I am a eugenicist's dream.
Eugenics, a little-remembered and not particularly lamented movement, arose in the mid-19th century to advocate for the improvement of humanity through the breeding of "superior" or "worthy" individuals. This principle, which seemed innocuous enough paper, was first set forth by a cousin of Charles Darwin around the time the great biologist died, and seemed logical enough; any livestock breeder knows that breeding the strong to the strong means strong offspring, so why shouldn't the same apply to humans? America, with her unprecedented mix of races, ethnic groups, and religions, was in a unique position to see if heredity really did make for a superior human.
At least at first, the answer seemed to be an unqualified "yes." The children of middle and upper class families that had come to America in the 18th and early 19th centuries were bigger, stronger, healthier, and mentally far more gifted than the offspring of city dwellers who'd arrived after the Civil War. These slum dwellers, who were overbreeding at a shocking rate, were nonetheless superior to the inbred rural poor (especially the shiftless farmers of the rural South, who showed little of the ambition that propelled the Yankee tradesman and his offspring), who were in turn far superior to the newly liberated bondsmen who jammed into Freedom Schools across the South.
Thus it was that eugenicists, including some of the most distinguished men in the country, began pressing upper and middle class families to have as many children as possible, while the poor and the dark were told to limit the size of their families. Soon various states began instituting laws that speed this good work by ensuring that undesirables were unable to have children that would carry on their inferior genes, preferably when their spindly, delinquent offspring were in trouble with the law and sent to reformatories. These efforts were spurred by scientific studies demonstrating that bad character, promiscuity, criminal tendencies, and low intelligence were inherited traits that should be excised from the breeding pool as quickly as possible.
Never mind that humans are not animals, size and strength have nothing to do with character, and a rising body of evidence compiled by do-gooders in the settlement houses that poverty, racism, poor nutrition, disease, bad housing, minimal education, and lack of sanitation could and did blight whatever potential a lower class child might have. Thousands of children and adults, the vast majority from allegedly inferior groups (almost all of which seemed to have dark skin, or practice a non-Protestant religion, or come from poor families, and isn't that a fascinating coincidence?), underwent surgery to remove their reproductive organs between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries as a way to improve the species and ensure that only the healthy and worthy could contribute to the breeding pool.
This sounds awful, and it was (and, in some places, still is) - but compared to what an Austrian eugenics advocate named Heinrich Himmler and his associates did in Europe between 1935 and 1945? I'm not for a nanosecond excusing American eugenics, which was both abominable and inexcusable, but it could have been so, so much worse, as my uncle Lou saw for himself 69 years ago.
What happened in Europe has little or nothing to do with me, or why a eugenicist would have absolutely slavered at the thought of me having as many children as possible - and absurd as this sounds today, on paper, I more than qualify, both in family background and character.
Think about it: I'm a seventh-generation descendant of a doughty Welsh pioneer who came to what is now Pennsylvania around 1740, then fought in the American Revolution thirty years later. I'm intelligent, articulate, was raised in a loving two parent home with plenty of books, music, and adult stimulation. I'm musically gifted (I sing and play the piano), a published author, and a world-class scholar in my (admittedly tiny) discipline. I graduated from a Seven Sisters college and have rubbed shoulders with the daughters of the elite. I'm kind to animals, live in a nice house, and am good enough at my job that I've gotten a raise the last two years. I pay my taxes, obey the law, and generally live an exemplary if somewhat eccentric life.
In short, I am the very model of a superior specimen of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant womanhood that eugenicists taught should pass on her superior genes, preferably with the assistance of an equally white, equally Anglo-Saxon, equally non-Catholic/Jewish/Muslim/Hindoo/what have you male graduate of a good liberal arts college. My children, pale-skinned and intelligent, would have been picture-perfect examples of good breeding from the right sort of stock.
On paper, that is.
In reality...not so much.
Even worse, I'm not the physical specimen that a good little upper middle class WASP should be. I'm short, overweight, have a mouthful of crowns thanks to prenatal medication exposure (Miltowns are not the fetus's friend, let me tell you), and hate to exercise. Worst of all, I was born with only one kidney and accompanying Mullerian tube defects that would have made it difficult for me to conceive a child at all...not that anyone with such a gross physical imperfection should have been allowed to breed in the first place, mind.
That's why I saw that on paper, I'm a eugenicist's dream.
In reality, I'm a eugenicist's nightmare.
I'm good with that.
Tonight I bring you two books that touch in some way upon eugenics and their highly disturbing influence on American life and culture. One is an exciting pulp novel that had an enormous effect on science fiction as literature and cultural phenomenon, and still considered a minor classic. The other, the last book of one of the early masters of the genre, is a late and less than appealing attempt at justifying eugenics for an audience that by and large hadn't even heard the term:
Slan, by A.E. van Vogt - the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction coincided roughly with the tenure of John W. Campbell, Jr., as editor of Astounding Science Fiction. Campbell, a competent writer and brilliant editor, was responsible in large part for the dramatic improvement in the quality of American science fiction during the years just before and after World War II. He discovered and mentored, among others, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague deCamp, Cyril Kornbluth, Anne McCaffrey, and a host of others who went on to shape the genre. If his personal idiosyncrasies sometimes held the genre back, his influence on science fiction, even now, can be compared only to Max Eastman on mid-century literary fiction, Harold Ross on magazine writing, and Ellery Queen on the mystery story.
Campbell published a myriad of important stories and novels, from Foundation to Children of the Lens, but one of the most notable is Slan. First serialized in Astounding in the fall of 1940, this short, exciting novel still holds its own as a fast, absorbing, thoughtful read. Simultaneously a thriller about a young boy, Jommy Cross, who must find a way to avenge his parents in the face of relentless opposition, a cautionary tale about government persecution of the different, and a look at the next stage of human evolution, Slan was both prescient and very much of its time. Prejudice against the different was all too common in 1940, both in America and abroad, and the idea that this might actually hold us back as a species was surprisingly rare.
Slan was an instant hit with SF readers, and it’s little wonder that Arkham House chose it as part of its first generation of post-war hardcover editions of magazine science fiction readers. It’s been in print ever since, garnering praise from critics as disparate as Groff Conklin in the 1950’s and Charles de Lint in the 1990’s. The obvious parallels between the persecuted slans, the superior, telepathic version of humanity, and European Jewry in occupied Europe could equally apply to contemporary prejudice against the Roma in France, the Uighurs in China, and Muslims in the United States. The writing may be crude in places, the plot melodramatic, and coincidence may get an Olympic-caliber workout, but it’s hard to deny that Slan is as much a fable for our times as it was in 1940.
It’s also had a curious, and largely unknown, influence on one of the least expected groups in contemporary America: the book’s audience.
I’m not talking about the books, or the films, or even the television shows or animes. The Persecuted Hero With Special Abilities Who Wants Revenge is a trope that shows up in a lot of stories, from swift-footed Achilles bringing an entire war to a standstill sulking over a slave girl on down. Van Vogt used this ancient theme, and used it brilliantly, but he was scarcely the first (or the last) author to use it.
No, I’m talking about the people who actually read Slan. Today this could be anyone from a bright, nerdy kid raiding her father’s collection of moldering paperbacks to a bored college freshman looking for an easy English credit. In 1940, that meant science fiction fans. And in 1940, there were few groups that had less clout and less cachet in popular culture than the boys and (very, very few) girls who read Astonishing Science Fiction and its ilk, unless perhaps it was the women and (very, very few) men who listened to soap operas, or maybe the hordes of children who glommed down Action Comics.
Think about it: science fiction was just emerging from the Hugo Gernsback era of hastily written, tech-heavy, characterization-thin pulp stories. Most of its readers, writers, and even editors were the sort of teenagers who read indiscriminately, tinkered with new and exciting technology like ham radios, and were about as athletic as an ironing board. They were nerds before the word existed, often socially awkward, and more than a few were recent immigrants from non-WASP backgrounds. Athletic, popular, conventional kids looked down on them, their parents didn’t understand them, and they tended to band together as much for self-defense as out of a shared love of Jules Verne and C.L. Moore. Why wouldn’t they identify with the super-intelligent, super-persecuted Jommy Cross?
When one realizes that most of these little proto-nerds actually were smarter and better read than the handsome, well-loved jocks, it’s no surprise that the idea that “fans are slans” took off like one of the Baltimore Gun Club’s moon-bound projectiles. The first “slan shack,” or fannish commune, appeared as early as 1943 in, no lie, Battle Creek, Michigan. Soon others cropped up throughout the country, along with a host of fannish slang: “fen” as the plural of “fan,” “fandom” for the subculture as a whole, “mundane” for non-fen, “femme fan” for non-male fen, “fanac” for “fannish activity,” “Ghu” for “God,” “bheer” for “beer,” “fiawol” and “fijagh” “fandom is a way of life” and “fandom is just a goddamn hobby,” and “gafiate” for “getting away from it all” or leaving fandom for the mundane world.
Conventions, costumes, newsletters and small press operations, awards and reviews, fannish marriages and the resulting second generation fen…for a while in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s it actually looked like fandom might be evolving into its own little society. This only accelerated with the publication of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (which in turn led to Atl, an early neopagan religion that shaped the work of influential neopagan theologian/eco-activist Oberon Zell-Ravenheart). And since fen tended to be bright, well read, and idiosyncratic, it’s little wonder that the idea that fen were somehow superior to the rest of society became a fannish commonplace.
Not all that many fen today read Slan. Its language, vision of society, and futuristic technology bear little resemblance to today’s world. A.E. van Vogt may have been a good storyteller with some good ideas, but he’s been largely eclipsed by other, better known Golden Age writers. Partly this is due to his long-time involvement with General Semantics, a cultish philosophy that attempted to examine the world from a non-Aristotelian viewpoint, but much of it is because he simply wasn’t as good, or prolific, as contemporaries such as Asimov, Heinlein, or Bester. A long bout with Alzheimer’s cut his career short, and by the time Van Vogt’s widow and a ghostwriter published a sequel to Slan in 2007, not all that many people either knew or cared.
The first slan surely deserved better.
To Sail Beyond the Sunset, by Robert A. Heinlein - I have something of a love-hate relationship with Robert A. Heinlein. His juveniles were some of the first science fiction I read, out of date plots and technology notwithstanding, and I all but devoured the equally out of date but still gripping Future History and the mid-career classics like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers. Some of the books were problematic – slide rules in the far future? mandatory national service before one could vote? – but I was too young and too enraptured by the thrilling plots and omnicompetent characters to care. Even now, forty years after my SF-loving father left an entire shelf of Heinlein paperbacks in the dining room for me to discover, I still regard Citizen of the Galaxy and “If This Goes On – “ as some of the most important books I’ve ever read.
Alert readers will note that the books and stories I’ve referenced above were all written during the early phase of Heinlein’s career, between the 1930’s and the mid-1960’s. Oh, I did read some of Heinlein’s later work, but his writing became increasingly problematic as both he and I aged. I’m not precisely sure why, although the realization that Heinlein’s female characters were by and large all the same person (probably his second wife, Ginny), with remarkably similar attitudes toward life, the universe, and childbearing regardless of life circumstances, surely was a major factor.
The increasingly strident politics didn’t help. I was less liberal then than I am now, but the ringing defense of liberty and equality that had permeated “If This Goes On – “ and Citizen of the Galaxy was gradually replaced by something darker and less savory. Oh, I had no problem with most of it – I was still a Rockefeller Republican, at least in theory – but there were passages, characters, even whole chapters, that made me uneasy. They seemed to have been shoehorned in rather than rising organically from the characters and situations, and I had to skip over alarmingly large chunks of text to get to the next part of the actual plot on a regular, and disturbing, basis.
And then there was the huge, thick, meandering mess that was Time Enough For Love, which told the life story of one Lazarus Long. Long, who had first appeared in a much earlier book, was over 3,000 years old and had lived an occasionally interesting, frequently repetitive life while shedding every single inhibition one would think would go along with an early 20th century Midwestern upbringing. Along the way he had a) pioneered zero-g midwifery techniques, b) settled a lot of different planets under a lot of different names, c) fathered an astonishing quantity of red-haired children throughout most of the galaxy, d) fallen in love with a sentient computer that acquired a body resembling his favorite wife, e) fought in a lot of wars with nary a hint of trauma, and f) gone back in time to make love to his mother, who was pregnant with one of his younger siblings.
Yeah. I know.
Thanks to all the above (though particularly to what a friend called Time Enough for Sex), I had largely stopped reading Heinlein by the time I graduated from college. Oh, I tried his later works. I truly did. Some weren’t bad - Friday, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls - and I admit to enjoying The Notebooks of Lazarus Long (aka, The Pithy Sayings That Do Not Involve Lazarus Long Gettin’ Jiggy With His Mother), but I gave up on The Number of the Beast over a bra joke and never bothered with I Will Fear No Evil. What had seemed fresh and interesting to a teenager was now stale, boring, and sexist. There were better books to read, and better ways to spend my time.
Then this book came out, and my ex picked up the paperback. It was Heinlein’s last novel, supposedly the climax of his career, and a return to form after the problematic later books. Wingding liked it, and since we had similar tastes in books, I decided to give it a try.
So I read it.
And despite enjoying it at first, and reading it more than once, I quickly realized that this, the final book in the grand old man’s career, the crown of his life’s work, the novel that wrapped up everything – and I do mean everything - he ever wrote, was not only yet more of Lazarus Long gettin’ jiggy with his mother, it was a beautifully written defense of incest, adultery, and the selective breeding of human beings.
Consider the basic premise behind every single story about Lazarus Long, his mother Maureen, and their assorted relations: that a rich but unhealthy man named Ira Howard, furious that he was about to die young of old age, leaves his fortune to promote the extension of the human lifespan. Since Ira’s unfortunate demise takes place in the mid-19th century, the trustees of his foundation decide that the best way to accomplish this is by encouraging marriages between healthy, disease-free people with four living grandparents, with cash inducements for a) each baby born to a Howard couple and b) each marriage between the offspring of two Howard families.
The Ira Howard and his legacy were first mentioned in Methuselah's Children, originally written in 1940 and published in (where else?) Astounding Science Fiction, and if the entire scheme If this sounds uncomfortably close to the giant pumpkin contests at the county fair, that isn’t far off. Eugenicists used to promote Fit Families competitions at agricultural fairs, with prizes for the healthiest and largest families...all of which, oddly enough, turned out to be from sturdy, pale-skinned Anglo-Saxon stock.
Just like Maureen Johnson, heroine of this enjoyable, occasionally lyrical, and quite, quite bizarre novel.
Maureen narrates the book, which she describes as “the memoirs of a housewife.” And so it is, if the housewife in question is a precocious, sexually rapacious, and utterly uninhibited Midwesterner born and raised in the late 1800’s by a mother who leaves no impression at all on either Maureen or the reader, and a physician-father who has no qualms about giving his daughter advice on birth control. He also gives her her first pelvic exam, which arouses Maureen to the point that she develops a lifelong (and, God help us, eventually consummated) Electra complex that puts Oedipus' relationship with Jocasta to shame.
That this is one of Maureen’s tamer escapades is surprising only when one considers the following:
- Howard children are routinely expected to have sex with each other during courtship, albeit while using condoms (which are 100% effective, all the time, every time, even without spermicide) until they decide that they’re sexually compatible. After that, the rubbers come off, the mattress tag commences in earnest, and the marriage doesn’t take place until the real reason for a Howard marriage is firmly ensconced in the bride’s uterus.
- As long as those Magical Perfect Condoms are worn to prevent non-Howard offspring, Howard men and women are free to engage in adultery, group sex, and pretty much any type of incest. The same applies if the woman is already pregnant.
- Howard men never seem to get STI’s, and Howard women (especially “Mama Maureen”) never have morning sickness, pre-eclampsia, or even stretch marks despite bearing children.
- One of Mama Maureen’s daughters, Carol, ends up as the unwitting patron several centuries later of a “let’s bang everything that moves to blow off steam” holiday on the anniversary of her first menstrual period.
- Maureen and her first husband, Brian, end up in a sexual/romantic threesome with their daughter-in-law after their son dies during World War II…and after the daughter-in-law bears yet another Howard child, Brian decides to marry her instead of Maureen since Maureen has (finally) hit menopause and there’s no monetary reason to stay with her while he can still receive those sweet, sweet cash payments for begetting yet another Howard brat.
- The sexual and social freedoms of mid-century America are a bad thing even though they’re pretty tame compared to what the Howards have been doing for a century or so, for reasons that are unclear but may be related to Robert Heinlein’s dislike of liberal politics and the disrespectful younger generation.
- Maureen’s experience as a housewife who gets an allowance but never sees the family checkbook makes her such a good money manager that she eventually writes a financial advice column.
Along the way Maureen has to cope with her youngest children having an affair with each other to the exclusion of any potential Howard babies, joins a Unitarian church because they don’t care if she’s an atheist, refers to getting pregnant as “ringing the cash register,” meets several characters from Heinlein’s other novels (don’t even ask), and ends up wealthier than Brian thanks to insisting on an equal division of assets in the divorce (see above). Eventually she’s rescued from seeming death by her time-traveling son and his family (which by now includes two gender-swapped clones, Lorelei Lee and Lapis Lazuli) and whisked off to the far future. There she’s informed that despite a couple of thousand years of medical advances, her genes are still so superior that women are lining up to bear her genetic offspring instead of their own (!). She’s then given a full body makeover and rejuvenation treatment, inseminated with yet another baby, and has “welcome home, sonny boy!” sex with Lazarus after one of his adventures.
And then she and a bunch of her relatives rescue her father from certain death during the London Blitz…after which she gets pregnant AGAIN, finally proves that her heart belongs to Daddy, and marries pretty much every other character in the book in a massive group wedding. “And we all lived happily ever after,” she says, in an ending that is simultaneously a promise of yet more adventures and the understatement of the year.
All (or most) of the above is narrated while Maureen is in jail awaiting trial on murder charges (spoiler: she’s a) framed and b) rescued). Some of the chapters, especially those about Maureen’s early life, are tender, lovely odes to the green, lush Earth of her childhood, or sentimental memoirs of her early married years. There are nice humorous touches like the appearance of Pixel, the Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and the revelation that Lazarus was originally supposed to be named “Ethel” since Maureen was convinced he’d be a girl. Heinlein’s love of cats, and redheads, and the Midwest, is evident throughout.
Unfortunately, so his is complete lack of understanding of why the societal upheavals of what he calls “the Crazy Years” of the 1960’s took place, or why the shorter-lived, the darker-skinned, and the non-heterosexual might have been less than happy with life in Maureen's version of reality. This may be partly because Heinlein began the Howard family saga in the 1940’s, when racism and feminism weren’t really on the radar and the word “homophobia” didn’t even exist, but it’s hard to believe that a seasoned pro like Heinlein couldn’t have figured out a way to retcon the less savory parts of the idealized past.
Of course, if Heinlein had done that, he might well have had to explained why there seem to be so very few non-white, non-WASP Howard families…or how the human lifespan increased thanks solely to good breeding within about three generations...or what happens if a Howard baby turns out to be LGBT, or a woman has a miscarriage, or even wants to do something besides chart her ovulation and ring the cash register…or why even millennia from now, the greatest, most inventive human who ever lived is a pale-skinned redhead who really, really loves the mother whose heart belongs to daddy. That might have been too much to ask, and probably was, but it might have made for a more interesting book.
The final irony? For all his emphasis on good breeding, and group marriage, and babies, Heinlein himself had no children by either of his wives. Whether this was at the root of this major strain of his work is not known, but it sure wouldn’t surprise me.
Are you a WASPY WASP of seven (or five, or eleven) generations? Are you a slan? Did you ever read a Howard families novel? Heard of eugenics in the United States? Now is the time to confess that DAR membership or the certificate from your Uncle Egbert and Aunt Matilda winning the Better Babies contest at the East Pithole Agricultural Fair in 1928, so spill...
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule:
|DAY||TIME (EST/EDT)||Series Name||Editor(s)|
|SUN||6:00 PM||Young Reader's Pavilion||The Book Bear|
|Sun (occasional)||9:30 PM||SciFi/Fantasy Book Club||quarkstomper|
|MON||1:00 PM||Grokking Republicans||Mokurai|
|Mon||8:00 PM||Monday Murder Mystery||michelewln, Susan from 29|
|TUE - alternate weeks||8:00 AM||LGBT Literature||Texdude50, Dave in Northridge|
|Tue - alternate weeks||8:00 AM||All Things Bookstore||Dave in Northridge|
|Tue||5:00 PM||Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left||Kit RMP, bigjacbigjacbigjac|
|Tue||8:00 PM||Contemporary Fiction Views||bookgirl|
|Wed||2:00 PM||e-books||Susan from 29|
|Wed||8:00 PM||Bookflurries Bookchat||cfk|
|THU||8:00 PM||Write On!||SensibleShoes|
|Thu (first each month)||11:00 AM||Monthly Bookpost||AdmiralNaismith|
|FRI||8:00 AM||Books That Changed My Life||Diana in NoVa|
|alternate Fridays||8:00 PM||Books Go Boom!||Brecht|
|SAT||12:00 PM||You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews||pwoodford|
|Sat||9:00 PM||Books So Bad They're Good||Ellid|