Emblematic of the late 70s era when major publishers like Fawcett were looking for a piece of that Sword & Sorcery action comes The Alien by Victor Besaw – a writer unknown then and still largely unknown now. Besaw does not appear to have been a pseudonym and there’s not much information about him to be found. The Alien, in 1979, was his second published book, after his debut novel The Sword of Shandar the year before, and as near as I can tell it was his last. I always see this one in used book stores, so Fawcett must have printed a bunch of them, maybe they just didn’t sell.
It would be understandable, because The Alien is not really what anyone would call “good”. It’s a very short novel, clocking in at barely over 50,000 words, and is a quick, breezy, undemanding read. In truth it reads more like the recounting of someone’s D&D adventures than anything that could be said to have themes or subtext – things it does not even aspire to. This is entertainment, and avowedly not literature.
The Alien recounts the first-person life of a character named Godranec. Found wandering as a small child, he is a member of a nonhuman race called the Nyarlethu – essentially a dwarf with small horns. Raised as a pet by a human noble lady, he grows up and she no longer finds him cute, so he is cast out to live with the other “thralls”, or slaves. The human society is depicted as unrelentingly callous and cruel, with virtually everyone being a slave of one kind or another, and with brutal and gruesome punishments for breaking the rules.
Godranec grows up to be short but tremendously strong and fast, and he works in the smithy where he learns to forge steel and covertly makes his own weapons. Throughout the book Godranec is the beneficiary of a lot of helpful coincidences, and the first and biggest one is that he gets ahold of an enchanted spearhead that the smithy is supposed to destroy, and he instead steals it and copies the runes etched on it onto the other weapons he makes, so they are supernaturally sharp and strong.
When he is prepared enough, Godranec escapes and heads north through the “weirwoods” where he knows the humans will fear to pursue him. He is searching for the home of his people, said to be far away to the north, and the book is just the tale of his journey. Along the way he fights beasts and monsters that range from giant wolves to immense trapdoor spiders to subhuman cavemen and a dozen others. Besaw will just detail these battles and then leave them behind, and most of them never lead to anything else, they are just events along the way. Godranec hacks his way through, finds his people, learns he is the long-lost prince, and lives happily ever after.
There’s not much to it. The style is crude and scattered with modern vernacular, thus failing to really evoke a different world. It’s written in first person, so we see the world through the eyes of a protagonist who does not have much education and knows very little about the world he is in. It allows the narrative to fill us in on details as he sees them, and not bother with larger questions of worldbuilding or meaning. It’s also rather limited, and would make this seem almost like a children’s story were it not for the gruesome and brutal violence.
And yet I maintain a certain affection for this book. Godranec is a likeable hero – humble, practical, and clever, and the book breezes along, refusing to bog down in anything time-consuming or tedious. It skips easily from one adventure to the next in an episodic fashion that is all tied together by the simple expedient of the character’s journey to his dimly-remembered home. It remains highly readable, and it’s short enough that the lack of sophistication does not have time to wear on you. The Alien is not a good book, but it moves fast and does not ask much out of you as a reader. If we are discussing S&S as junk food, then this is one of the prime examples. It’s not filling or good for you, but it tastes good enough that you eat it anyway.