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Off On A Tangent: F&SF Style
"These people are creating a terrible problem in our cities. They can't or won't hold a job, they flout the law constantly and neglect their children, they drink too much and their moral standards would shame an alley cat. For some reason or other, they absolutely refuse to accommodate themselves to any kind of decent, civilized life."So begins the title essay—the first of six—in Dr. Thomas Sowell's brilliant 2005 book Black Rednecks and White Liberals. The initial reaction to such a statement is that its author is referring to blacks, but quite the contrary. As Sowell is quick to point out, "This was said in 1956 in Indianapolis, not about blacks or other minorities, but about poor whites from the South." Sowell explains that "When poor whites from the South moved into Northern cities to work in war plants during the Second World War, 'occasionally a white southerner would find that a flat or furnished room had "just been rented" when the landlord heard his southern accent.' " To clarify his point, Sowell makes the observation that "More is involved here than a mere parallel between blacks and Southern whites. What is involved is a common subculture that goes back for centuries, which has encompassed everything from ways of talking to attitudes toward education, violence, and sex—and which originated not in the South, but in those parts of the British Isles from which the white Southerners came. That culture long ago died out where it originated in Britain, while surviving in the American South. Then it largely died out among both white and black Southerners, while still surviving today in the poorest and worst of the urban black ghettos."
Dr. Thomas Sowell is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, newspaper columnist and essayist, and the recipient of many awards and prizes. It has been said of him that he "is America's foremost public intellectual," and that he "is a national treasure, America's most perceptive, productive, and thoughtful commentator on racial and ethnic issues." Black Rednecks and White Liberals is rigorously and exhaustively researched, every assertion and "fact" backed by the historical record. By our count, the sources used in this book nudge toward one thousand (873, give or take). Professor Sowell also happens to be black.
We present a couple more (brief) useful nuggets of information to tack onto your mental bulletin board before getting into the SF side of the matter.
To summarize some of the history Sowell lays out as groundwork for the major points in his opening essay, we learn that the British emigration to America in the mid- to late-18th century came from two distinct subcultures reflecting two distinct regions of that country, as well as the entirety of the British Isles: "It has been estimated that, while at least three-quarters of the settlers in colonial New England originated in the lowland southeastern half of Britain, a similarly large proportion of the population of the South originated in the Scottish highlands, Ireland, Wales, or the northern and western uplands of England." But wherein lies the significance of this migration pattern? For centuries the northern borderlands of England were a "no-man's land between Scotland and England—as well as from the Scottish highlands and from Ulster County, Ireland." These areas were lawless, violent, and quite the opposite of the areas surrounding London and the southern part of England. Thus, when the white, much less civilized "rednecks" and "crackers" (as they were called by their fellow Brits) from the northern wilds of Britain emigrated to the American South, they brought their culture with them; said culture then being transferred to their slaves.
In a telling indictment, Sowell notes: "The cultural values and social patterns prevalent among Southern whites included an aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, improvidence, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneurship, reckless searches for excitement, lively music and dance, and a style of religious oratory marked by strident rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery. This oratorical style carried over into the political oratory of the region in both the Jim Crow era and the civil rights era, and has continued on into our own times among black politicians, preachers and activists. Touchy pride, vanity, and boastful self-dramatization were also part of this redneck culture among people from regions of Britain 'where the civilization was the least developed.' "
One of the more disturbing aspects of the culture transferred to the South from the barbaric northern regions of Britain was that concerned with pride and violence. As Sowell cites: "Centuries before 'black pride' became a fashionable phrase, there was cracker pride—and it was very much the same kind of pride. It was not pride in any particular achievement or set of behavioral standards or moral principles adhered to. It was instead a touchiness about anything that might be even remotely construed as a personal slight, much less an insult, combined with a willingness to erupt into violence over it." . . . "In the vernacular of our later times, [the cracker] had been 'dissed'—and he was not going to stand for it, regardless of the consequences for himself or others." Sowell goes on to offer as evidence the rise of the dueling period in America (predominately in the South), where even the barest imagined verbal slight was cause for a pistol duel in order to defend one's honor.
This same cultural transference took place when the Britons in the south of England emigrated to predominantly northeastern states—they brought their more (respectively) civilized, lawful culture with them (including their work ethic and sense of morality, which was in distinct opposition to those settling in the South).
Let us now skip ahead to the issue of manumission—the freeing of the slaves. Putting aside entirely the issue of state vs. federal rights and focusing exclusively on the issue of slavery itself, let's examine—in extremely broad outline—the positions put forth on what to do with them, if anything at all. In essence, there were three distinct views on what to do with the slaves. One was a reaffirmation of the status quo, i.e. keeping the blacks enslaved indefinitely (this view espoused by Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina). The other end of the spectrum, on moral grounds, believed the slaves should be freed immediately "with the full rights of citizenship." This view was advanced by one William Lloyd Garrison of Massachusetts (among others, of course). In 1856, none other than Robert E. Lee "regarded slavery as an evil that he wished to see somehow gradually ended." Thus, a more moderate, middle-ground view.
Many in America who held to several middle-ground positions and who opposed slavery but who did not embrace an immediate release of millions of slaves into the general population, did so for practical, realistic reasons, and not on "abstract principles" as reasoned by such as Calhoun and Garrison. Thus, while some may have been against abolition, it was not for the obvious inference that they were racist, or pro-slavery. Sowell encapsulates the fears of many when he writes, "Freeing in their midst millions of people of an alien race and unknown disposition, and with no history in either Africa or America that would prepare them to be citizens of a society such as the United States, was not an experiment that many were willing to risk in these [southern] states. Not when it could mean risking their lives."
Pointing up the stark differences between the purist abolitionists, those who advocated freedom for the slaves now, and damn the consequences, and those who also wished to free the slaves but with a more real world approach, Sowell sums up the problem:
"Some abolitionists even criticized Frederick Douglass for purchasing his legal freedom, rather than continue to be in danger as a fugitive slave, because paying compensation for one's freedom was taken as a legitimization of slavery. It was the abolitionists' doctrinaire stances and heedless disregard of consequences, both of their policy and their rhetoric, which marginalized them, even in the North and even among those who were seeking to find ways to phase out the institution of slavery, so as to free those being held in bondage without unleashing a war between the states or a war between the races. Garrison could say 'the question of expedience has nothing to do with that of right' –which is true in the abstract, but irrelevant in a world where consequences matter. Too often the abolitionists were intolerant of those seeking the same goal of ending slavery when those others—including Lincoln—proceeded in ways that took account of the inescapable constraints of the times, instead of being oblivious to context and constraints."So there we have it. The forces and pieces are in play. Millions of slaves thrust into a distant land who have perforce adopted over time the culture of their southern masters; slaves who are uneducated, having extremely limited skills, and with no real idea of how to function as citizens in the "outside world" in which they will soon find themselves. Where will they go, what will they do, how will they assimilate into our American culture as freemen if suddenly set free? Will millions of them from all over the south migrate northward, inundating the industrial cities of the north? With few or no useful skills and no education will they place an untenable economic burden on Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, New York? If unemployable, will they turn to crime to survive? Will prison populations explode? If sick, will they be able to afford care? If not, what diseases are they apt to spread? Or would they be better off remaining "at home," where their former owners could hire them to do what they have always done on the plantation, where they would at least have food, shelter, and now a wage? We know what happened. The question is, What would you have done? Would you have turned all of the slaves free, all at once and immediately, without regard to any possible consequences for themselves or society? Or would you have favored a more measured approach to their manumission?
Science fiction writers have, from time to time, offered their views on this thorny and troubled period in our history. One of the most audacious, disturbing, and downright gruesome speculations comes from a novelette in the September, 1960 issue of F&SF, George P. Elliott's "The NRACP."
NRACP stands for "National Relocation Authority: Colored Persons." Senator John C. Calhoun would have been proud, as Elliott does this pro-slavery senator one better. We have a nationwide system of relocation camps, where colored people are sent ostensibly to a better place, in hopes that their families will soon join them in this better life. The true purpose is, of course, kept secret. Communications are censored in the extreme, and even civil employees of the camps are convinced they are doing nothing wrong. One such low-level civil servant is transferred to a new camp. Gradually he comes to learn the truth from others who cannot live with the truth any longer. The awful truth being that not only are colored persons being separated out from the general population, they are being fattened up and then butchered for meat, a relative scarcity in this fictional America. Told in a straightforward, serious manner, the horrific scenario is so beyond the pale that it becomes clear that Elliott is offering his own modest proposal, this time with race relations and what could be done to ameliorate the race problem in America. It is chilling, brutal in its frankness, and a shocker of the sort one sees rarely in today's PC atmosphere.
A few years following Elliott's story, Harry Harrison would pen Make Room! Make Room! (1966), which would then be filmed in 1973 as Soylent Green. Though dealing with overpopulation and not race relations, anyone who has seen the movie always remembers the final revelatory lines of Charlton Heston that "Soylent Green is people! Soylent Green is people!" In "The NRACP" one can't help but think that a similar final line would be "Black Angus steaks are people! Black Angus steaks are people!"
Another story—this time from a 1949 issue of Super Science Stories, almost a decade before "The NRACP"—and coming from a most unlikely source, is A. E. van Vogt's "The Earth Killers." Strangely plotted and told rather crudely by today's standards, it involves a madman racist in the higher echelons of the military, and his delusional plot (with a lot of underground earthside help with those who believe in his cause) to nuke America from lunar bases. The nutzo idea being that if we were to return to an agrarian economy, we would again need slaves to do our work for us. Or something like that. Anyway, the atomic planned destruction of America is thwarted, spaceships are built to fly to the moon and destroy the nuke bases, and all is seemingly well. But not so. As the military traitor is bloody and dying he utters, with his final breath, "We got even with you nigger lovers, didn't we?" Confused as to his meaning, van Vogt enlightens us with these final lines from the story: "The first atomic war had been, not an international, but a civil war. And now that Tormey was dead, the gang would scatter. A gang of race-prejudiced Americans. The war was over. Irrevocably." Quite the bleak, depressing, cautionary ending. Yet sadly with more than a grain of truth buried deep inside it.Yet another pro-slavery "plan" with which John C. Calhoun would be proud.
Switching to the more pleasant subject of cannibalism in a few SF stories, we come to the Spring, 2006 issue of the Canadian magazine On Spec, and a terse little story by Robert Burke Richardson, "The Girl With the Half-Moon Eyes." Tightly written, with nary a wasted word, Richardson's story is, in its own way, just as gruesome as the Elliott. Young "Bangalore" prostitutes, ten- to twelve-year-old girls (already well used) whom their owners/pimps have decided to euthanize rather than have them run off or risk causing other sorts of trouble at that age, are now collected in dump trucks and unceremoniously unloaded at a reprocessing plant, where their biodegradable biogenic material (i.e. their dead bodies) are used to make the rich topsoil from which special plants grow and are then used to produce petroleum to heat houses and run cars. The refinery tour guide through which we get our information is a cavalier racist, cold and disgusting. One example will suffice:
" 'I don't mean to be racist, but have you ever seen an Iraqi?' You shake your head no, and Sawnhey leans in closer. Her breath is sterile, like an instrument in a hospital. 'The buggers are really oily,' she says. 'You can see it in their pores.' "The title of the story refers to one of the little dead girls the main character sees dumped in a little mountain of bodies, fresh off the truck. Chilling.
While not cannibalism in the literal sense, it is yet cannibalism in that body parts are cannibalized for a specific purpose. Richardson has extrapolated his story from the already existing problem of child slavery/prostitution (not exclusive to, but most prevalent in Southeast Asia), and advanced the unsavory practice to its logical conclusion. If certain amoral child slave-traders are already treating our most vulnerable and helpless like meat on the street, or better yet plant food, then let's take it one step further to make the point in the here and now. He has succeeded, we think, better than he had hoped. A chilling, angry story that hits its mark all too well.
"Damascus" a novelette by Daryl Gregory in the December, 2006 F&SF, also deals with literal cannibalism, this time of a religious nature. The story cleverly intertwines a real affliction, TLE (temporal lobe epilepsy) and one of its purported side effects—seeing someone who isn't really present—with a strange, spin-off Christian cult of women who take the eating of Christ's flesh (as in communion) literally. When it comes time for the protagonist to partake of the flesh of her dying predecessor in the cult (there's something in the blood that needs to be passed on to give one immortality of a sort, but at a cost), it is her inner conflict upon which her decision turns. The thing is, whatever is in the blood can be passed to others whether they want to join the cult or not, and since the cult are true believers they are hell-bent on spreading the empowered (or tainted, take your pick) blood to the world. What will our protagonist do? Will her choice decide the fate of others as well? Will she eat of the flesh, regardless of whether it makes her a willing carrier or not, though she be saved? Read this cleverly thought out story combining real science (i.e. medicine to be precise) and a Christianity-inspired take on cannibalism to find out.
Finally, we come to a real hoot of a short story. It's Carol Emshwiller's "Killers" from the Oct./Nov., 2006 F&SF. (What is it with cannibalism and F&SF by the way? Aside from the horror field, one rarely reads a cannibal story anymore. Yet here we cite three from F&SF, and two within two months!)[Footnote1: The same question has been eating away at me. ---ed.]
Without getting too specific (the author doesn't, so why should we?) this story takes place in the near future, somewhere out in the American northwest. There's been some sort of war going on (strong hints of a terrorist uprising; they were hiding among us with their olive skin and dark eyes, and they're engaging us on a guerrilla-warfare level at present). Food is scarce, the men are off fighting the bad guys/terrorists—whomever. A frightened woman, alone and lonely, saves a starving, ragged, dirty Bad Guy who has been sniffing around her house. Even knowing how bloodthirsty the Enemy is, killing anything and everything just to make it harder on Us, she nurses him back to health. She begins to fancy him (remember she is very lonely, what with all the men gone). She finally takes him to town to meet the other women who have kept things running. At one town meeting it becomes clear that one of the prettier women has taken a fancy to him, too. And he returns her looks, ignoring our lonely protagonist who has done so much for him. She gets pissed with jealousy and shoots him in the back with his own crossbow, killing him. Since meat has become scarcer and scarcer, the women have taken to stringing up anything they find, or kill, in their repository, for future meals. Including Terrorist Joe. In this story the hunter (terrorist Joe) has become the hunted.
Gimme a break. Killing a psychopathic terrorist outright is one thing, but to shoot one in the back and then string him up for future food because of female jealousy is so petty as to defy belief. You know, you've nursed this guy back to health and all, you like him and want him to like (i.e. screw) you because you're so desperately lonely, and so what if he may have killed your brother and cut his head off (who knows), and might kill you as well after he's gotten his jollies with you. It's not fair, and you hate him, and he doesn't like you in that way after all, so to hell with him. You kill him and will most likely eat him. A perfect, selfish, woman-scorned story involving a murder. Of a lowlife man, at that.
Well, consider this. Near the beginning of her writing career (1955), Ms. Emshwiller wrote, in a 1958 issue of (again, coincidentally) F&SF, a short story titled "Pelt." Judy Merril reprinted it in her 4th Annual Volume of The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy (Dell pb, 1959). As Ms. Merril's intro to the story puts it: " 'Pelt' is the story of a dog and a man on a hunting trip on a far distant planet in a future perhaps not too remote." It's the usual hunting-merely-for-sport-sake-is-wrong tale, and this practice is beneath us as human beings. The hunter is out for trophies, sometimes taking only the head, hands and/or feet, and pelt of an animal for his trophy room. This time he has mercilessly killed a more-or-less sentient creature whom Emshwiller goes to great pains to depict in pushing our emotional buttons. We feel such sympathy for this sad creature who has a family and true feelings. And only because of the higher morality of the dead creature's compatriots toward the hunter do we, the reader, hate the man and laud the alien creature's higher moral sense. And rightly so. No argument from us.
A year earlier (as a warmup effort to "Pelt" it seems to us), in the May, 1957 issue of Science Fiction Stories, Emshwiller deals with exactly the same theme in "Hunting Machine." A rich husband and wife are off a-hunting for their limit of trophies. All they need to get their limit is a bear (actually they have reached their limit, but intend to kill and bury the bear, then come back for it later to avoid the authorities). Their "hunting machine," which they call rover, is a fancy robot able to track and run to ground any animal programmed into it. Events go slightly awry, and it is rover who must save them by intervening and killing the bear. Seeing the bloody corpse of the bear before them, dripping blood, buzzing flies, and all, they decide it is too much work to skin the dead beast, and so leave it to rot. So much for the bearskin rug they had hoped to place before their home fireplace. They are portrayed as the worst sort of cads (which they are), while the bear is humanized for the sake of our sympathies when the author slyly refers to the bear as "he" and "him," rather than the appropriate "it."
"Hunting Machine" and "Pelt" are the same story, "Pelt" being a much superior refinement of the earlier "Hunting Machine." In "Hunting Machine" we have a husband and wife, and a mechanical dog. In "Pelt" the female element has been removed so that only a male becomes the object of our scorn, and the mechanical "dog" is now a flesh and blood dog. Also, the sympathy for the hunted animal in "Pelt" has been ramped up considerably compared to that of the earth bear in "Hunting Machine." In other words, in the revised version of "Hunting Machine" the two major alterations involve removing any culpability for a female, and a heightened sense of empathy for the hunted creature (which is much more human-like than a mere earthly bear—an important change when it comes to the sympathy factor).
But here is my dilemma and confusion. On the one hand (in both earlier stories) Emshwiller chides and tries to shame the hunters' ethics and/or moral sense—the human being—for killing what was to them an animal; in one case a sentient animal with whom we were made to identify, and in the other case an innocent earthly animal with which we were made to identify. The morality and ethics of the animals (especially in "Pelt") are presented to us as higher than those of the human being. Fine. But on the other hand, as presented in the current story, it is okay to kill a human being (and string him up in the barn for a future feast, at that!) out of selfish jealousy and with no remorse shown whatsoever. Hmm. Human being kills animals for sport: Bad. Human female kills and will eventually eat a human male out of jealousy: Serves him right. Where's the consistent morality here, we ask ourself? Seems like animals (even non-sentient ones) are granted some sort of a priori priority status over humans, given the message in "Killers." It seems to us that the motive for killing in both cases is wrong. Are the hunters more wrong than the jilted woman who kills without remorse or guilt? Is there a double standard in play here (consciously or not)? Given the evidence, it would seem so.
Carol Emshwiller is a consummate storyteller. Her tales are exquisitely crafted, each word or scene or evocation of emotion carefully chosen for a desired effect. With this in mind, observe, if you will, that the obvious sympathies we are led to feel for the hunted animals in "Hunting Machine" and "Pelt" are not in evidence when it comes to the hunted male in "Killers." At best, we feel, rather, an emotional ambivalence for the ragged, starving, near-death terrorist, Joe. Though he has not harmed the protagonist and is unarmed, and is even docile enough to be presented at a town meeting, the sympathy we felt at the death of the animals in the previous pair of stories is not present in this one, because, after all (as the author is careful to present him, and which fact has quietly been planted in the back of the reader's mind) is the fact that he is still just a terrorist. Emshwiller has carefully removed the sympathetic "sting" from his murder. We just don't feel the same heartfelt anguish we felt for the harmless hunted beasts in "Hunting Machine" and "Pelt." We wonder why Ms. Emshwiller chose this emotional "switch" when it came to a hunted human being, this time killed by a woman (the woman being removed, remember, from the story and therefore any culpability in her rewrite of "Hunting Machine").
We are acutely aware that it is perfectly legitimate for an author to take different positions on an issue or theme depending on the exigencies, or purpose of any given story. We also believe that there are certain stories where an author makes a specific point for a specific purpose and does entertain a philosophy (i.e. belief system) in his or her work, and therefore it is fair game to question an apparent inconsistency, or double standard, in this clearly stated (in previous work) philosophy. This is clearly the case in 1957's "Hunting Machine" and 1958's "Pelt." With 2006's "Killers," Ms. Emshwiller returns for a third time to a variation of the hunter-and-hunted theme, which seems to be a favorite with her. In the present case, however, when it is a human who is the hunted rather than an animal, not only is murder acceptable (for just as petty a motive as that of trophy hunting), but so is cannibalism. We are left to ask the simple question: Why?
All this talk of cannibalism has made my stomach growl. I now find myself hungry. I think Ms. Emshwiller has a point in "Killers" after all, and I'm taking it. After all, what's good for the goose ought to be good for the gander, right? Taking "Killers" to heart and at face value for the high ethical standard it sets, and the message it sends to impressionable young girls who might read this story and think it okay to off a former boyfriend –(can't you just see a future female-perpetrated Columbine here, oh you so sensitive people with the welfare of your chillun at heart?) –I think I'll go out to the nearest bar, hunt me up one o' them thar wimmin, break one from the herd, shoulder her home, and string her up in the back room till she's "ready." Make no bones about it, it's been a long time since I et me a woman. I do so only out of love—and hunger.
Dave Truesdale began the short fiction review magazine Tangent in 1993. Since then, it has been honored with 4 Hugo nominations and 1 World Fantasy Award nomination. For several years in the 1990s, he was deeply involved with the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and in 1998 was a World Fantasy Award judge. He edited the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America from 1999-2002. Tangent Online can be found at www.tangentonline.com.
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Copyright © 1998–2019 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide