Monday, 4 August 2014

"Vandals of the Stars" by A.T. Locke

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

Magazine: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, March 1930

This story, you guys. This story. There may not have been a story I've read that led to my husband and friends being peppered with as many insane quotes as this one. It's not that the story was particularly out there, but oh, layered into it was some outrageous stuff.

I will try to make this review not all quotes, but it may be difficult.

Let's just start with the main character's name. I feel like it requires a bigger font, somehow...

Introducing Dirk Vanderpool!

He's a brilliant millionaire scientist, natch. Who is horrible to his servants. But we'll get to the class issues later. Because boy, are there class issues! Along with gender issues and some sort-of veiled racism! But the class stuff, it's a peach.

So, brilliant millionaire scientist. At least I think he's a scientist. And a pilot, and a financier, and maybe one of the five men who control the world. Benevolently, of course. Dirk is at home one night, with his butler, when a mysterious ship hovers over the city. I think it's New York. It hangs around for a bit, moves around, causes some damage, but then eventually comes to rest and disgorges its inhabitants, who say that they're representatives from a galactic empire, and Earth is their newest conquest.

The guy in charge is blond and, as is usual in these type of stories, that means he seems to be a good guy. He wants Earth as his own private fiefdom, and that'll keep it safe from the evil galactic overlord. Good deal, huh? Except, did I mention that his son has black hair? Can we all guess what that means? It means evil, of course. You can also tell he's advanced, because he has the most complex expression on his face ever:

"His expression, however, was petulant and haughty and it contained more than a suggestion of rapacity and evil."

That's some expression!

(This keeps recurring in this story. Not only the father/son duality, but Dirk and the other man who wants to date his girfriend are described in similar terms:

"He rose to his feet, a short man in his forties, stocky in build and somewhat swarthy in complexion. He contrasted very unfavorably with Dirk, who was tall and well-built and who had abundant blond hair and steady steel-blue eyes."

The girlfriend herself appears to be both blond and dark, in a truly stunning mingling of physical and emotional traits:

"She was perhaps twenty years old, and she had the golden hair, the light complexion, and the blue eyes which still were characteristic of the women of northern Europe....The slender lines of her exquisite figure and the supple grace which she displayed when she moved toward Dirk were evidence, however, of the Latin blood which was in her veins.")

Anyway, the son wants the woman, Dirk vows to stop them, the father gets killed, the son tries to take over earth, but Dirk and the other rulers of Earth fight them off! And all is well! Well, except for the part where there's apparently still an evil galactic empire out there out to enslave them all, but that's a fine detail, right? I mean, at least they have the ship to dissect and learn from? No? It sank into the depths of the ocean? Bugger.

The story, it's not that complex. Underneath it, though, there are some truly stunning politics. Other than the bits mentioned, race is pretty much non-existent. Gender? Well, Inga is mostly there to be desired. And to make it so Dirk gets mad when other men look at her:

"The latter, he knew, was very much inclined to look with favor on Inga, and his presumption annoyed Dirk because, while he and the girl had not declared their intention of living together, they were very much in love with each other."

Which this guy should obviously have known, amirite? And that would mean no one else can look at her!

And apparently these gender politics reach even unto the stars, as the bad guy almost immediately states to her:

“your beauty pleases me. I have walked on many worlds but never before have I seen one as lovely as yourself. Of the spoils of this world, all that I crave possession of is you. When we return to Lodore,” he added with an air of finality, “I will take you with me and place you with my other women in the Seraglio of the Stars.”

Oh, and this reminds me of the one hilarious "science" bit in this story. Otherwise, I make no comment.  I don't expect old science fiction to correctly predict the future, although I do think it's funny when everything is because of "vibrations."

No, this is the social sciences. Apparently, get this, the invaders speak English. Because:

"Life grows out of the substance of the universe and language comes out of life. The speech of mankind, in your state of development, varies but little throughout all space and I have heard your English, as you call it, spoken among those who dwell in many, many worlds.” 

So all over the universe, English is a sign of being at a certain stage of development. What does that mean for French? Or Chinese, or, anything, really? Nope, English. That's the language. Not just the international language, the interstellar language.

Let's get to the part I really wanted to talk about. Benevolent dictatorship by those who hold all the money. I'm not kidding. This future world is ruled by five men who have all the money, and decided to take it over. And that's great, according to the author!

"It was in the early part of the twentieth century that wealth had commenced to concentrate into a relatively few hands. This was followed by a period in which vast mergers and consolidations had been effected as a result of the financial power and genius for organization which a few men possessed. A confederation of the countries of the world was brought about by industrial kings who had learned, in one devastating war, that militarism, while it might bring riches to a few, was, in the final analysis, destructive and wasteful." 

"Absolute control of all of the necessities and luxuries of life, in fact, were in the hands of the five men, who used their vast power wisely and beneficently. "

And there are all these snide comments about the servants - Dirk's an absolute asshole to his butler. Man, the invaders from outer space I can handle without a blink. But that the five richest men in the world would do a great job of ruling it, and not be ruled by their own self-interests? That strains my credulity far beyond the snapping point. Also, the decisions they come to, and the suggestions of regular use of knockout gas for crowd control in their cities? But that it's a good thing?

Man, this world was already a dystopia. It didn't need invaders from space for that. But the author doesn't seem to realize it.

Because rule by the powerful and wealthy is bad if they're not from around here (even if they speak English). But if they're homegrown petty dictators, they obviously have pure motives. Huh? 

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