Thursday, 23 July 2015

"General Max Shorter" by Kris Neville

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?

From: Galaxy, December 1962

It's been a while since I've done one of these! It may continue to be erratic until my dissertation is finally done and submitted. It's nice to get back to them. And imagine my surprise, when I started this one, ready for purple prose, hilarious similes, and worrisome politics.

Wait, where did that stuff go?

This was not badly written, to my surprise. It's all about the dangers of military think, in terms of the colonization of space, but more generally in terms of a slavish following of rules as an excuse for abdication of thought and compassion.

In this story, the Earth military is mostly in charge of terraforming, and General Shorter is in charge of an expedition to make Miracastle safe for human habitation. Neville moves into things being askew gently, with us seeing General Shorter as a competent, respected leader, and then hearing about the suicide of one of his men (also one of the first science fiction short stories I've read that acknowledges suicide as a problem in the military). Shorter dismisses it as a weak personality, but there are hints that it was because of something the military had done that that soldier had been unable to live with.

Then administrators from earth show up, pissing off General Shorter as it messes with his schedule. There are more hints about how he thinks it would be better to bomb a city than run an expensive evacuation, if it meant he wouldn't be able to track down an enemy.

Turns out, despite a survey that on sampling, showed no evidence of non-human life, there was a small settlement of non-humans. They had evidently not started on this planet, but showed no signs of being able to leave. When the humans started to change the air, they started to suffocate. Shorter was informed that they could reverse it and save them, but refused to let his terraforming get behind schedule. He is shocked at the end of the story, when he is arrested for murder.

It's not just Shorter, though. Neville is careful to show that this is not one man's obsession with utility, but a military-wide problem, through a long-term Sergeant who rails about enlisted men who think too much and question orders. The blame is distributed.

I really enjoyed this story! It's a troubling look at the use of utilitarianism to justify colonialism and at extremes, massacre through inaction. In the recent stories I've been reading from the late 1950s and early 1960s, several seem to have moved from mad scientists to looking at the military applications of technology. Most of them are not that critical, but this one is extremely pointed.

It's too bad that it appears that Neville found that most of his work couldn't be published at the time. I will probably try to seek out more of what he could get published.

However, I should note, that while I enjoyed the politics of this story a lot, Neville's army still didn't include any women, nor, as far as we are told, anyone who wasn't white. It's hard to transcend all barriers, and he's far from alone. Still, it's always a little disappointing when someone is very close to making the next leap, and doesn't.

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