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Literature / Urn Burial

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What is Man that thou art mindful of him? Psalm 8, v 3

Urn Burial is a 1989 Young Adult Science Fiction novel by English author Robert Westall. Young Cumbrian shepherd Ralph Edwards is out one rainy afternoon seeing to his flock when he comes across one of the ancient cairns that litter Fiend's Fell. The cairn has been damaged and partly collapsed, revealing a strange metal object hidden inside of it. Initially, Ralph thinks he's found some sort of military monitoring device, but a closer inspection reveals that it seems to be someone buried in the cairn. But the burial is neither a stone-age man nor even a human one.

The cairn covers the grave of a felinoid alien named Prepoc, containing several vials of combat drugs, Prepoc's weapons and a 'memory-helmet' via which Ralpha discovers the name and history of the now-dead alien. He rebuilds the cairn and determines to say nothing of his bizarre discovery to his mother or his friends and simply to try and forget that it's even there. And then, the village sewage works disappears. In opening up Prepoc's grave, Ralph finds himself thrown into an ongoing conflict between Prepoc's catlike people, the Fefethil, and the dog-like Wawaka. The former trying to prevent the latter from interfering with non-spacefaring worlds and the latter searching for hidden weapons from an ancient conflict that saw its final battle played out on a prehistoric Earth.

The Wawaka track objects from Prepoc's cairn by the distinctive radiation signature they have, following Ralph and kidnapping the local postman when Ralph is convinced by his girlfriend to send a small sample of one of Prepoc's combat drugs to ICI and maybe get some money out of his discovery. Eventually, they grow bold enough to act more openly and the conflict spills into ordinary life on the Cumbrian hills. But what exactly is buried on Fiend's Fell that's so important to either of these alien races?

Not to be confused with Urn Burial, A Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk, by Sir Thomas Browne. Or Urn Burial, a Phryne Fisher novel that takes its title from that scholarly tome.

Contains Examples Of:

  • Alien Non-Interference Clause: The Sufficiently Advanced Alien races are supposed to keep out of the affairs of planets which are not yet part of the galactic community, a crime punishable by death or by transportation to the prison camps of Bremis Three.
  • Ancient Astronauts: Once he discovers the tomb of Sephotic, Ralph finds out just why the hillside he lives on is named Fiend's Fell and possibly where humans got their idea of what demons look like, too.
    • The Wawaka spent a lot of time hanging around graveyards and the like whilst looking for the Tomb of Sephotic, giving rise to human legends of werewolves and vampires.
  • Anyone Can Die: Westall was generally quite fond of killing off characters in his novels to establish an air of actual danger for the heroes, and Urn Burial is no exception. Several minor characters get killed off for plot relevant reasons, making it a real possibility that Ralph might not survive his final fight with the Wawaka.
  • Ape Shall Never Kill Ape: Brought up as one of the reasons the alien races dislike and distrust "apes", because humans do kill each other, something which the alien races, even the aggressive and domineering Wawaka, have outgrown. The Wawaka use it as justification for their treatment of humans as "lesser beings" that they can freely experiment upon.
  • Beast Man: The Fefethil are anthropomorphic cats and the Wawaka, anthropomorphic dogs; described as looking like cheetahs and alsatians, respectively. Both are resemble humanoids with animal heads, tails and ears, animal eyes and hands with five fingers rather than three or four.
  • Cats Are Mean: Averted; the Fefethil are almost a Perfect Pacifist People and since the destruction of their own homeworld, dedicate their existences to being a sort of intra-galactic police force, keeping advanced races from messing with those who have yet to achieve inter-stellar flight.
  • Cats Are Superior: The Fefethil, a race of anthropomorphic cats, are more intelligent, more philosophical and better in tune with the environment than humans or the doglike Wawaka. They also don't kill each other and go out of their way to not kill the Wawaka where possible.
  • Deflector Shields: Fefethil and Wawaka ships both have deflector shields. Fefethil one's are more advanced than the Wawak's, and rather than being entirely invisble, create a highly reflective surface. This may be purely to deflect/reflect the Wawaka lasers.
  • Earth-Shattering Kaboom: Prepoc and Sephotic did this to the Attock's adopted homeworld two thousand years ago. Keeping the Wawaka from getting their hands on the weaponry Sephotic had buried with him is part of why they're now watching Earth so closely. The Fefethil also did this to their own homeworld, to keep the planet killing weapons Sephotic devised from their hands as well as anyone else's.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Attock, who came from...somewhere, possibly outside of the universe, glory in sadism, torture and slaughter and whose bodies were a bizarre mix of horns, hooves and eyes that, even when they're dead, suggest that they'd like nothing better than to turn you inside out for fun.
  • Great White Hunter: Prepoc is described as glorying in the hunt and taking a savage joy in pursuing his quarry in battle; facing them honourably but not stupidly and trying to take as many as possible down with a single shot. It's a holdover from the days before he was Fefethil war-leader and hunted game for food.
  • Humans Are Bastards: When Ralph asks Theloc what the worst race in the galaxy is, if it isn't the Wawaka, it's not really a surprise that he doesn't like the cat-man's answer; humans.
  • Humans Are Special: In spite of prevailing opinion being the above, that humans are a dangerously insane species that going to be trouble in the long run Lord Merethon, the creator, believes that they have an as yet un-realised potential and should be left alone to find it.
  • Humanity Is Insane: Both the Wawaka and the Fefethil express this opinion at different points; partly over Ralph trying to kill two Wawaka while they are held captive aboard a Fefethil ship, when firing the weapon would cause a hull breach and kill him along with them.
  • In Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves: As part of the Humans Are Bastards theme, Theloc gives Ralph a moderately lengthy "The Reason You Suck" Speech as to why the rest of the galaxy regards humans as dangerous, insane monkeys who they dread ever reaching the technological level required to leave their home planet. A goodly part of this focuses on the inherent nature of Man to posion himself, his environment and his tendency towards violent conquest and killing other humans.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: The Fefethil use their advanced technology to wipe the memories of humans who've come into contact with them or with the Wawaka. Usually they just do this, as many of the people they've encountered in the past have been hysterical or catatonic; with Ralph, since he was conscious and aware and had come into contact with them via discovery rather than abduction, they let him choose. After the Wawaka attack at the end of the book, the Fefethil put everything back the way it was and wipe everyone's memories (except Ruby and Ralph's) of the event.
  • Mirroring Factions: In spite of all the Cultural Posturing going on from the other alien races Ralph meets about how crappy humans are, it was a Fefethil who designed and built all the planet-killing super weapons that they all used in wiping out the Attock as a race. And the Wawaka are keen on conquering the rest of the galaxy, which is why they're searching for Sephotic's tomb in the first place, having gotten a few rungs up the galactic pecking order courtesy of a rare mineral found on their planet.
  • Not Bad: Theloc concedes that Ralph is "not unintelligent, for an ape." As part of the Fefethil's request of Ralph that he try to find the Tomb of Sephotic for them so they can hide it somewhere else, Theloc also admits that, if Ralph did manage this, he would stop calling humans apes. At the end, Theloc leaves a tombstone engraved with the Psalm 8 quote above where Sephotic's tomb used to be.
  • People Jars: The Wawaka kidnap people while looking for Fefethil artifacts on Earth. Once they've established that they don't know anything about what the aliens are looking for, they're relegated to biological testing.
  • Proud Warrior Race: The Fefethil. Less so since the end of the Attock War, but they still remain proud of their ethos and culture of honour. Prepoc is a more straight example; the last great war-leader of the Fefethil who always aims to kill as many enemies as he can with a single shot and engage them honourably without deception. Though cunning tactics are allowed, especially if you're outnumbered.
  • The Right of a Superior Species: Stated almost word for word by the Wawaka as the reasoning behind their disdain for and lack of concern over, humans. When Ralph accuses them of torturing humans, they respond that humans treat animals in exactly the same way.
  • Some Kind of Force Field: Whilst showing his girlfriend Ruby the grave he found in the cairn, she and Ralph are targeted by a Wawaka ship, which drops a just-about-visible field around to keep them from running. Ralph pokes it with his shotgun and remarks that it "Must be a force-field."
  • Starfish Aliens: The alien race, Merethon's Children, who are the oldest sentient life in the galaxy and can freeze people into ice with their minds, but apparently resemble a pool of muddy water.
  • Stripped to the Bone: The ultimate effect of the harka mould that the Attock created and which still plagues the Wawaka people. Even the bones eventually get eaten by the fungus, crumbling into slivers and dust upon being touched.
  • Superior Species: Two versions; one for each alien race encountered. The Fefethil are at the pleasant-if-condescending end of the scale, regarding humans as "apes" and uneducated, flawed species, but not beneath them in a bad. The Wawaka are Jerkass aliens who regard themselves as being infinitely superior to humans and that this justifies taking things and people without regard for them and using sentient humans as subjects in fatal experiments.