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I read a short story (probably 20 years ago) about a human scientific expedition that arrives at an alien planet. The planet is covered by a thick cloud layer and orbits a dim red star.

The humans start exploring the planet from orbit, meticulously abiding by a non-interference protocol. The cloud layer blocks all passive scans. The captain is a real stickler for the rules, making sure that any active scans are only employed after the crew have verified that no electromagnetic emissions come from the planet (so as to reasonably assume that the inhabitants do not have devices capable of detecting those scans).

Eventually, the crew undertake an expedition to the surface. There, they find a thriving ecology and an intelligent race.

However, the inhabitants act strangely: they all seem to lack optical senses, but exhibit behaviour that suggests they would normally have such senses. For instance, they repeatedly bump into obstacles or stumble over cliffs.

It turns out that the frequency of the crew's active scans — implemented at one of the few frequencies that could penetrate the cloud layer — was also the frequency used by the aliens to see. Due to the much higher energy of the scans compared to the dim sun, all of the inhabitants were blinded by the scans.

I do not remember where I read the story.

Does anyone know the title of this story or where it can be found?

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    I think this story is called "Why Bother Trying, You're Just Going to Screw Things Up", from the collection Should've Stayed in Bed: Depressing Tales of Alien Worlds. – Doug Warren Nov 24 '15 at 20:29
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    @DougWarren: I can't find any evidence of the existence of either a story or collection with those names. If you're not joking, would you mind giving the story author or a link to where that collection can be bought or borrowed from a library? – Ross Presser Mar 3 '16 at 4:44
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    @RossPresser I was joking, I was joking. Sorry. It just sounded like the most depressing sci-fi story ever. I thought I made my fake title silly enough, but I should have more respect for Poe's Law. – Doug Warren Mar 3 '16 at 14:25
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    @DougWarren Oh, ok then. Horribly depressing themes are common in SF. Ever read Philip J Farmer's "The Lovers"? (rot13 spoiler) na Rneguzna zneevrf na nyvra. Uvf jvsr qvrf va puvyqovegu, orpnhfr ure fcrpvrf zbguref arire fheivir puvyqovegu, naq ure bayl ubcr bs na ubabenoyr qrngu vf qnfurq gb cvrprf ol gur Rneguzna'f bja qbvat. – Ross Presser Mar 4 '16 at 4:50
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    There is a similar theme, where humans unintentionally kill the "elders" of an alien race by a radio transmission, which results in an interstellar war. The book series is "Conquerors'" trilogy by Timothy Zahn, and it seems that the second book "Conquerors' Heritage" shed more light on the radio transmission incident. – elomage Aug 27 '16 at 20:51
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I guess this a story from Dmitri Bilenkin called "Stranger's Eyes" from the book "The Uncertainty Principle".

  • Hi James! Welcome to SFF.SE! Could you explain why you think this is the correct story, please? Answers without explanations often get deleted. – F1Krazy Jul 5 '17 at 13:09
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    This is probably right: This link says "Stranger's Eyes" is a hard-science story about a Hal-Clement-style planet with a Scientific Mystery that turns out to be the result of a Dreadful Mistake on the part of Terrestrial explorers. The final few sentences go, “Leo was saying something, but I didn’t hear him. 1 saw theblack planet where we would have to spend many long years salvaging what could still be saved. The thought of the depressing hell that awaited us, strangely enough, brought me relief.” – iayork Jul 5 '17 at 13:19
  • Hi F1Krazy, i read the story when I was 14 years old (1984) and I had the same problem as "Ross". But I knew the publisher (Heyne Verlag - Germany) and the year of release. So I started looking for all the books that were published in 1984 and the name came back. This book is really nice and I can only recommend it to you. There are some suprising and rarely known stories in it. – James Wirz Jul 7 '17 at 20:55
  • "Stranger's Eyes" by Dmitri Bilenkin seems legit. "It involves a space exploration mission that unintentionally blinds the animal life of an entire planet by doing an active sensor scan." So says a random poster at boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/archive/index.php/t-659206.html That's the best corroboration I could find, short of finding the book on eBay. – Vanguard3000 Jul 16 '17 at 21:46
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    My copy of the book just arrived, and I can confirm that this is indeed exactly the story I was looking for, thanks! I'll see whether I can write some more details about the story in the next days. – HugoRune Jul 31 '17 at 20:08
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As James Wirz correctly deducted in his answer, the story I was looking for is called "Stranger's eyes", by Russian Author Dmitri Bilenkin (Дмитрий Биленкин). Originally published under the name "Чужие глаза" in 1971. Published in the English collection "The Uncertainty Principle" and in the German collection "Fluchtversuche" (where I probably first read it).

I found a used copy of the book to confirm that this is indeed the correct story. Here are some quotes matching the details from my question:

The planet is covered by a thick cloud layer and orbits a dim red star.

The sun was no brighter than cast iron, and the planet itself was even duller. Compared to the flat disc of the planet that we could see, the blackness of space seemed to concentrate light.

The humans start exploring the planet from orbit, meticulously abiding by a non-interference protocol.

The rule book for uninhabited planets is large enough to kill a man, but it is nothing compared to the one for planets that have life, and perhaps intelligent life. And you can be sure that Zibella followed it to the letter.

The captain is a real stickler for the rules, ...

There wasn't another captain as punctilious as Zibella in the entire cosmos. It was a standing joke that his reason for not marrying was that there were no instructions governing the procedure.

... making sure that any active scans are only employed after the crew have verified that no electromagnetic emissions come from the planet

The regulations were obeyed unswervingly: the communications activity of the scouting party must correspond to the communications level of the planet. In simple terms, this meant we had to make sure that the planet didn't even have the simplest, most primitive transmitters and receivers that could intercept our signals and therefore discover us before we wished to be discovered.

the inhabitants act strangely: they all seem to lack optical senses, but exhibit behaviour that suggests they would normally have such senses.

it stood for a while and headed down the path with its free hand. Could this creature, feeling its way along the path, have dug up the fields surrounding the settlement? Build the houses? Hunted? It was impossible to believe.

For instance, they repeatedly bump into obstacles or stumble over cliffs.

It took a step. Into the void. Even as it fell, it did not drop the vessel of precious water. We heard a scream. What we didn't want to believe was true. This world was blind, but it had gone blind recently.

It turns out that the frequency of the crew's active scans — implemented at one of the few frequencies that could penetrate the cloud layer — was also the frequency used by the aliens to see. Due to the much higher energy of the scans compared to the dim sun, all of the inhabitants were blinded by the scans.

Our computer had picked the frequencies for which the atmosphere was most transparent and which were for that reason the "life light" on the planet. But our equipment was less sensitive than the inhabitants "eyes," and we wanted to see as well as possible. And so the locators burst into blinding light.
[...]
I saw the black planet where we would have to spend many long years salvaging what could be saved. The thought of the depressing hell that awaited us, strangely enough, brought me relief.

  • 1
    You should 'accept' this answer. – Möoz Nov 9 '17 at 22:04

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