Friday, 1 March 2013

Human Superiority

Before returning to the theme of human superiority in Poul Anderson's After Doomsday (St Albans, Herts, 1975), let us pause to consider a splendid example of inferiority as expressed in perhaps the longest, most obsequious, "thank you" anywhere in literature. A Vorlakkan adviser asks:

" 'My captain...dare this worm express thanks for your graciousness in heeding his prayer, or should he accept it in silence as the winter earth accepts vernal sunshine?'" (p. 121)

Elsewhere in Anderson's works, only Pum, the ancient Tyrean recruited to the Time Patrol, has such a gift for exaggerated flattery and self-abasement.

Elsewhere in the same conversation, the human leader, Donnan, advises the Vorlakkan leader, Hlott:

" '...if a massive scientific-technological effort can be mounted. If the best Vorlakka and allied minds can work together. And that's the real technique we Earthlings have got that you don't. A feudal society like yours, or a nomadic culture like Kandemir, or a coalition of fragments like Monwaing, isn't set up to innovate on purpose. We can tell you how to mount a development project.' " (p. 123)

But Donnan must reinforce this argument by warning that he has also spoken to other Councillors who will cooperate if their current president, Hlott, does not. The moral is drawn at the end of the chapter:

"Practical politics was another art which had been more highly developed on Earth than it was here." (p. 126)

(In Anderson's History of Technic Civilization, Dominic Flandry easily subverts the Scotani Empire when he becomes their prisoner.)

Is there anything at which human beings do not excel? Apparently not. In the following chapter, vassals of Kandemir are offered independence and assistance in return for helping to overthrow their nomadic oppressors:

"Soon allied agents were being smuggled onto those planets, to disseminate propaganda and organize underground movements along lines familiar to Earth's history." (p. 134)

And, in the chapter after that:

"Vorlak and Monwaing command ships by the thousands and troops by the million, but they listen to Carl Donnan with deepest respect...The newly freed planets...are already a great power...their deliberative assembly is presided over by a human." (p. 138)

(European feudal barons preside among extrasolar races in Anderson's The High Crusade.)

- while, in another civilization-cluster, the Earthwomen:

" ' got rich fast. In a few more years, Terran Traders, Inc., would have been the greatest power in that galactic region.' " (p. 139)

Finally, when it is revealed that a Monwaingi Society had sterilised Earth, the Monwaingi Ramri sets out to cleanse his race by civil war and, when the human beings remind him that his people lead the cluster, he replies, " 'You must succeed us.' " (p. 158)

But are human beings always superior in Anderson's science fiction? No. Anderson explored every possibility. The Ishtarians in his Fire Time are superior in many ways and one of his many collections is on the theme of alien races that are more advanced or more intelligent than humanity.


Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

Yes, I too thought of FIRE TIME as one novel (which I'm currently rereading)where Poul Anderson examined the idea of how humans might be inferior, as a race, to another race. Albeit, I'm rather skeptical of the notion. Far more likely, IMO, if we get out into the galaxy, we shall find most races to be roughly on a par. Some better at A, B, C, others better at X, Y, Z, etc.

As for the practical politics of "Tiger by the Tail," and AFTER DOOMSDAY, I would put more stress on the longer history of the Terran Empire and the century of anarchy before the events of DOOMSDAY which gave Flandry and Donnan an edge in skullduggery and intrigue. And Baron Roger said something very similar in THE HIGH CRUSADE about hard experience giving even half witted German princes the street smarts needed to survive in a rough world.


Paul Shackley said...

Yes, so, in some ways, we would be better if we had it bad!

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

I forgot to add in my previous comment how the exaggerated or obsequious language used by the Vorlakkan courtier has plenty analogies from Earth's history. Here I have in mind the forms of address used by Chinese courtiers to their Emperors (and how some showed atonishing boldness and candor). You can find examples of this mode of speaking in the official documents quoted or translated in J.O.P. Bland and E. Backhouse's CHINA UNDER THE EMPRESS DOWAGER.

And I can see how a tough and competitive world is exactly what we need to keep from becoming fat and slack.

Apparently, you too have a copy of Anderson's collection THE GODS LAUGHED. The book features stories examining, sometimes seriously, sometimes humorously, sometimes ironically, the idea of the human race being inferior to a non human race. I think the most poignant example of that idea, when taken seriously, is "The Martyr." Because the aliens in that story are not only "superior," but also genuinely GOOD.


David Birr said...

See also John D. MacDonald's *Ballroom of the Skies*, in which the galactic government makes SURE we have a tough and competitive world -- by secretly stirring up our wars and assassinating those of our would-be peacemakers they can't subvert.

Why do they do this? So Earthpeople, hardened by our impoverished, war-torn world, will be the best recruits to RUN the galactic government -- and make life easier for everybody in the galaxy BUT Earth.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Dear Mr. Birr:

Very interesting, your comments about John MacDonald's story. Altho, alas, I have not read it. It reminds me of how some SF stories I've read touched on very similar ideas or themes.