Sunday, July 15, 2012
Retro Review - Richard Stockham, "The Valley" (1954)
This story was originally published in If - Worlds of Science Fiction (June 1954) and can be read online in its entirety at
It was anthologized in Brian Aldiss' Evil Earths (1976), so I do not wish to run it directly on Fantastic Worlds owing to possible copyright issues.
At some point in the future (say around AD 2000) the Earth was devastated by the Atomic Wars. Through millennia of privation and slow reconstruction, Mankind slowly recovered from this disaster. Then, around AD 4000, a means of immortality via cloning and "reincarnation" (passage of the personality and memories of the individual into the clone) was developed. The Earth became heavily overpopulated, and laws were passed forbidding new births.
Around the year AD 5000, it became evident that Earth's overstressed environment was collapsing. The other Solar planets were already known to be uninhabitable, and an immense effort was made to send out an armada of hundreds of scoutships to explore the Galaxy in the hopes of finding another, unspoiled Earthlike planet. Meanwhile, Mankind on Earth retreated into life-supported cities, abandoning the barely-habitable wastes outside the cities, in a comfortable but claustrophobic existence.
Around AD 7000, after some two millennia of exploration, one single starship out of the immense fleet of scouts returns. Its surviving crew of two, Michael and Mary, have bad news for the people of Earth.
There are many other planets in the Galaxy, but none of them are inhabitable by Man. Some have environments that would instantly destroy humans, some that humans would instantly destroy, but they have found no world upon which humans might live and flourish unprotected.
As Michael says:
"The thousand who left with us are dead. For some time we've known the other planets in our solar system were uninhabitable. Now we've been from one end of the galaxy to the other. And this is what we've found ... We were given Earth. There's no place else for us. The rest of the planets in the galaxy were given to otehrs. There's no place else for them. We've all had a chance to make the best of Earth. Instead we've made the worst of it. So we're here to stay -- and die."
The President of Earth refuses to accept this depressing message, and spreads a false report in which the expeditions discovered -- but lost the way to -- an Eden-like second Earth. He announces that new expeditions will be sent out to discover this planet, even if they have to go as far as the Andromeda galaxy.
There only remains the issue of what to do with Michael and Mary. Over three thousand years of peace, the Earth has develloped an exceedingly pacifistic culture, so simply killing them is out of the question. The couple must be isolated for the good of society.
Michael and Mary threaten to kill themselves (an act which might drive the President insane if accomplished) unless they are given an aircar, a year's supplies, and the opportunity to leave the domed cities and attempt to survive on their own in the wastelands. The President readily acquiesces to those terms, as he feels they will probably perish on their own without it being his own fault. What he does not know is that Mary is pregnant.
The couple take the aircar and go. Traveling far beyond the cities, they find many miles of desert wastes. Then, to their surprise, they find a fertile valley. They decide to settle there, and establish a new future for Mankind on the recovering planet.
"And the ones back in the city will know the Earth again. Sometimes we'll lead them back here and show them the Earth is coming alive ... By following what we had to do for ourselves, we've found a way to save them."
The story thus ends on a hopeful note, with Man perhaps back on the path to living happily on the planet meant for him.
This is a concise and yet beautiful story: short and with only three important characters (Michael, Mary and the President) it very much makes its point. The imagery is awesome, representing well the wonder and terror of the Universe:
And then the spectators saw one ship shudder and swerve into a blazing, bluish white star, like a gnat flying into a white hot pokier; saw another drop away and away, out and out into the blackness past the swirling white rim of the galaxy, and sink into a dark nothingness.
Great balls of rock showered like hail onto other ships, smashing them into grotesque tin cans. the stream of fire at the tail of another ship suddenly died and the ship floated into an orbit around a great, yellow planet, tn times the size of Jupiter, then was sucked into it. Another burst like a comb, flinging a man and woman out into the darkness, where they hung suspended, frozen like statutes, like bodies drowned in the depths of an Arctic sea.
That not only horrified me, in-story it horrified the audience of pacifistic early 9th-millennium shut-ins, to the point that they made Michael and Mary stop the presentation at that point!
It is also interesting in that it is one of the earlier science fiction stories to take a decidedly-environmentalist tone. Note that while the initial devastation of the Earth is due to "the Atomic Wars" (common in 1950's science fiction, and actually still quite plausible today, try as we may to convince ourselves that it either wouldn't happen or if it did would conveniently kill us all), the Earth recovers from that devastation. It is not until the discovery of immortality and the consequent population explosion that the ecosystem is (seemingly) ruined for good.
Indeed, despite the fact that it centers around two people returning from an immense effort to find a new Earth, "The Valley" is in many-ways also proto-Mundane Science Fiction. Why? Because they fail -- and fail in a way that demonstrates that (at least in their storyverse), there is no other habitable planet for Man in the Galaxy -- perhaps in the Universe.
"The Valley" also demonstrates quite well the fundamental similarity of the central tenets of Only One Earth (the story's explicit point) and older-style religion, which was a point I made in my essays on the intellectual premises and origins of Mundane Science Fiction,
"The Fear of Boundlessness,"
"The Promise of Boundlessness,"
"Damon Knight and the Conceptual Origins of the Mundane SF Movement"
Note that Earth is the only planet "given to" Mankind (by Whom?) just as all the other alien races the explorers find each only have one planet "given to" them (presumably by the same Being who gave the Earth to us). Consequently, the survival and destiny of each race is bound up entirely with its homeworld, and if that homeworld be ruined, that race's story ends. This rather nicely unites the old monotheism and the new environmentalism, by making them one and the same.
Stockham's story presents this concept with beauty and grace -- far better than the clumsy work of modern Mundane Science Fiction. Nevertheless, it suffers from a fundamental logical flaw -- and not merely one disagreeing with the external scientific universe. It does not make sense even in the story's own terms.
Permit me to elucidate.
When Michael and Mary return to the Earth of AD 7000, they find that the human race is surviving, in peace and obvious prosperity, in domed cities which are maintained on a mostly-uninhabitable world by dint of extensive life support (vast chemical pumping, filtration and recycling systems). But if this is the case, and humanity both has this technology and has made the necessary cultural and psychological adaptations to live millennia-long lives under these circumstances, then ...
What is preventing them from using the VERY SAME TECHNOLOGY to colonize many of those "unihabitable" worlds?
Here is where the whole beautiful regenerative image of the story vanishes in a puff of logic. I can accept the wacky planetological assumptions under which an entire Galaxy, apparently rich in planets, never results in more than one planet habitable by any single sapient species. (Aside from the clearly Creationist implications of each race being "given" only one planet, I can even think of biological assumptions under which, say, any race would be utterly-allergic to the ecosystem of any other habitable planet). I could even accept the assumption that Man is so psychologically-wedded to living on a shirtsleeves-habitable planet that no amount of attainable (or at least easily-attainable) life support technology could substitute.
But what I cannot accept is that the latter could be the case in a situation where the Earth itself has clearly been rendered uninhabitable on two separate occasions (c. AD 2000 and c. AD 4000) and humanity has clearly survived each time by extensive use of life support technology. This is internally self-contradictory, and it severs my willing suspension, bringing my disbelief crashing down like a fleet of engine-crippled exploratory starships.
There is a subsidiary piece of fallacious reasoning common to much science fiction in this subgenre: the assumption that "the human race" is some sort of unitary entity, capable of pursuing only one strategy at a time. Michael even makes it explicit when he says:
"What a terrible failure there's been here ... The neglect and destruction of a whole planet. It's like a family letting their home decay all around them, and living in smaller and smaller rooms of it, until at last the rooms are all gone, and since they can't find another home, they all die in the ruins of the last room."
This is an excellent analogy, but an illogical one. Why can't some members of the "family" try to rebuild their "house" (the Earth), others colonize vacant houses on the same block (the other Solar planets) and still others look for new houses on other blocks of the same city (as did their exploratory fleet) with perhaps less perfectionist standards of habitability? For that matter, why couldn't a few look for other cities (galaxies) in which there might be better houses?
This is of course the exact same illogic committed by the modern Mundanes and Only One Earthers when they argue that looking for new worlds is somehow a betrayal of trying to save the Earth. In fact, we can do both, and a family with more than one house has more resources to save one of them which is going into disrepair than a family which must live in the crumbling dwelling.
To sum up my analysis: this is a beautiful story, but a flawed one. I recommend its reading for its own sweet sake, but the flaw at its heart proceeds like a crack not only through this tale, but through the whole genre of Only One Earth, aka Mundane, Science Fiction.