles Beaumont on the two-story Claude Adams series (April 1955 and February 1956 F&SF). Oliver's first novel, a juvenile, was Mists of Dawn (1952), a Time Travel story whose young protagonist is cast back 50,000 years into a Prehistoric SF conflict between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. Shadows in the Sun (1954), set in Texas, describes with some vividness its protagonist's discovery that all the inhabitants of a small town are Aliens (see Paranoia), but that it may be possible for Earth to gain galactic citizenship, and that he can work for that goal by living an exemplary life on his home planet. Unearthly Neighbors (1960; rev 1984) depicts human attempts at Communication with alien visitors. The Shores of Another Sea (1971), set in Africa where a Western scientist is operating an experimental Baboon refuge, modestly exploits the irony explicit in his discovery that he is being subject to First Contact experiments by a group of visiting aliens. Again articulating Oliver's growing concern with the natural world, Giants in the Dust (1976) argues the thesis that mankind's fundamental nature is that of a hunting animal, and that our progress from that condition has fundamentally deracinated us.

Oliver was a pioneer in the application of competent anthropological thought to sf themes, and, though awkward construction and occasional padding sometimes stifled the warmth of his earlier stories, he was a careful author whose speculative thought deserves to be more widely known and appreciated. Beyond that, he was a writer who for some years thought it possible to honour the world he loved within the frame of 1950s sf. [JC]

see also: First Fandom Hall of Fame; Generation Starships; Linguistics; Origin of Man; UFOs; Venus.

Symmes Chadwick Oliver

born Kenton, Ohio: 30 March 1928

died Austin, Texas: 10 August 1993



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