Saturday, 22 August 2009

Out of the Silence

Speaking of socially tinged science fiction, I picked up another book at the same Lifeline sale. It’s called Out of the Silence be Erle Cox. It was published in 1925, and what I said about the advance of science fiction writing since 1977 goes double. It’s a clumsy book, but fascinating.

After a very obviously SF prologue, the story proper starts like something from Miles Franklin or Frank Dalby Davison. A young vineyard owner, Alan Dundas, works on digging his dam, is visited by his friend from town, and gets lined up for a romance with a nice local girl. The difference, however, is that he is prevented from getting very far with the dam because a huge solid construction is in his way just beneath the surface. Intrigued, he digs on and finds the door.

There follows a rather laboured rewriting of Sleeping Beauty as he is forced to overcome various life-threatening traps on his way to the centre of the structure, where he finds an extraordinarily beautiful woman in suspended animation. On a table nearby are instructions for her revival.

Once he revives her, with the aid of his doctor friend Dick Barry, the story shifts gear once again – and this is where the social bit comes in. It turns out the woman, whose name is Earani, is from a human civilization destroyed millions of years before by some cataclysm. She has been placed in suspended animation against the time when humanity would re-evolve to a level of sophistication where it could benefit from her knowledge.

Some of the things she has to share are undoubtedly useful – she has the ability to control other peoples’ minds, she can fly, she has amazing technologies stored with her as well as a vast library. All this, and her incredible beauty, place Alan completely under her spell, his previous romance forgotten. Dick, on the other hand, is less sure. Some of her ideas seem terrifying. She reveals, without the slightest tinge of shame, that the pinnacle of humanity was attained through a completely ruthless program of eugenics, including elimination of all coloured races. Her mission is to repeat this process, and she is completely ruthless in eliminating opposition.

Two things are quite stunning about this book. One is that it was written in the early 1920s – Fascism was certainly on the rise, and eugenic ideas were popular throughout the Western world, but the holocaust was still twenty years away. Cox, however, leaves no doubt about the connection between eugenics and genocide.

The second stunning thing is that through Earani he makes genocide sound plausible, even desirable. Alan, a humane and intelligent man, is convinced, and even tries to convince Dick. While Dick remains unconverted, Earani is the clear winner of the intellectual argument. The opposition is more visceral even than Alan’s support – he can’t quite explain why, but Dick finds her ideas horrific and sets out to thwart her. In the end Earani is defeated (in a manner appropriate to a piece of early 20th century romantic fiction – read it and find out!) and I assume this means Cox himself doesn’t endorse her views.

This is as it should be, but it’s a concern that Cox can’t explain why. This is because he fails to challenge the premise of racial inferiority. When they discuss the “problem of the coloured races” they are on common ground – it’s only on the solution that they differ.

Yet it’s the analysis of the problem which is at fault. The idea of eugenics is that some humans are inferior. “Humane” eugenicists advocate that these inferior people should be treated kindly but, for the sake of the overall improvement of the species, prevented from reproducing. In more extreme forms, like the Nazis by the end of World War 2 (or Earani), inferior humans should simply be eliminated to allow the superior to thrive.

Yet who gets to decide who is superior? The usual criteria is fitness for survival, but if you interpret this in evolutionary terms it is self evident that “coloured” people are superior, given there are so many more of them. This in itself, though, is misleading. Evolutionary thinking has no place for superiority or inferiority. Species survive or fail because of chance relationships between inherited characteristics and environmental factors. Survival is a matter of luck.

The reality of eugenics is a long way from either way of arguing from evolution. Every eugenicist sees the superior person as the one most like them, or at least most like the ideal figures of their culture. Hitler thought the Germans were superior and other races more or less so depending on how “Aryan” they were. Edgar Rice Burroughs made Tarzan the son of a British Lord. No doubt an African eugenicist could demonstrate the superiority of African heritage.

On the other hand, the standards of right or wrong we learn from any of our major religions stress that superiority is not hereditary at all. We all have the capacity to attain the heights of humanity, with God’s help, despite our inherited characteristics – whether we do or not depends on our choices, not our genes. Nor is this superiority obvious to the causal observer. Paul says “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise…the weak things of the world to shame the strong…so that no-one may boast before him.” So despite losing the argument, Dick Barry attained superiority by risking his life for what he knew in his heart to be right. May we all do the same when our time comes.


Anonymous said...

An excellent piece. You are such a talented reviewer and it is a pleasure to read your reviews.

Eugenics has had a rather bad press as a result of the worst excesses of racism of last century. But really, no-one should criticise those who may, of their own volition, choose not to pass on a gene to their children. This kind of self-sacrifice makes these our heroes. One of our common relatives had the courage of these convictions, I think.

Of course, the tyrannical manipulation of heredity a la the Nazis is obscene. Never mind genocide - the first death makes it obscene. What separates this kind of racism from eugenics generally is the lie sold to the people that race actually has some relation to genes.

In fact, there are no genetic markers for race. Racial boundaries are entirely arbitrary and utterly inconsistent at the genome level. Obvious genetic expressions, such as skin colour, representing only a minute fraction of the genome, are simply thrust into the fore of the consciousness of the people to make racial boundaries seem intuitive and real.

Our moral responsibility in 2010, far from the savagery of the 1920s, is to call racism as we see it and show it to be a ploy by one group to gain an unfair advantage over another. Let's not blur the story with genetics or eugenics. Let's rightfully manipulate the genome to make a better world and acknowledge all genomes as being equal.

I do challenge that we derive our standards of right and wrong from religions. What heredity has given us, on this front, is a conscience - a part of the brain finely tuned to collate, consolidate and operationalise social norms. It works so well we even believe we had an independent conscience speaking to us. Some mistake this for God.

Dick Barry should have listened to his conscience and it would have told him that this alien violated a fundamental human principle. He would then have shot her dead (even if he kept her image in his mind for future fantasy references).


Jon said...

Indeed - he was blinded by lust. happens to the best of us.