Saturday, February 15, 2014

Two dystopian stories from the Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories: Harry Harrison & Gene Wolfe

Cover to a recent edition
Today I read three stories from Tom Shippey's Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories which I knew ahead of time I would like, Harry Harrison's "A Criminal Act," Gene Wolfe's "How the Whip Came Back," and Thomas M. Disch's "Problems of Creativeness."  In this post I will talk about the Harrison and Wolfe stories, which I read two or three years ago; in a later post I will compare the Disch story to its revision, "Death of Socrates," which appears in 334, which I read about ten years ago.  All three of these stories were worth a reread and I strongly recommend all of them.  

"A Criminal Act" by Harry Harrison

Harrison is well known for his broad satires and humorous novels, and this story is also satirical, but I appreciated the fact that it is not too silly - the action sequences, for example, are written straight and I thought quite well, like something out of a good war or adventure story.

This story, like Ballard's and (to some extent) Aldiss's from this collection, is about overpopulation.  It could also be an indictment of democracy and mob rule, like the Kipling story.

In 1993 (over 25 years after the story was written in 1967), the government of what appears to be a socialist and/or authoritarian state where everyone lives on government rations and the people have no right to question the laws, legislates a limit to the number of children a man can father.  Bizarrely, instead of the police enforcing the law, should you father a third child and fail to take advantage of a government abortion or euthanasia clinic, a civilian volunteer is given permission to kill you. (This reminds me of the proscription lists of the Roman Civil Wars and the legal concept of outlawry and "the wolf's head" in medieval England.)

In the story Benedict (which means "blessed," perhaps a reference to such stock phrases as "blessed with a baby"), an old-fashioned man who talks about the "sanctity of life," and "the inviolability of marriage" and feels that a man's place is "out in front, defending his family" has fathered his third child, and so a volunteer, Mortimer (a pun on "mort", the Latin word for death?) comes to kill him.  The conservative father, armed with a revolver, holes up in his apartment and defends himself from the Mortimer, who has a government-supplied machine pistol.  During the siege and shootout, Mortimer, who is some kind of anti-population activist, and Benedict argue over the role of the individual in society and the justice of the population control law.  Harrison seems to side with the volunteer's arguments, but at the same time hints that Mortimer's support for the law is just as emotional and personal as is Benedict's abhorrence of the law.

This is a good story, though maybe vulnerable to attacks on feminist grounds.  The law seems to focus solely on the man's role in pregnancy (Mortimer is not allowed to kill the mother, just the father.)  Also, Benedict's wife acts stupidly, putting Benedict in terrible danger repeatedly.  The foolishness of Benedict's wife may be a sign of Harrison's own hostility to religious people and/or conservatives, and his own concern about overpopulation.  Benedict's wife may serve as an example supporting the argument that ordinary people are too stupid to do the right thing by the environment/society, and so elite experts are justified in forcing ordinary people to act as the elites know they should.

"How the Whip Came Back" by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe, my favorite writer, in this 1970 story presents a dystopian vision of a socialistic 21st century.  The Catholic Church has fewer than a million members.  The Soviet Union has won the Cold War; the United States has abandoned all pretense of supporting the free market and the U.S. government is imitating Soviet policies.  Crime is rampant in America, the national debt is high, and the economy is a wreck.

The plot of the story concerns a woman who is in Geneva for an important international conference; she does not represent a country, but apparently the charitable sector, and has only a symbolic, non-binding vote.  The international community is facing a major decision; the governments of the world, apparently led by the Soviet Union, the United States, and France, want to "lease" the many members of their prison populations to businesses and individuals - essentially this is a reintroduction of slavery.  The woman at the center of the story vocalizes the arguments against such a measure, but decides to vote for the measure because it will give her the opportunity to enslave her former husband, who broke her heart and is currently in prison.  Wolfe implies that her decision, for public relations reasons, is the decisive one that makes the legalization of slavery possible.

This is a well-written and quite good story, but you can see how it could offend people.  For one thing, Wolfe clearly argues that fewer people attending church and/or believing in God is correlated with an increase in depravity.  (Polls indicate that most people support selling prisoners into slavery, and it is argued that people love the idea of having slaves.)  More glaringly, we have the main character, a woman who apparently knows the difference between right and wrong, but dooms millions of people (not just criminals - it is clear that the Communist Party in Eastern Europe will not limit itself to criminals, and implied that the U.S. will follow suit) for selfish, jealous, emotional reasons.  This is not a flattering depiction of womankind!  

The story includes a brilliant and memorable image: a robot in the shape of an old-fashioned writing desk, a Louis XIV secretary.  When you google "Louis XIV secretary" you get zilch, but "Louis XVI secretary" yields many results.  Is this a typo?  Or is Wolfe trying to remind us of King Louis XIV, an adherent of the theory of the divine right of kings whose long reign saw the centralization of the administration of France, oppression of the Protestant French population and all kinds of aggressive wars?

Another theme of the story is how fashions change; the first three paragraphs of the story are all about how red and green are in, are "modern," this season in clothes and furniture.  (It may be significant that the protagonist dislikes the modern style and is fond of antique furniture and the work of Renaissance sculptor Cellini.)  Two characters talk about how it is possible that the Catholic Church, apparently on its lasts legs, may become fashionable again.  Wolfe seems to be implying that beliefs that we take for granted as self-evident (like the belief that everybody in 1970 would have expressed, that slavery is wrong) are in fact just fashions; for thousands of years slavery was a normal part of life, and it could come back into fashion in the 21st century just as easily as it went out of fashion in the 19th century.

An engaging and thought-provoking piece of work, entertaining and challenging.

No comments:

Post a Comment