Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Meandering Manifesto, Part 2: Moral Turpitude

Continuing from Meandering Manifesto, Part 1: Tintinnabulation...

I've been thinking a lot about society's relationship with bendy people. Of the disparate sources that contributed to my musings, the most unexpected was Skylark of Space. It was written between 1915 and 1921 and first published in 1928. It's considered by many to be the first space opera, and man, it's quite a ride. I highly recommend it. You can read the full text on Project Gutenberg.

One of the reasons the book is such a gas is that it's breathtakingly foreign to modern sensibilities. For example, late in the book there's about to be a double wedding on the planet Osnome between two Earth couples: The good guys and the damsels they've rescued from the bad guy. The leader of Kondal, the nation they've befriended, is holding forth on Kondalian customs.
     "I have called in our most expert weavers and tailors, to make the gowns. Before they arrive, let us discuss the ceremony and decide what it will be. You are all somewhat familiar with our customs, but on this I make very sure. Each couple is married twice. The first marriage is symbolized by the exchange of plain bracelets. This marriage lasts two years, during which period either may divorce the other by announcing the fact."
     "Hmmm..." Crane said. "Some such system of trial marriage is advocated among us every few years, but they all so surely degenerate into free love that none has found a foothold."
     "We have no such trouble. You see, before the first marriage each couple, from lowest to highest, is given a mental examination. Any person whose graphs show moral turpitude is shot."
Whu... buh... WHAT???  That was my initial reaction, and it still hasn't faded. The thought of exterminating people who don't live up to a standard has been anathema to most folks ever since Hitler's Final Solution. Obviously the idea wasn't so abhorrent in 1921.

Speaking of extermination, the second most breathtaking thing about the book is that the Earth people give the Kondalians the technological knowledge that will allow them to annihilate their Mardonalian enemies. Just a few pages after the wedding, we find a justification for this action.
     "You do not understand?" he went on, with a deep light shining in his eyes. "It is inevitable that two peoples inhabiting worlds so widely separated as are our two should be possessed of widely-varying knowledge and abilities, and these strangers have already made it possible for us to construct engines of destruction which shall obliterate Mardonale completely...." A fierce shout of joy interrupted the speaker and the nobles sprang to their feet, saluting the visitors with upraised weapons. As soon as they had reseated themselves, the Karbix continued:
     "That is the boon. The vindication of our system of evolution is easily explained. The strangers landed first upon Mardonale. Had Nalboon met them in honor, he would have gained the boon. But he, with the savagery characteristic of his evolution, attempted to kill his guests and steal their treasures, with what results you already know. We, on our part, in exchange for the few and trifling services we have been able to render them, have received even more than Nalboon would have obtained, had his plans not been nullified by their vastly superior state of evolution."
Wow. Now I see Star Trek's Prime Directive in the context of the late twentieth century. The contrast between E.E. "Doc" Smith and Gene Roddenberry is blinding: at the beginning of the twentieth century, there were clearly some lessons yet to learn about stepping into a foreign civil war and handing over weapons to "our guys". And there's that pesky genocide issue again.

World War II gave people in the United States a powerfully negative association with racial sanctions. I think that this stigma favors inclusiveness, so it helps progressive movements. On the other hand, World War II also made socialism into a Brobdingnagian boogeyman by associating it with both National Socialism and Communism. Just glance at today's headlines and you'll see that that one's still got legs.

There are plenty of people alive today who, as children, ran laughing past newsstands stocked with the issues of Amazing Stories that brought Doc Smith's unapologetically genocidal and eugenics-happy vision to the general public. They liked it well enough for it to blossom into a series of books, so apparently folks had no problem with an absolutist, conformist vision of their society. Think of the changes that have been wrought in a single lifetime. Think of the assumptions and certainties that have shattered. Be grateful for the opportunities that the twentieth century afforded for progressives, and understand how fragile the circumstances are in which progressive thought can fluorish. And be aware that the bubble could pop at any moment. We have to be smart about how we maintain and reinforce it.

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