Go Forth And Multiply: Twelve Tales Of Repopulation edited by Gordon Van Gelder (book review)

September 18, 2017 | By | Reply More

I’ve often found when reading Science Fiction from the 50s and 60s that what dates it more than the technology is the social attitudes. It was a much more sexist world in those days and the fiction reflects that: the astronauts and scientists are almost always male and any female characters are always secretaries, stewardesses or nurses and they frequently have hysterics and need to be slapped round the face.

The collection ‘Go Forth And Multiply’ that editor Gordon Van Gelder has put together focuses on stories of repopulation either in a post-holocaust setting or sometimes on new planets amongst crash survivors. This theme presents plenty of opportunity for sexism to run rampant and wind up even the most tolerant reader, which means you can either read the stories with a mounting sense of outrage or treat them as a study of changing societal attitudes over the decades. It’s not just sexism and misogyny that come under the spotlight, but the authors in this book tackled numerous controversial subjects and, surprisingly so, considering the era they were written in. The lonely and castaway characters in these stories face issues such as polygamy, inbreeding and incest, as well as issues that would not raise an eyebrow today: living together out of wedlock and having illegitimate children. The stories take lots of styles and tones as they tackle questions such as whether humans should be obliged to continue the species and whether any individual has the right to opt out of breeding. Moral and ethical quandaries abound and often the answer the protagonists come up with is morally questionable if not horrifying, even when it is coldly logical and for the greater good. The interesting thing I found was that sometimes the reason these stories were controversial at the time is not the same reason they are controversial now. The characters may have been agonising about the fact they’re not legally married, but I’m more alarmed that they think its fine to slap the woman into submission if she’s being too opinionated or awkward. I’ll give you a brief comment or two about each story.

‘No Land Of Nod’ by Sherwood Springer tackles the issue of there being only two survivors of a global bio-weapon attack by considering the genetic implications of such a small gene-pool, as well as the taboos that would have to be broken by the second generation. This story is quite unusual in that the female character actually has a lot to say on the subject and is the one who leads the discussion. It’s a thoughtful introduction to the controversies that fill the volume.

‘On The Care And Breeding Of Pigs’ is the only published work of fiction by Rex Jatko and is refreshingly different from many of the gloomy, gritty tales of survival. There’s a larger group of survivors this time and the dilemma is more about moral values and upbringing than about hard choices and dire circumstances.

Alice Eleanor Jones gives us grim and depressing circumstances aplenty in ‘Created He Them’ in which long-suffering Ann finds herself stuck with the boorish Henry in a world where children are rarely born and the remnants of society struggle to live a vaguely normal life. As with many of the book’s stories, the situation may seem intolerable to the reader, but yet again another possible solution to the repopulation dilemma is fully explored.

An astronaut on the moon is left alone on John Brunner’s ‘The Windows Of Heaven’ and, in this seemingly hopeless case, takes a much broader view of the survival of life on Earth. I realised half-way through this story that when it was written even a man travelling to the Moon was still Science Fiction!

Randall Garrett’s ‘Queen Bee’ is described in the introduction as ‘one of the most deservedly reviled stories…’ and I can safely say that it is indeed a horrendously sexist, misogynistic, brutal tale and yet one in which the group of male characters convince themselves that they are following the only possible course of action. The human race would be better off dying out if this story was the only way to go.

In Poul Anderson’s ‘Eve Times Four’, a small party of interstellar travellers find themselves cast off in a lifeboat and marooned on a planet with no hope of rescue, in almost exactly the same situation as those in ‘Queen Bee’. They have similar discussions about their obligation to procreate but, in this case, the lone, hormone-driven male officer is outnumbered by four women with minds of their own. It’s a much more light-hearted story than ‘Queen Bee’ with a markedly different outcome and their positioning next to each other in the collection is an excellent contrast.

In ‘The Girls And Nugent Miller’ by Robert Sheckley, we come across the eponymous lone survivor who is hoping to come across others who made it through the nuclear holocaust. This is yet another tale where it is shown how quickly the trappings of civility can quickly be shed and there is some philosophical wrangling over whether males or females are to blame for the state of the world. Like most of the other stories, the answers the characters come up with are rather alarming.

E.C. Tubb gives us a much more scientific set-up in ‘Prime Essential’, in which prospective colonists waiting on board an orbiting colony ship are gradually acclimatised to the conditions they will be facing, while wondering who they will pair up with after landing. Another rather dated concept plays a big part in this tale, the assumption that everyone is a smoker, which would seem highly impractical in the closed confines of a spaceship.

Back down to a smaller-scale story next with Damon Knight’s ‘With A Bang’, in which the last surviving man contemplates the unfortunately annoying woman he is stuck with in order to repopulate the planet. Her sheltered upbringing makes her averse to living together without a proper wedding, but the man’s intolerance and impatience cast the male half of the species on an unfavourable light once more.

John Jay Wells and Marion Zimmer Bradley postulate another variation on the theme in ‘Another Rib’, in which an all-male group of astronauts find themselves stranded on a distant planet as the last surviving humans. Serves them right for not allowing woman to be astronauts, was my first thought. The subsequent developments will likely be viewed as controversial today for different reasons than at the time it was written.

‘Mother To The World’ is a rather touching tale by Richard Wilson in which, similar to ‘With A Bang’, the last man finds himself alone with a woman he considers to be not ideal but, in this case, someone that he gradually becomes fond of as they make a life together. It flows along nicely for a while and took me away from the nightmares of some of the other stories. Until the practicalities of fathering the human race return in a shockingly disarming denouement.

‘Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang’ is the first part of what later become Kate Wilhelm’s multi-award winning novel of the same name. It’s a magnificent conclusion to the collection, dealing this time with a larger-scale survival effort by an extended family who see disaster looming. I have immediately ordered a copy of the novel so I can continue the story.

With well-known classics and household names, as well as practically unknown authors, this collection presents a fine array of alternatives to the solution of repopulation. Many of them are uncomfortable or even horrifying answers to the dilemmas faced by their protagonists and the stories include some of the least sympathetic characters I’ve ever come across. As a whole, though, this is a profound insight into the history of Science Fiction and of social attitudes as a whole. You won’t enjoy all of the stories, but they will certainly make you think.

Gareth D. Jones

September 2017

(pub: Surinam Turtle Press/Ramble House. 297 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $20.00 (US), £15.72 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-60543-916-7)

check out website: www.ramblehouse.com

Category: Books, Scifi

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