Thursday, December 06, 2018

"If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" (1967)

Theodore Sturgeon is probably the best-known old school science fiction writer in the Dangerous Visions collection. Lester del Rey, Frederik Pohl, and Poul Anderson count too, but they come up short of Sturgeon's stature. I've been talking lately about the "Is God Dead?" cover of Time magazine as a likely source of some of these stories, but Sturgeon's story looks to a very different one: Robert A. Heinlein's 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein, of course, is on the short list of revered science fiction writers of his generation, in the '40s and '50s, with Isaac Asimov and maybe Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. With Stranger, in the '60s, Heinlein seemed to shift gears away from "hard" science fiction and conservative politics into radical proto-hippie ideas of free love. (I say "seemed" because the whole thing stinks to high heaven when you get into the details of the novel.) Sturgeon is taking those ideas another step further and into incestDanger, Will Robinson! The story is set so far in the future that the sun going nova is a plot point, leading to a human diaspora that is at least galactic, if not universal, thanks to technology. I must say, humans do not appear to have changed much in the 7.6 billion years between now and then. At any rate, as planetary civilizations have slowly reached out and connected for purposes of trade, the hero of this long story (or novella, whatever) discovers a planet with fabulous resources but one with which no one wants to trade. He is Charli Bux, a sort of roustabout traveling man living on planetary trade work. The planet is Vexvelt. The reason it is shunned it because its culture practices incest. It's not just that the natives of Vexvelt don't recognize it as a taboo, but there it is even considered a desirable norm. In a way, the story is good at forcing you to look at taboo itself, because honestly I never got far past feeling like it was icky. They are a lusty bunch, these Veltvexians—it's not just incest, but more broadly free love is how they roll. There might be a reasonable case against the concerns of inbreeding and congenital birth defects. Maybe it doesn't apply to Veltvexians? If so, that's important to mention. Otherwise the Veltvexian arguments often have the stink of someone working on a reluctant partner to put out, as if they're made with raging hard-ons. I know my response to the story is probably more like my response to the taboo. It's actually a perfectly engaging story, told with skill, about a subject that makes me squirm to think about for long. So sure, OK, let's call it dangerous. Just get it away from me.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

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