Bad Science: Five Science Fiction Stories Involving Selective Breeding
It may be comforting to think that eugenics – the belief that one can make one’s way to better humans by encouraging the fittest to have more children and those considered less fit to have fewer – was a horrible fad that has gone out of fashion. after the inconveniences of the mid-1920sand century. Of course, that’s not true. State-sanctioned sterilization of those deemed inferior continues to the present day.
It’s no surprise that science fiction writers haven’t always resisted the lure of eugenics as a plot trigger. Why not apply to humans the same techniques that transformed the humble wolf into the majestic Chihuahua? Here are five stories that tackle the notion in different ways.
Cyril M. Kornbluth’s “Goons On The Move” (1951)
“The Marching Morons” is a cautionary tale told with the gentle humanism one would expect from Kornbluth. In Kornbluth’s world of tomorrow, the lower classes – naïve fertile beyond the power of education to better themselves – see no reason to limit their birthrate, while bright people find endless reasons to carefully limit theirs. The result: a planet dominated by idiots, kept alive by the relentless work of the brilliant minority.
The situation is untenable. However, the elite cannot think of any solution that they would be able and willing to implement. Their last resort is to turn to a man from the past who is free from the worries that bother geniuses. His simple solution? Why, the ultimate destination of many eugenics programs: mass murder on a global scale. However, his reward for cutting the Gordian knot isn’t all he could have wished for.
The Dosadi Experience by Frank Herbert (1977)
The galaxy-spanning ConSentiency is held together by the “gateways” of the Calebans, through which two destinations, no matter how far apart, are separated by a mere stride. Daring visionaries saw an intriguing application: diverting a small number of travelers to an isolated and inhospitable world, where a fierce struggle for survival would subject the population to an edifying selection process. What wonders would result?
There is, of course, the minor detail that plagues so many visionary research programs, namely that the project is almost certainly extremely illegal, complete with kidnappings and deaths. The Dosadi experience is therefore only known to a few. The last thing the conspirators want is the attention of a Saboteur Extraordinary, those officials tasked with crushing overly exuberant government programs. Saboteur extraordinaire Jorj X. McKie’s curiosity about the experiment is unwelcome. However, let him visit the experience if he wishes. It is, after all, a planet of no return.
adventure planet by Jack Vance (1968-1970)
A 1973 omnibus assembled from City of Chasch (1968), Servants of the Wankh (1969), The Dirdir (1969), and The Pneu (1970), the adventure planet is dominated by four alien races. Thanks to the Dirdir, there are also humans, descendants of Neolithic humans collected from Earth in the past. Humans could be useful slaves except for one thing. Just as each alien race is different from the others, humans are also unpleasantly different from all aliens. What to do?
The answer is “selective breeding applied over a long period of time”. If, for example, one desires a good Wankh, but all one has is humans, one only needs to encourage – really force – humans with Wankh-like characteristics to have children and those who do not have to do without. By the time explorer Adam Reith is abandoned on the planet, the four different breeding programs have had their intended effect: each alien species has its associated human race: Chaschmen, Dirdirmen, Wankhmen, and Pnumekin.
Women’s Country Gate by Sheri S. Tepper (1988)
The country of women, matriarchal and ecotopic, is a way of organizing society. The Holylanders chose a different path. As protagonist Stavia discovers, the Holylander solution places a lot of power in the hands of a few men, with most of the men being merely brutalized subordinates. All women in Holyland are slaves. From a woman’s perspective, the Holylander way is extremely unattractive.
However, the Holylanders aren’t the only ones picking the characters they prefer. Those who guide the Women’s Country are engaged in a long-term covert eugenics program aimed at ridding the world of perceived evils like violence and homosexuality. Success depends on behavior that is both biologically determined and capable of being “corrected” by science. In this case, the author certainly seems convinced that she is, which is terribly convenient for her characters.
Apothecary’s journal, volume 3 by Natsu Hyuga
Abducted and sold as a servant to the back palace – Li’s Emperor’s harem – Maomao intended to lay low until her contract expired and be able to return to her adoptive father. Observant, highly skilled apothecary and unable to keep quiet, Maomao has instead become an unofficial back-palace detective. So far, she’s saved lives and exposed killers, at the cost of becoming increasingly entangled in legal politics.
In the third novel in the series, she comes across a curious example of selective breeding. The Imperial bloodline happens to have a minor hereditary trait, which is deleterious (or at least mildly annoying) under most circumstances. However, to ensure this bloodline remains on the throne, Emperors must pass a test that only those with this specific deficiency can pass. What is in most cases a deficiency becomes a strength, almost as if the benefit or harm of traits depends on the context. See: fitness landscape.
There are heaps and heaps and heaps and heaps of stories that touch on the subject of eugenics (sometimes in favor – which always sends shivers down the spine – and sometimes in the form of cautionary tales). Perhaps you have your own notable examples in mind. Feel free to mention them in the comments below.
In the words of the TexasAndroid Wikipedia editorprolific and lively literary critic Darwin Award Nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability”. Her work has been published in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on her own websites, Reviews of James Nicoll and Aurora finalist Young people read the old SFF (where he is assisted by the editor Karen Lofstrom and internet user Adrienne L. Travis). He’s a four-time finalist for the Hugo Best Fan Writer Award, is eligible to be nominated again this year, and is surprisingly fiery.