Friday, October 5, 2012

Retro Review: "The Island of Unreason" (1933) by Edmond Hamilton

"Retro Review of
'The Island of Unreason'
(c) 1933
Edmond Hamilton"

(c) 2012


Jordan S. Bassior

Synopsis:  This is the tale of Allan Mann (serial number 2473R6), a young man who is a bit too passionate to fell well into the rigidly-Technocratic society of the early 4th Millennium A.D.  When he refuses to let the atomic-motor project he's been working on for the past two years be simply turned over to another engineer, he is arrested for a "breach of reason."  The penalty is exile, for an indefinite term, to the Island of Unreason, a small body of land located in the ocean some 300 miles from City 72 (which the ancients knew as New York City).  There, people must live with neither the protection of law nor the support of the paternalistic society of this future time.

Allan is dismayed by this sentence, because his lapse from Reasonableness was unusual.  Though he has suffered from some dissatisfaction, he really believes in the ideals of his age, and yearns to return home.

On the island, the first person he meets is Lita, a young woman who was exiled to the island six months ago, in her case for life, for refusing the mate assigned to her by the Eugenic Board because she "didn't like the way he looked at" her (which Allan thinks is very Unreasonable).  She is fleeing Hara, who was exiled there a few weeks ago, and who has become the boss of the island by beating "all the strongest men" in personal combat, which is how things are normally done on the Island of Unreason.

Allan at first refuses to fight Hara, then simply clubs him from behind when he turns his back, knocking Hara unconscious.  This shocks Lita, because it wasn't a fair fight; and worries her, because she knows that when Hara wakes up he'll be after them both with a vengeance (killing Hara when he's down occurs to neither of the pair, which is plausible given that they both orginate from a rather peaceful civilization).

So they run off together.  Lita shows Allan how to survive, and Allan discovers to his surprise that he actually likes the taste of meat (the main society of the 4th Millenium is strictly vegetarian).

Unfortuantely, Hara does wake up, and he calls out the inhabitants of the Island to hunt the pair down.  Hara and Lita manage to defeat one hunting party, but the others corner them on a peninsula, and then Hara himself attacks them.  Allan fights Hara in a one-on-one bare-fisted brawl.  Surprisingly, Allan manages to knock out Hara, but then himself collapses from the strain.

He wakes up in a flier headed back to City 72.  His sentence has expired and he may re-enter civilized society.  But now Allan loves Lita and wants to return to the Island.  When he meets the Director of City 72 he knocks down that high officials, and is of course exiled to the Island of Unreason.

There, he once again meets Lita.  They fall into one another's arms.  He also meets Hara -- who shakes Allan's hand.  Hara has found his own girlfriend.  The Unreasonables have decided to reinstitute the custom of marriage, with the help of an Unreasonable preacher, and Lita will marry Allen, and Hara his own girlfriend.

That evening, after the double marriage had been performed and those in the village were engaged in noisy and completely irrational merrymaking, Allan and Lita met with Hara and his bride on a bluff at the island's western end, looking toward the last glow of sunset's red embers in the darkening sky.

"Some day," said Hara, "when there's a lot more of us unreasonables we'll go back there and take the world and make it all unreasonable and inefficient and human again."

"Some day --" Allan murmured.


Down With Technocracy!

The first thing to understand about this story is that it was almost certainly written as a reply in the science-fictional conversation of the day to the philosophy of Technocracy, which was touted in much of the science fiction of the Interwar era as the solution for social problems most in tune with the future development of technological civilization.  The original concept, created by William Henry Smyth in 1919, envisioned "the rule of the people made effective through the agency of their servants, the scientists and engineers", but in the 1930's came to mean government by technical decision-making.  It is notable that the closer technocracy came to implementation, the more it resembled an engineering-oriented form of fascism or socialism.

In "The Island of Unreason," humanity is ruled by a mature Technocratic (though it never uses that specific term in-story) regime.  Everyone is assigned to whatever job the technocrats believe best for their skills and talents, and may be reassigned at the decision of those Technocrats (it is for resistance to such a reassignment that Allan Mann is originally exiled).  Even worse than that, people are assigned mates by the Eugenic Board (it for resistance to such assignment that Lita is exiled).  Provided that people obey the rules without resistance, they have their every physical need provided for by society -- and it is evidently a rather luxurious society by Interwar standards, with all the basic techno-wonders forecast by Gernsback and his disciples.

What Edmond Hamilton shows rather neatly is how utterly crushing such a society would be to the human spirit, if it did not respect basic human liberties.  (There is, after all, nothing about having shining cities or abundant material goods which requires bureaucratic socialism or the assignment of mating partners by a Eugenic Board, and Edmond Hamilton in many other stories depicted technologically-advanced civilizations without such unpleasant features).  The original of this type was of course Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) which came out just a year before Hamilton's story and probably influenced it to some degree (especially in the assumption of the existence of primitives outside the society, though in "The Island of Unreason" the technocrats are exiling misfits to dwell in a more primitive manner).

It's possible that Robert A. Heinlein's famous short story "Coventry" (1940) was in turn a response to "The Island of Unreason."  In "Coventry," David MacKinnon actually wants to be exiled to the anarchy-zone called Coventry, he gets sent there much the same way that Allan Mann gets life, and he finds it to be an utterly-hellish place.  Ultimately, he winds up fighting to defend civilization from precisely the sort of invasion which Hara and Allan are contemplating at TIoU's end.  It is perhaps relevant here that Heinlein was, in the Interwar Era, an at least moderate Technocrat.

Heinlein may have had some of the same problems with the story as I did, to wit:

Unreasonable "Reason," Reasonable "Unreason" and Downright Horrible "Humanity"

The government of Hamilton's technocratic future claims that even its most personal and trivial decisions constitute "reason" and that any dissent from them is a "breach of reason," punishable by exile.  None of Hamilton's characters challenge this premise:  even Allan Mann, clearly an intelligent and reasonable (in the normal sense of the word) fellow, accepts the governmental definitions and decides in the end that he is simply unreasonable.  Hara specifically says that his goal will be to one day lead an invasion of the mainland from the Island and restore "unreasonable and inefficient" humanity.

I have problems with all of these assumptions.  To begin with, there is absolutely no reason to assume that the government is perfectly honest:  how do we know that its high officials don't simply allocate the best goods and services to themselves, declaring this to be merely "reasonable?"  Since any dissent is punishable at law, and all trials seem to be merely administrative ones conducted by the elites themselves, there is absolutely no check against corruption save for mutual checks on the elites by each other.

Even if the government is perfectly honest, is it competent to make all these decisions?  Von Mises, who would come to America the year after this story was published, argued that information costs made it impossible for even the most genuinely and sincerely honest and competent socialist regime to make personal decisions more wisely than the individuals who would normally make them; his disciple Hayek would add that all the incentives in a socialist system would make such a regime tend toward tyranny even if such was not its original goal.  In fact, both these reasons have doomed Technocracy to failure every time that anyone has attempted to implement it even in part:  the technocrats can't make very good decisions, and they have no incentive to even want to make good decisions.

I might add that the specific stories of the two main characters support these argument. 

Allan was taken off a project that he had almost completed; the project was simply to be given to someone else for no discernable good reason.  It is generally not efficient to switch project leaders before a project is complete, and since no reason was ever given for the decision, my default assumption would be that Michael Russ (the man who replaced Allen on the job) simply enjoyed better connections. 

Lita was going to be forced to mate with someone against her consent:  the polite term for that in our society would be "forced marriage," and the more honest term "rape."  Now, we don't know for how long these mating arrangements last in Lita's society, but on that issues merely lies the question of for how long a period of time she would be raped.  It's also notable that her objection "I didn't like the way he looked at me," is actually a perfectly reasonable one:  a lot of character can be inferred by the sort of gaze that a potential sexual partner gives one, and it's unreasonable that the authorities didn't listen to her in this matter.

The fact that she had no right of refusal of the Eugenic Board's assignment implies some fairly disgusting and terrible things about her society.  In our society, forcing people into this sort of relationship would almost-inevitably result in either severe physical harm to one or both parties, or severe psychological damage to one or both of them.  The reason why is that we see sexuality as a very personal thing and the violation of our body space against our wills is emotionally-devastating.  If Lita's society is one in which people would generally not experience this as devastating, this means that they are either so submissive as to be utterly-spineless, or so promiscious that sex is considered no more personal than a handshake.

However, note that the Island of Unreason isn't actually any better.  Hara takes over the Island by beating up the other strong men, which is held to confer authority upon him.  Why is agonarchy better than bureaucracy?  No reason is ever given.  Hara decides that he will make Lita his woman against her will, which is the exact same threat she faced BEFORE her exile.  This is made light of in-story because in fact Allen was able to defeat Hara, and Hara then promptly and conveniently found a new girlfriend (so promptly and conveniently that Hamilton doesn't even bother to name her), but if either of these two events hadn't happened, Lita would have indeed been raped.

It is indeed possible that Edmond Hamilton was not only aware of this irony but structured the story that way to make it obvious.  But there's no clear evidence that this was the case.  When Heinlein wrote "Coventry," his main character makes many of the same romantic assumptions about anarchy that Allen, Lita and Hara are all making by story's end -- and has each of these assumptions painfully disproven to him and rubbed in his face.

Indeed, the main characters in "Island" are all damned lucky that things turned out in exactly the way they did.  Had Allan lost to Hara in either fight, Lita would have been abducted and raped, Hara would have wound up with a captive bride (who might or might not have put up with her new role), and Allen never would have found True Love.  All this makes the Eugenic Board of their old society -- which probably did in most cases try to make compatible matches -- look better and better by comparison with a fairly terrible alternative.

Of course, a free society of rational men and women ruling themselves through democratic representation, keeping or trading the fruits of their labor at their own decision, and mutually choosing with whom and when to mate or marry, would be far better.  But then, neither side is advocating any such society.  That disappeared a long time ago.

This bothers me because I think the dichotomy shown in the story between "reasonable" (safe and scientific and rational but boring, regimented and inhuman) and "unreasonable" (dangerous and irrational but fun, spontaneous and human) modes of conduct is a false one, and a false one which has done very great damage to the sanity of our society in the real world.  Turning against reason does not make us free, it merely subjects our behavior to the most basic sorts of whims.  And it does not make us happy.

A Happy Ending?

In-story, all the major characters agree that they have won a happy ending.  Allen and Lita are married, and so are Hara and Miss Anonymous Pert Blonde Chick.  And surely the people of the Island of Unreason can look forward to a future of retaking the world and making it safe for normal Unreasonable Humanity, right?

First of all, I don't see exactly why we should assume that Allen and Lita have actually found True Love.  Even by the somewhat relaxed Love-at-First-Sight standards of Interwar pulp fiction, their whole interaction has been limited to about a day's running and fighting together, at the end of which they were separated by Allen's pardon; and another day of celebrating their marriage.  They're both smart and strong-willed people (by the standards of their rather stupid and weak-willed age) and can be said to like each other, and there's obviously a mutual infatuation here, but that's about it.

Secondly, everyone on the Island has been raised in a high-tech society in which medicine probably at least as advanced as that which we really have today in 2012 is taken for granted; and they are now living under Neolithic, or even Paleolithic conditions, on a tiny island.  They are living rough and will die young and in agony by the standards of their own civilization.  Oh -- and if their marriages are fruitful, Lita and Miss Pert Blonde Chick will both enjoy the pleasures of technologically-unasssisted childbirth.  Lotsa fun for all.

Thirdly, the Island of Unreason has absolutely no sane social institutions, not even by the standards of (say) an Early Iron Age Celtic barbarian village.  Leadership is literally decided by personal combat and as far as I know nobody has repealed the idea of marriage being decided by successful rape.  I'm not even sure if anyone is farming -- what will they do when the game starts to run out?  They may just discover another wonderful primitive social institution called "starving to death," which they may stave off by rediscovering cannibalism.  Mmm, nice yummy meat.

Fourthly, and related to this, how exactly is Hara planning to support the "more people" he expects to show up?

Fifthly, even if the island's population somehow swells to hundreds or thousands without a requirement to physically-consume the weaker or uglier exiles, how does Hara intend to successfully invade the mainland?  Even if we assume that North America is independent and so he must only conquer that land, I would assume from the description of a heavily-urbanized society that there must be hundreds of millions of people on that land mass.   If we assume, say, 500 million, and Hara has a population of 500, then he and his followers are outnumbered literally a million to one.

Oh, and the mainlanders have a higher level of technology.  These are odds worse than those faced by Cortez, and with the technological gradient running in the opposite direction.

I'm guessing that Hara's (and maybe Hamilton's) theory is that the Reasonables are all wussies, but even if they are wussies who have given up war as primitive centureis ago, there's still hundreds of millions of them with a massive industrial base.  Their police or even sanitation establishments could probably repel Hara's planned invasion.  And they must have some means of physically-subduing the recalcitrant -- how else did they successfully exile Hara in the first place?

What this amounts to is that Hara is a violent fanatic -- what we'd call a "psychopath" -- attempting to organize a gigantic terrorist raid on an essentially peaceful society whose peacefulness would mean that Hara and his followers would get to cruelly-abuse hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of weak and naive people, before falling in a hail of Stun Bolts and a haze of The Gas of Peace.  And if he somehow, against the odds, manages to win, the numbers of his victims may mount into the millions or even billions -- and he has no better plan for society to take the place of what he will be tearing down.

And Allen and Lita are going to get to help him live his dream.  Yay for them.


"The Island of Unreason" is a superficially-fun adventure story about rebels against an oppressive future society which on closer analysis is a terribly no-win situation.  Edmond Hamilton ran with what looked cool, and ignored the many horrible implications of the scenario.  I know that Hamilton liked to write tragedy (see "A Conquest of Two Worlds") but in this case, I really think he didn't realize that what he was writing was tragedy -- by implication.

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