Monday, July 4, 2016

Eugenics in Early Science Fiction

One of the pleasures of reading pulp science fiction is checking the accuracy of speculations about the future, the prognostications that were made in the 1920s and 1930s.  Did the authors of that period get it right?  Yet even when the authors get it wrong, or perhaps too prematurely—Edmond Hamilton comes to mind, with his loud clanking space operas—readers can still find prophecies of old school science fiction that animate the genre today.  Hamilton and his colleagues predicted much of the content of Star Wars and Star Trek, for example. 

Though deficient in plot, characterization and style, these interesting stories are not lacking in big ideas.  Insofar as they project contemporary issues and anxieties into an imagined future, they have much to say about perennial human concerns.  It seems that nearly a century needs to go by for today’s readers to have the omniscience needed to evaluate the predictions made in old school science fiction.  

The work David H. Keller—his “science fictioneer” cycle of stories—is a fascinating example of this type of literature.  Unlike many of his associates who wrote science fiction for the pulp magazines, Keller was less enthused with speculations about politics, technology or extra-terrestrial life forms and more interested in the impact of social and technological change on human relationships.  His experiences as a psychiatrist undoubtedly contributed to this perspective; a number of his stories resemble clinical case studies in tone.  But like H.P. Lovecraft, who was a decade younger, Keller was very conservative and reactionary, particularly in regards to the changing roles of men and women in society.

This attitude is displayed in his 1928 story, “A Biological Experiment”, essentially an extrapolation of the long term effects on society of women achieving social, economic and political equality with men, as well as freedom from the responsibility of childrearing.  Radical feminists will find the story irritating, especially its happy ending: in the future, a stagnant, joyless and loveless society returns to the old ways of childbearing and childrearing, becoming vibrant and meaningful again.  (Chiefly by re-imposing traditional gender roles.)  However, more thoughtful readers might ponder the impact of ever greater outsourcing of conventional family and parental responsibilities to medical and governmental agencies, which is Keller’s ultimate concern.

Around the time that Keller wrote and published this story, the United States saw its first female governor, (of Wyoming, 1925), an American woman became the first to swim the English Channel, (1926), and Amelia Earhart made her famous flight across the Atlantic Ocean (1928).  The name of one of the minor characters in the story, the matriarchal Helen Sellers Gowers, sounds suspiciously like that of a famous suffragette.  (The cadence of the name brings to mind Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example.)  While his younger colleague Lovecraft channeled the anxieties of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants encountering an influx of different races, classes and ethnicities, Keller seems to have been especially nervous about the evolving roles of women in society.

Readers interested in exploring Keller’s work further will find that “A Biological Experiment” is a key story.  Like Lovecraft’s “The Silver Key” (1929) and “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” (written in 1927 but published posthumously), Keller’s story emphasizes favorite themes and preoccupations of the author, and references several other stories that contain a network of related ideas.  Among these are Keller’s “The Revolt of the Pedestrians” (1927), and “The Psychophonic Nurse” (1928), especially the latter.  Both “A Biological Experiment” and “The Psychophonic Nurse” satirize a female character who neglects traditional family responsibilities to pursue a career.  (See also Look Both Ways! and A Place for Everyone; Everyone in Their Place.)

Keller makes a number of interesting predictions about a future human civilization, circa June of 3928.  Instead of riding in cars, busses or trains, people travel about in passenger planes or small, private monoplanes.  Reading and writing are no longer necessary.  People rely on the “psycho-phone”,

…an instrument that directly transferred and preserved the thoughts of a person, so that at any time in the future the small glass cylinder could be inserted into a radio and repeat the thought.

The city of Pittsburgh, where the two young lovers in the story elope, has shrunk to less than ten thousand people, since there is no longer any need for coal or steel “in the new age of atmospheric electricity and glass”.  (This prediction is not too far off.  A recent newspaper article reported that Pittsburgh has lost half its population since 1950, and is the only major city in the U.S. that currently has more deaths than births.  Evidently the town is now attempting to reconfigure itself to fit in the new global economy.) 

Freed of work and parenting, as well as disease, starvation and poverty, men and women are free to develop their interests unimpeded.  Marriage is “companionate” and open-ended; frequent divorce and remarriage is expected.  Oh, and a series of devastating plagues has wiped out non-Caucasian races by the twenty-seventh century, leaving only white people.

Even more ominously, the government is in complete control of education, health, the economy and intellectual products of any kind.  Because genetically superior children are created under ideal laboratory conditions in government hospitals by a process resembling parthenogenesis, women are no longer allowed to have babies on their own.  In Keller’s future society, government enforced sterilization of both males and females is the rule.  Almost certainly the inclusion of these ideas in “A Biological Experiment” is Keller’s reaction to the eugenics movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

Eugenicists believed that the human race could be perfected through systematic breeding and culling of individuals to develop superior genetic traits, that is, to control the evolution of the human species.  Eugenics had implications for race relations, the treatment of people with disabilities, and immigration, among other aspects of society.  Though simplistic and reprehensible in practice, eugenics is a powerful and attractive idea, and by no means a forgotten notion.  The purification of the race, society, culture, religion, ethnicity—any agglomeration of humankind that can be tidily categorized—is a primordial aspiration, an enduring evil, and currently still quite popular.

It is a disquieting fact that principles of eugenics were pioneered energetically in the United States decades before their application by the Nazis in Germany.  Eugenics research was funded by large American corporations—here in Michigan, J.H. Kellogg was an important source of support.  (Michigan was the first state to introduce a compulsory sterilization bill, in 1897, though it did not pass.)  Eugenics was also once a respectable subject taught in many American universities.  In 1928, when Keller published “A Biological Experiment”, there were 376 separate university courses in eugenics at many of the nation’s top schools.  It is entirely possible that Keller took coursework in eugenics when he was in college.  Could it have been a prerequisite?  

In the 1920s and 1930s, enthusiasm for eugenics contributed to anti-miscegenation laws and limits on immigration from certain parts of the world, as well as systematic sterilization of some populations.  Interestingly, the eugenics movement had adherents among early feminists like Margaret Sanger, who conflated advocacy for birth control and women’s rights with attempts to improve the genetic heritage of the race.  Even some African-American leaders, W.E.B. Du Bois among them, were supportive at the time.  A side note:  Du Bois once published a science fiction story in 1920 called The Comet, in which a cosmic disaster seemingly destroys the entire human race, at least that part of it that resides in New York City, leaving only an inter-racial couple to serve as contemporary avatars of Adam and Eve.

In Keller’s “A Biological Experiment” two young people also play the role of Adam and Eve, this time resisting their elders and eloping to a cave somewhere in the Ozark Mountains, where they intend to “get back to the land” and live a more pristine, natural life.  This includes having children the natural way.  (Readers who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s can relate to this sentiment.)  Their experiment succeeds, but only up to a point, for the young woman dies shortly after childbirth. 

Nevertheless, in the climactic scene of the story, the young man goes to Washington, D.C. and presents his infant girl to the “National Society of Federated Women”, chaired by Helen Sellers Gowers, the imperious sister of his deceased wife.  He tells the 5000 women assembled there all about their experiences living in the cave, their love for each other and their sacrifice.  There isn’t a dry eye in the house, and all the women are smitten by the sight of the natural, free-range infant.  Their minds are completely changed. 

“There must be no more synthetic children, no more companionate husbands, no more mere houses!” exclaims their leader. “Give us back our homes, our husbands, and our babies!”  Contemporary readers may suspect that it would take more than a cute baby to reverse centuries of social evolution, even now, let alone in the 40th Century.

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