Thursday, December 3, 2020

WITH FLAMING SWORDS, "One voice is easily silenced."

Astounding Science Fiction Magazine, September 1942
free to read on the Internet Archive

Rating: 4* of five

When the estimable James W. Harris, a science fiction fandom monadnock, reviewed this obscure piece of SF's long and patchy history, I ran right out and found it. His review, linked above, wasn't a warble of ecstasy. It was more a muted fluting of appreciative indifference...the B-student's reward from the preceptor "some good ideas, execution needs work" about says it...though the, um, less-than-factually-grounded science (even for the era) gets a drubbing.
note the shiny gent in panel four...taken from Classics of Science Fiction, post linked above

What on this wide green Earth could lead this minor, forgotten writer's minor, forgotten 1942 story (anthologized precisely once) to merit a full four stars? I'm not even going to pretend I care for a single second about the junk science. Here is narrator Saint Robert Hanson explicating the whole rigmarole:
"Yes. Listen. Here is the truth. Nearly three hundred years ago, a new weapon was introduced into warfare. It was fired only once. The destruction was so great and terrible that nations by common consent outlawed it, for it destroyed friend and foe indiscriminately. Thousands were killed within the radius of its effect. It was silent death, for the gun was a ray gun. But listen. On the edge of that area of destruction, people were affected by that ray. Their germ plasm was affected so that male children born of those individuals were born with an aura...."

There's more, but the point is made. This ain't hard SF, or even particularly well-scienced SF. I don't know if, in 1942 as Author Cartmill was writing this, the term "social SF" had been applied or if that coinage was still in a goopier, sappier future. I'm looking at this marvy as someone fresh from the grindhouse that is the 45th Presidency of the USA.

What has happened to these glowy-boys? Some bright spark decided that the post-apocalyptic chaos could best and easiest be controlled by making the poor sprogs into objects of veneration. Thus quite probably saving their lives, since the hoi polloi are ever prone to killing those they Other...and these kids are Othered for all to see! A technocratic theocracy arises under the Saints, and ordinary men and women are enslaved to accomplish their will. Many fanciful things, like garageable planes for all, are commonplace under the rule of the Saints. But the cost to the average person is complete loss of freedom, and utter, bone-deep conditioning to accept that the Saints are Divine. Why, even the woman that Saint Hanson wants to marry still addresses him as "your Reverence" and takes a completely submissive stance in relation to him. An incel's dream, this least if he glows it is. And like people from time immemorial, the status quo has no more staunch defenders than those who lose under its strictures:
"Please believe that you are wrong, your Reverence. Even if you're right, you're wrong. You will destroy faith. That's all we have, our faith. Take it away, and what will become of us? Have you thought of that?"

Thus does Ellen address him, though only at the behest of his enemy among the Saints which possibly explains her temerity in disagreeing with a Saint. And I've thought of little except that since 9 November 2016. The people who benefit the absolute least under the current system, not to mention the efforts of ephemeral intensifiers like the current Administration, are defending the system! At the ballot box! And no one can blast open their addled, misinformed, and downright feeble minds...the world isn't working for you, and if you need proof, look at this bloody pandemic!

So this story, like all good stories, is the story of how we mere mortals screw up and screw over any- and everyone and -thing. In order to maintain a myth of our own superior understanding of the mechanisms regulating our lives, we're liable to fall for the most absurd nonsense. "I don't believe you," cry the uneducated to the deeply learnèd subject-matter expert. It means we know better, you can't fool us! And that's exactly what The System, in this story and in 21st-century America, needs. Because then it's easy to manipulate reality, to say, "you have enough," to people who make the stuff of life and give it to the greedy elite.

We're driven to be "on top of the world" because...well, I'm not all the way sure why. I'm off that carousel and for the life of me I can't remember what made it so desirable to have more than I need and still want more. It's been a very long time that I've been off it, you see.

It's also the story of how a passionate band of like-minded freedom fighters (or a passionate band of scum-sucking wold-be slave-owners) can alter the course of history. Haven't we seen the evidence often enough to know it when it's right there? Does it take a Rosa Parks, a David Duke, a John Lewis, a Donald Trump, to prove *again* how vile people can be, and how the vile can be fought? At the end of this story, a confrontation takes place that's taken place innumberable times before. The powerless rise up against their oppressors when the passionate band show them that they can win, and gives them a reason to want to win.

For that reason, I give this pretty awkward and not remotely believable story four hope-twinkling stars. (Even though the victory is most certainly temporary.)

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