Lester del Rey’s “The Eleventh Commandment”: An Elder Handmaid’s Tale

It’s funny.
I’m not actually a fan of Lester del Rey, but here I am writing about him again.  As a youngster I read very little of his work.  I was all Clarke and Asimov and Larry Niven.  But when I was rereading Nerves a while back this ad on the back cover caught my eye:

The back cover of “Nerves”

and I thought, “The Eleventh Commandment looks interesting, in a schlocky sort of way.”  Through the magic of Abebooks, within a week or two I had a copy of the exact edition advertised in my silly little hands:

The front cover of “The Eleventh Commandment”

What a pleasant surprise this two dollar (ten dollars shipping) book has been!  No, the writing continues to be pedestrian, the plot is perhaps a little contrived at times, the characters are more stock and wooden then  the yard at Totem down on 51st (that’s local, Edmonton colour), but . . .

This is a sort of mainstream, white bread work from 1962 somehow filled with drugged-out orgies in churches, socially sanctioned adultery, and empowered (in an odd way) women.

The Eleventh Commandment has a pretty standard old science fiction plot:  a colonial (from Mars in this case) finds himself exiled to Old Earth and must make a home for himself in this strange new old world.  The Martian, Boyd Jensen, seems like pretty much a typical mid-20th Century American fellow.  The reader is meant to find him familiar, I would think.  Post-nuclear-apocalyptic America, however, is quite different, it seems.  The land is full of fallout remnants, society is ruled by the American Catholic Eclectic Church and the Eleventh Commandment (Be Fruitful and Multiply!), and, we learn, the landscape is dotted with secret orphanages filled with the pitiful products of the mating of the Eleventh Commandment and  radioactivity-induced mutation.  Society is a completely Church-dominated pre-industrial cesspool in which women are indoctrinated to want nothing other than to produce babies until they die and men are similarly (but more easily, one would guess) brainwashed into a desire to father as many children as possible.  There is, however, a fairly clear emphasis in the Catholic Eclectic Church on trying to keep it all within the bounds of marriage, despite the orgies in the underground and Wiccan churches.  The Church wants to keep track of the genealogy of every birth.  As becomes clear at the end, all this breeding is the Catholic Eclectic Church’s eugenic system for purifying the genetically damaged human stock.

We are left with a sort of nausea.  Through the whole book the Church has seemed to be the horrid, psychotic institution bent on forcing women to be baby factories on the basis of ridiculous religious superstition.  Our conviction — cultivated by del Rey — that science needs to enlighten this superstitious world is suddenly overturned.  It isn’t superstition that drives the church — it is science after all!  We end the novel firmly impaled on the horns of the dilemma.  Everything about the lying Church and its horribly logical eugenics is beyond objectionable, but, in the world del Rey has created, is it not the only way to preserve humanity?  We know that Mars, which has been presented as a positive society, deals with its own genetic sports through exile to Earth, most often ending in death soon after arrival.  It is unclear what is happening on Earth outside of North America, but it is safe to assume that the entire globe is contaminated and that maintaining genetic health would be a challenge to any society.  The Church’s plan, to keep the population at a sustainable, if barely, level of development while breeding and selecting out harmful mutations in as few generations as possible, is disturbingly convincing.  But we can’t help but feel that this evil is only slightly the lesser to the alternatives.

The Eleventh Commandment is certainly a product of its time blending Cold War fears with some of the Dangerous Visions — the book is dedicated to Harlan Ellison — about to burst onto the science fiction scene and American society at large in the sixties.  But somehow The Eleventh Commandment seems to me a tale for our time, at least as much as Margaret Atwood’s later and much more famous The Handmaids Tale.  Del Rey shows us a fundamentalist religious society with some noticeable similarities to the perversities of fundamentalists in our own day (Talib, I’m looking at you.) And Father Epstein’s recitation about nature speaks eloquently to our time:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help . . . But there is no help left to the race of man.  The mountains have been stripped of their cover and their substance runs down with the unchecked rains to bury the valleys below.  The buffalo and the wolf are gone from the plains, along with the tough grass that evolved there, and dry dust sweeps like a cutting scythe before the pleasure of the wind.  The puma is missing from his den and the eagle from his lair.  The predators are vanished, and without them the game herds have suckled the weak among their young to bring forth more weak, until their gene pools have failed and even they are dead or dying. . .

Father Epstein continues to describe the accidental nuclear catastrophe as being the only thing that could have saved humanity from its own relentless, unthinking growth.  If not for the nuclear holocaust, there would have been a population and environmental apocalypse.  No alternative in del Rey’s imagined future is a pleasant one.

All in all, Lester del Rey’s The Eleventh Commandment must be termed a hidden gem of mid-20th century science fiction, well worth seeking out by students of feminism, religion, environmentalism and the rights of the disabled.

3 comments on “Lester del Rey’s “The Eleventh Commandment”: An Elder Handmaid’s Tale

  1. […] I also have a little something to say about del Rey’s The Eleventh Commandment. […]

  2. […] Lester del Rey’s “The Eleventh Commandment”: An Elder Handmaid’s Tale (behindthehedge.wordpress.com) […]

  3. […] Science Fiction reads like a totally unfeeling version of Heinlein or Del Rey with better vocabulary but less hope.  The apocalypse is predictable and a rehash of so much from […]

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