A Brief Note on Cordwainer Smith’s “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” & “Under Old Earth”, Raleigh’s “Pilgrimage”, and the Adjective in Biblical Hebrew.


But there was another voice somewhere, a voice which grated like the rasp of a saw cutting through bone, like the grind of a broken machine still working at ruinous top speed.  It was an evil voice, a terror-filling voice.
Perhaps this really was the “death” which the tunnel underpeople had mistaken her for.
The Hunter’s hand released hers.  She let go of D’joan.
There was a strange woman in the room.  She wore the baldric of authority and the leotards of a traveler.
Elaine stared at her.
“You’ll be punished,” said the terrible voice, which now was coming out of the woman.
– Cordwainer Smith, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town”, Galaxy Magazine, vol. 22, no. 6, August 1964, p.42.

Lady Arabella Underwood’s appearance about one third of the way into Cordwainer Smith’s classic Science Fiction story, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” comes with that brief but somehow remarkable description of her attire: “She wore the baldric of authority and the leotards of a traveler.”  Remarkable because it contains the somehow-evocative-of-something-deeply-meaningful parallel pair of  concrete nouns modified by genitive prepositional phrases.  The “leotards of a traveler” may simply be some sort of imagining of the sartorial preferences of a fictional future – although there is nothing in the story to suggest that Lady Arabella is in any real sense a traveller.  The “baldric of authority” is also unexplained (Smith’s fiction is rich with allusion to unexplained details of his richly imagined future), and may perhaps be taken as some sort of badge of office.  But this concrete “baldric” with its modifying phrase of qualitative genitive seems of a deeper rhetorical significance.
 Smith uses this construction a number of times in his stories, for example, in “Under Old Earth” (Galaxy Magazine, vol. 24 no 3 February 1966, pp. 6-48) the aged character Sto Odin stating “I wear the feathers of immunity” (p. 27) and, most charming:  “I am caught by the dry, drab enturtlement of old, old age”(p. 22).  What is Smith doing here?  Why does this construction seem so evocative to a discerning reader?
 Well, consider:
Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage;
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.”
– Sir Walter Raleigh “Pilgrimage”

What a pile of genitives of quality Sir Walter has collected here!  Every concrete item of the pilgrim’s simple equipage is qualified by an abstract. The scallop-shell (the symbol of the pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago), the staff (the physical support), the scrip (the pilgrim’s small satchel), the bottle (water for the journey), and the gown (simple clothing) are transformed with those genitive prepositional phrases into the abstract qualities which are the true sustainers of a successful pilgrim.
 Why does Raleigh use this construction, the concrete noun followed by the genitive of an abstract quality?  Why not just use an adjective – the quiet scallop shell, the faithful staff, the happy scrip, and so on?  Well, most obviously, because they don’t quite mean the same thing.  A quiet scallop shell is just a scallop shell that is not making noise.  A scallop shell of quiet is the concrete partaking of the abstract, of the transcendent, perhaps.  And, obviously for someone of Raleigh’s time, temper, and education, there is a consciousness of scriptural rhetorical forms, and the genitive of quality is decidedly an Old Testament rhetorical form.
 Jouon Paul and ‎Muraoka Tamitsu, in A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, speak of the “genitive of the quality expressed by an abstract noun”  referencing Exodus 29:29 : וּבִגְדֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ “garments of holiness”(p. 437 ), which is so clearly a parallel to Raleigh’s “gown of glory” and, perhaps, to Smith’s “baldric of authority” and “feathers of immunity”.  This construction in Biblical Hebrew has sometimes been described as a way of compensating for Biblical Hebrew’s “lack of genuine adjectives” (see, for example, Bill T. Arnold and John H. Choi,  A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, p. 10).  Cynthia L. Miller-Naudé and Jacobus A. Naudé, however, argue quite convincingly that Biblical Hebrew does, in fact, have true adjectives in “Is the adjective distinct from the noun as a grammatical category in biblical Hebrew?”, In die Skriflig 50(4), a2005.  Whatever the underlying reason for the development and use of the rhetorical pairing of a concrete noun with the genitive of quality of an abstract noun in Biblical Hebrew, the evocative construction certainly has had a continuing impact on English rhetoric, from Renaissance poetry to mid-Twentieth Century science fiction stories.

On Larry Niven’s “Flash Crowd” and the internet mob.

I like to reread the science fiction I first read when I was a teenager.  I find interesting the perspective a life lived in history gives to the artifacts of youth.  Recently I reread Larry Niven’s collection of short stories The Flight of the Horse and was particularly struck by “Flash Crowd”, a description, originally published in 1973, of an imagined future world in which personal teleportation has recently become ubiquitous and inexpensive, much like public telephone booths became in the last century.

The story follows an investigative reporter (we might call him a videographer today), first as he scouts stories by flitting between displacement booths, and later, for most of the story, as he tries to find a way to convince the world that he is not to blame for an ongoing, teleportation driven riot that began as he recorded it.  In the end he demonstrates that it is not he, as a representative of the free press, but rather the new technology of unregulated transfer booths that is responsible for what threatens to be a plague of floating flash riots around the world.  As one part of his investigation, he takes a booth to Tahiti and discovers that already there are permanent lawless crowds plaguing parts of the world, that the riot back home in Los Angeles is what parts of the world have been dealing with since shortly after the first displacement booths were installed.  In the end a plan is suggested which will see police having control of an emergency switch which will quickly bring any flash mobbed area back under the rule of law.

The details of the plan Niven comes up with are not of much interest to me at the moment.  My interest, rather, is in what I find to be striking parallels between our world and Niven’s Flash Crowd world, in which everyone with an axe to grind, a protest to make, a chip on their shoulder, a product to hawk, a fraud or theft to commit, a conspiracy to postulate, or even a book to review, can simply dial a code in a displacement booth and find themselves before the eyes of the world in an instant piled-on flash mob.  In Niven’s world, displacement booths allow individuals to actually go into the thick of the mob.  In our world, like so much else, the mob has become virtual.

I’ve written a bit elsewhere about what I see to be one of the dangers of our modern ability to travel virtually to virtually any spot on earth: that there are virtues and benefits for an individual in taking time and effort to experience things.  It is better to trek on foot to Everest  than it is to simply helicopter into Base Camp before climbing.  I think Niven’s story points out that there is also a danger to society in the instant gratification available to us in our digitally interwoven world.  Especially when our baser urges — what are traditionally known in some cultures as the Seven Deadly Sins — are allowed to be indulged instantly, the danger of the virtual mob is every bit as real as the danger Niven imagined in his world of displacement booths and physical flash mobs.

There is no need, I think, to rehearse the list of people who have had lives ruined by social media mobbing.  I’m sure there are few who are not aware, even if they’ve never visited them,  that there are permanently dangerous and unpleasant places in the underbelly of the online world.  But I do think there is a great need for thoughtful people to seriously consider the implications of this world we’ve created, to not simply live in a happy online bubble of cat gifs and instant links to family and friends.  Behind the cartoons are countless virtual floating flash riots which are causing and will continue to cause very real pain and loss to very real people.

I don’t have any answers, but I can suggest that a reading of Larry Niven’s “Flash Crowd” can offer some perspective from an unexpected half-century old source.

Reminiscences of the Future

I’m writing this about twenty-four hours after the last burn of the upper stage of the first Falcon Heavy test flight sent a red Tesla Roadster and it’s laid-back space-suited mannequin driver on it’s million year ever-circling picnic to the Asteroid Belt, replete with pop culture references to David Bowie, Star Wars and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and overflowing with Geeee Whizzzz!!!!! excitement and boys with toys eye-rolling. I confess, I enjoyed the ride. After all, I grew up waiting for the latest National Geographic to see six-month-old photos from Apollo moon landings. But now, as a grown up, living in this science fiction future, I can watch it all in real time, on the supercomputer in my pocket.

But, when all is said and done, when the last booster core hits the Atlantic just a hundred metres (and five hundred kilometres per hour) from its intended landing spot, there remains a single, brief, glorious moving image which outshines all the hype, the marketing, the inconceivable engineering, and the sheer chutzpah of the technical achievement of the hipster capitalists at SpaceX:

Two rockets, in their fundaments direct descendants of those beautiful, streamlined, V-2-derived, Chesley Bonestell-painted, science fiction spaceships of my childhood settling majestically, magically, balletically, onto the concrete pads of Landing Zones 1 and 2 in Florida in one of the finest pieces of choreography, one of the finest works of art in history. Until that event is duplicated, but with a couple of rocketjocks riding two candles down to the Space Port, I won’t feel more like the dreams and expectations I had in my childhood have finally been met.

2001 is long past and so is the company called Pan Am, with never a single Space Clipper. And the Space Station, as amazing as the ISS is, is not a Blue Danube Waltz-playing wheel in space. But we have found more wonders at Jupiter, and beyond, than Dave Bowman and Frank Poole could have imagined. And, until yesterday, no spaceports with concrete pads welcoming home rockets — in the plural — descending gently on their tails, the way they’re supposed to descend gently! Finally, the Future is here!

And there’s also that supercomputer in my pocket.

Forty years or so ago, a little before the Space Shuttle rekindled (and quite quickly dashed) the dream of a reusable rocketship, I had an adolescent dream of being a Science Fiction writer – nay, a Science Fiction poet. I twice submitted versions of a Space Age elegiac paean, the second a sonnet, to a then-new Science Fiction magazine with a fairly well known name. Both submissions were rejected with the reassurance that my bit of verse was “better than most of the poems we see”.

I thought of that poem today, a bit of a lament of an astronaut grown old, unable to touch the sky as in youth, but finally able to feel the youthful dreams come true. At last. This morning I dug the old, original teenage typescripts (and rejection slips) out of a box in the basement. This evening I revisited the versions – which I won’t post here – and made something just a little bit new. Just a word or two changed from that teenage voice. Just a little bit older. And more hopeful:

Song of an aging astronaut (2018)

Been years since breezes from the concrete pad
have washed across the green grass of my lawn
to bring old feelings back, both good and bad,
with distant sights and voices now far gone.

My eyes rise weakly to the blazing sky
to watch the burning trail, so white, so bright.
At last. A rocketship, a fire-fly
of steel and tin come back from velvet night.

I sit, forgot, too weary to hold rage.
I, too, once flew among the glistening stars
and I have looked on Earth down from afar.
But time has passed. And youth must change to age
I rest, at peace. The breeze blows gently past.
I feel those youthful dreams come true at last.

Yesterday I felt those youthful dreams come real, and that was better than any movie. Better even the biggest stack of space art books.

That was living the future.

Star Wars

 

In February 1977 I was 15 years old, a little more than half way through grade ten, and a fan of Science Fiction.  I read Science and Science Fiction books voraciously.  I had a subscription to Analog Science Fiction|Science Fact magazine.  A year earlier I had been excited to read Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, the third volume in the now never ending Dune series, serialized in Analog.  I must have first read Dune when I was 11 or 12.

In those days Science Fiction, with the rare exceptions like Star Trek, on television, and Kubrick’s 2001 in cinema, was almost purely a literary phenomenon.  And Science Fiction fans were readers above all else.  We — well, they — I never got to a convention — they went to Science Fiction conventions to meet their favourite authors and editors, to get books autographed by superstars with horn-rimmed glasses or massive side-burns or, in the case of Asimov, both.

Those superstar writers and editors had started their careers as fans, and generations of Science Fiction writers have followed that path to a career as an author.  I remember a number of authors from my Analog subscription and wonder what ever became of those lucky souls whose first publications I read in those pages.  I wonder if youngsters like Orson Scott Card or George R. R. Martin ever went on to do anything else.  And the cover art!  I wonder what ever happened to artists like Rick Sternbach and Mike Hinge, whose covers consistently blew me away for vastly different reasons.

In February 1977 I read the book reviews in Analog.  The reviews were Lester del Rey’s usual feature, “The Reference Library”, at the end of the issue, just before “Brass Tacks”, the letters to the editor.  The first book reviewed was Frederik Pohl’s Gateway, the beginning of what would be a series of novels by Pohl.  The second book is something called Walkers on the Sky by David J. Lake.  And the third book . . .

Well, the third book is a little thing the hero of which is, as del Rey writes in reference to the previously reviewed book, “oddly, named Luke Skywalker.”

Here is the first encounter I and a great many Science Fiction Fans had with this thing called Star Wars:

del Rey Star Wars 1 001  This book called Star Wars was credited to a new author named George Lucas.  It was, as most know today, ghost written by Alan Dean Foster, now well known as a Science Fiction writer.  Foster’s career had received an early boost with the commission to “novelize” the animated Star Trek as the Star Trek: Log series of paperbacks.

But, back to Star Wars and del Rey’s review and as a Science Fiction fan my experience of the years since 1977.

In May 1977 I saw Time magazine’s “Film of the Year” article about Star Wars and thought “this could be interesting”.  Soon after it opened in Edmonton — at the Odeon on Jasper Avenue, I think — I went to see the film with my mother.

I liked it.  It was fun.  The dialogue and science were equally crappy. It was not a thought provoking stumper like 2001 nor a discussion novel made SF TV like Star Trek. The best thing about it was something pointed out in the Time article: the world of Star Wars was battered, grubby, and lived in. Otherwise, it was a crappy space opera and I enjoyed it.

And I was fifteen.

I felt it was the precursor of something.  Star Wars seemed parallel to the cheesy, often badly written pulp fiction Asimov celebrated in his anthology Before the Golden Age.  I figured that we’d have some cheesy pulpy Science Fiction films for a bit, but surely a Golden Age of intelligent Science Fiction cinema was on the horizon.

In the fall of 1977 I moved to del Rey Star Wars 2 001Grade 11, still fifteen until December.  My new English class was taught by Mr. Mallet, one of the finest teachers I ever had.  Part way through the year he completed his Masters thesis (Symbolism of some sort in Hawthorne).  At some point that year he was advisor on a “special project” I did for credit.  I wrote my first novel — Science Fiction, of course, and, of course, unpublished.

I don’t know how he arranged it, but Mr. Mallet designed the entire Grade 11 English program around Star Wars.  Except Macbeth. Macbeth was done separately.  But Mr. Mallett made a point of reading the Porter scene, which had been excised from our texts, aloud to the class.  Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead with the alcoholic impotence!

So, the class had a field trip to the Odeon to see the film and then the readings were assigned: Dune, for the desert planet, The Wizard of Oz, for the Tin Man, The Hobbit for the quest and the wizard . . .

Two students raised their hands.  “Read ’em already” Jenny and I said.  Jenny’s an Egyptologist in New Zealand now.  We were friends then.

Mr. Mallet replied: “Lord of the Rings.”

“Read it.”

“Twice”

“Right.”  Mr. Mallet paused a moment.  “You two will spend class time in the Library researching and writing essays on subjects I assign.”

As the rest of the class belly-ached about unweaving Lucas’ rainbow and “only two weeks to write 250 words?! Impossible!” Jenny and I skipped off to the library with Mr. Mallet’s wonderful gift of time to read and write with unheardof freedom combined with sympathetic direction.

My best friend Dan was a huge fan of Star Wars although he had never been a particular fan of Science Fiction.  He liked cars and girls. And cinema.  While still in High School he was working at an Edmonton television station, coming up with some innovative set and prop ideas.  Today he works in the film industry in Vancouver as a property master.

Dan had a Darth Vader action figure and a classic sports car.  I had a storm trooper action figure and a battered Ford Custom when I could get permission from my father to use it.  We hung our action figures from our rear-view mirrors.  My heart was never really in it.  Dan’s heart seemed to be in every thing but perhaps was really in nothing much other than career in those days.

We lost touch.

In 1977 Science Fiction fandom was about reading.  In 2015 it is about cinema, television, and gaming — and Star Wars is the colossus that bestrides every convention, every consciousness.  Yes, there are still readers of Science Fiction, but the money — and the fans — are in the films and their tie-ins — the action figures Dan and I hung in our cars, the novelizations, and occasionally in the novels that script the visual presentations.  Do fans read the novels that seeded the blockbusters?  From what I’ve seen of the recent cinematic versions of Tolkien, the novels are only skimmed by the film makers.  As a friend said to me once of Lynch’s film of Dune, “It’s as though he filmed the first page of each chapter and the last page of the book.”

I can’t help but look at fans today, idolizing the actors and ignoring the imagination behind the actors, indeed, ignoring their own imaginations and their own potential.  I can’t help feeling something has been lost in a Golden Age still-borne.

Are young people still inspired by the Dragons of Pern? Do they need a movie or TV show to take them to Earthsea?  Will they ever puzzle over Bombadil now that fandom is about blockbuster films rather than words on a page?

I look around at the society we have created, the internet, the International Space Station, the Artificial Intelligence in every toaster and coffee maker.  I look at our Brave New World of reproductive technology and multiplicity of gender. I look around and I read myself into Heinlein, Clark and Asimov, Le Guin, Tiptree and Russ.  The world around me is the world I read before Star Wars.  It is also a world like and unlike 2001.  But it is not a world at all like contemporary blockbuster Science Fiction films.

Before Star Wars, Science Fiction fandom was about imagination and its freedom.  After Star Wars fandom has become about imagination structured, about cannon, and, above all, about consumption.

About a decade ago, my old friend Dan’s partner sent me a note before his fortieth birthday, asking for a thought, a wish, a memory.  I don’t remember what I wrote.

We drift from our childhood friends and childhood things.  I’ve not heard from Jenny or Dan or Mr. Mallet in forever.  I no longer have my copy of Foster’s Star Wars. But then, I’m reading Dune again right now.  And I still have my original paperback copy.  I hope there’s a young person somewhere out there reading Dune – in paperback – for the first time.

Del Rey, in the penultimate paragraph of his review of Star Wars, the book, writes:

“Maybe the book is all right for some of the juvenile audience, but it certainly isn’t for sophisticated readers.”

Not long after Star Wars my subscription to Analog lapsed.  Reading is no longer analog for most – it is digital.  I’ve lost touch with much of contemporary Science Fiction.  Gibson and Stephenson are pretty much just names.  I’ve read The Hunger Games but seen none of the films.  I expect the special effects are spectacular.

I think I might try to reconnect with Jenny and Dan.  We are no longer the juvenile audience of the original Star Wars. We now live in the grown up Science Fiction I read as a kid.

 

And these days I should still be able to make the Edmonton/Vancouver/Auckland Run in less than twelve parsecs.

Three Classic British Science Fiction Novels

I just finished rereading Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 apocalyptic science fiction novel, Childhood’s End.  I also reread it a few years ago after a few decades away.  Clarke had been a favourite of my teen years, so I really can’t say how many times I’ve read the thing.  Through what I now realize is a fortunate coincidence, relatively recently I also reread John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). That reread was spurred by the very enjoyable web comic FreakAngels by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield, which is a dark riff on Wyndham’s dark novel.

And I realize as I write this that the theme of extraterrestrially mediated human evolution common to Childhood’s End and The Midwich Cuckoos (and FreakAngels) owe more than a little to H.G. Wells’ 1937 novel Star Begotten.  Wells writes of a group of friends who begin to suspect an alien force is manipulating humanity:  “Suppose that for the last few thousand years they have been experimenting in human genetics” suggests Wells’ protagonist Joseph Davis.

Sixteen years later Clarke wrote of Overlords who manipulate human society in aid of the Overmind who causes a global generation of human children to transcend genetics and take a giant evolutionary step (destroying their parents and the entire Earth as a bit of collateral damage).  And then, four years later, Wyndham narrowed the focus to the children of just the small English village of Midwich.  The new human children in Midwich are destroyed by means of an explosive device and humanity is, unlike in Childhood’s End, saved from its own future evolution.

Did Wyndham know Childhood’s End? Did he and/or Clarke know Star Begotten?  I don’t know how tight the British science fiction community was mid-century and, for the moment, I’m not going to research that question.  I do, however, find it intriguing that such similar science fiction treatments of eugenics appeared in the two decades from 1937 to 1957.  And there is something very interesting in the difference between 1937 and the 1950s.

“Starry changelings both,” Joseph Davis says hopefully at the end of Star Begotten, “And not afraid — even of the uttermost change.”  Where Joseph Davis strides bravely into the new, inhuman future, Clarke’s new humanity, while transcendent, is utterly alien, utterly indifferent, and utterly destructive. Jan Rodricks, Clarke’s Last Man, while apparently unafraid as the future destroys him, is helpless and impotent. And Wyndham’s Cuckoos are terrifying, a menace which must be destroyed.

It is hard not to conclude that public knowledge of Nazi eugenics programmes culminating in the death camps and the Holocaust would be fresh in the minds of Clarke and Wyndham and their readers in 1950s Britain. While Clarke tries to slip in some hope, first with the middle, Golden Age section and later with the transcendence of the new humanity, the vision of this eugenic future is wholy dark for humanity as we know it.  And Wyndham allows little room for coexistence between Man and Superman.
Between 1937 and 1953 eugenic utopia had been discredited, at least as a science fiction theme.  Of course, Huxley in Brave New World (1932) had responded to Wells’ utopian tendencies and Orwell, before the horrors of the death camps were fully realized, had worried about future social trends, but neither Brave New World nor 1984 deal with the terrors of directed evolution — eugenics by a longer name.  Galton’s vision of improving humanity through selective breeding was perhaps forever made horrible by the version brutally implemented by Hitler.

Eugenics, an idea which had been for half a century a subject of respectable conversation and debate had instantly become a horror.  This moral shift can be seen clearly in the three novels I’ve been touching on, three novels with very similar themes written by three very British novelists.  But the three novels draw quite interestingly different conclusions about those themes.

If you are feeling like reading a bit of vintage British science fiction, a session devoted to consecutive readings of Star Begotten by H. G. Wells, Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, and The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham would, I think, be very rewarding.

Odd. I actually sat down thinking I was going to just write a little review of Childhood’s End, and look where I ended up!  Well, unintended consequences, I guess . . .

Clarke

We live in the Science Fiction I read as a teen

It’s strange to have artistic time on my hands now that “My Village” is hanging on display and I’ve taken a few pieces to Harcourt House for the annual Members’ Show and Sale.  As I sat minding “My Village” yesterday, I started doodling illustrations for an idea I had a few days ago.  For the past few months I’ve been following the adventure of “Astronaut Abby“, Abigail Harrison, an audacious teenager from Minnesota who intends to be the first person to walk on Mars.  As part of her preparation, Abby has devoted herself to reaching out to other young people to inspire them to pursue studies and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).  The latest part of that outreach has been a partnership with ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano and a crowdfunded journey to Baikonur Cosmodrome to see Luca’s launch.  On her return, Abby intends to visit schools in person and to give virtual talks and workshops about her experiences and ambitions.  Throughout, this astronautic mission has been powered by social media in its finest manifestation.

I couldn’t help but think as I followed Abby’s exploits, and the exploits of Cmdr. Chris Hadfield, that Abby is, in fact, living in the science fiction I read as a teen. So, I decided to recreate a little piece of Abby’s Golden Age Science Adventure as a bit of doodling.  First I jotted down an opening for a story about a mid-west teen setting out on an adventure to Baikonur, the Space Station, and Mars, trying to catch a bit of the flavour of 1930’s juvenile pulp magazine science fiction.  Then, as I sat minding “My Village” I doodled in a sketchbook.  Here’s the final sketch I made:

sketch

Then I scanned the sketch and did a bit of computer work on it:

Abby second scanAbby third scanAnd finally I juggled the elements around a bit, added the text I’d written, printed the whole thing out on newsprint and scanned the whole thing again:

Abby's Soyuz Adventure

Then I chiriped the product off to Abby at the mighty spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome from my handheld teleputer just in time for Luca’s launch to the World’s Space Station.

Now I’m about to watch Abby’s mysterious Italian mentor arrive at his destination in his Soyuz space ship. On one of I don’t know how many computers I have in my house.

It’s science fiction, I tell you!

Update, June 2, 2013 – Astronaut Thomas H. Marshburn (@AstroMarshburn) tweeted at 9:23 PM on Sun, Jun 02, 2013 this bit of Science Fiction Poetry (it even rhymes):

“Perfect morning under gray skies with a light rain & warm wind on my face. I missed life under clouds while in space.”
(https://twitter.com/AstroMarshburn/status/341394697975128064) .

But it’s not Science Fiction! This is a real Spaceman celebrating his return to the Green Hills of Earth!

Tomorrow is here!

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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.