Plots of Circumstance: Mutants!

 

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My look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

We’re at the last subcategory of the “plots of circumstance”. (And, no, Gunn didn’t throw an exclamation mark in after “mutants”.)

Mutants don’t seem a plot category but a theme or motif.

Gunn says right up front that “the problem of mutations” has no set pattern of protagonist or setting. A “mutant” plot can be set in the past, present, or future. It’s the alien presence of the mutant that matters.

I double checked the “Mutants” entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It confirmed my memory and Gunn’s claims that mutant stories have been around for a long time in science fiction. But most mutants in these stories before the 1940s were animals or insects and not humans. He divides these stories between mutant animals and mutant humans.

Before he gets started he makes a claim similar to what he did about the value of the disaster sub-genre of science fiction, and I object to it for similar reasons.

The rise of a new race of animal or insect life to threaten man’s dominion over the earth can be used for adventurous, satiric, or ironic purposes but little else.

Stories of animals and bugs getting above their place in the great chain of being can have the same utilitarian benefit – an analytic autopsy on what social, environmental, and technological factors make our civilization possible – as works of disaster science fiction. As an example, I would cite Charles Pellegino’s Dust.

Obviously, the development of modern science fiction, which Gunn dates to about 1930, is close in time to research showing how to actually induce mutations.

Human mutation, the creation of supermen, has a long mythological connection. The human mutant represents a crossroads for humanity: transcendence, degeneracy, or racial extinction.

To Gunn, a plot with human mutation is

a family tragedy or, in extrapolated form, the first indications of the passing of the human race. In its more universal appearance, it suggests, even more strongly, that the dominance of homo sapiens is approaching its end, mourned or un-mourned, that humanity’s climactic struggle for survival is at hand, or that the theoretical equality of men is no longer even a subject for debate and that man must learn to live heterogeneously, must learn the impractical virtues of tolerance, sympathy, and generosity, if he is to live at all.

Frankly, I’m not sure what Gunn means by that last. On a certain level, we already live with the presence of mutants in our midst. Lactose tolerance, for insistence, is a mutation not shared by everyone in the world, and human evolution is accelerating meaning, by definition, more mutations as well as more selection pressure for certain genetic traits. However, Gunn is obviously talking about the flashy, noticeable mutations brought on by an act of man (usually involving our friend the atom).  (Though, in his The Road to Science Fiction #4, Gunn picked a story about an exceptionally unflashy mutant in Algis Budrys’ “Nobody Bothers Gus” from 1955.)

Supermen

It’s hard to argue with Gunn’s summation of the superman plot:

Two primary considerations faced authors who speculated about the emergence of a race of superior beings from the human race: what constitutes significant superiority and what would be the attitude of a superior race to the parent race.

Gunn considers the first major, modern examples of this plot to be Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1936) and H. G. Wells’ Star-Begotten (1937 and from which Gunn took the title of his autobiography).

He doesn’t think Wells’ novel really addresses the attitude of the mutant toward normal humanity.

That certainly cannot be said of Stapledon’s work. As Gunn notes, in an attitude that now strikes me as prefiguring modern European cultural suicide, its mutants “decide that they cannot destroy the civilized world even to preserve themselves and the future of their species.” A mutant without the will to live is certainly not a successful mutation.

As was often the case in his work, Robert A. Heinlein’s “Gulf” is a fairly sensible presentation of the idea that a successful mutation doesn’t have to produce really exceptional improvement, just a bit of an improvement.

One, I suppose, could see Lewis Padgett (remember, that’s C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner’s mutual penname used singly or jointly) “The Piper’s Son”, part of their Baldy series, as some kind of metaphor for good relations between what we now call “market dominant minorities”). The mutants here are bald and telepathic. Their situation in the world

requires mutual acceptance and tolerance between the mutants and humans and on the mutants’ side a sacrificing of ambition and a policy of self-effacement in order to gain that acceptance and tolerance.

Gunn ends his discussion of supermen by saying the public may be getting sick of mutants in 1951, but the plot has great potential and will return because it’s so vital. And so it has.

Grotesque Humans

Obviously, grotesque people have a long history in fiction and mythology and find a use in horror. In science fiction, they became useful when an understanding of how to produce them through mutation became known.

Even now, it’s hard to argue with Gunn that “grotesque humans” are there in science fiction stories mostly as detail and not theme. He does cite the best use of the idea in Poul Anderson and F. N. Waldrop “Tomorrow’s Children” and Judith Merrill’s “That Only a Mother”.

Mutant Insects and Animals

I think Gunn citing Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla” from 1887 as one of the first examples of this is wrong. The Horla strikes me as something more akin to a human albeit of supernormal powers. On the other hand, Gunn says he’s using “animal” for any lifeform equal to or superior to man. That even includes plants. So, in that sense, “The Horla” is a defensible choice. The usual animals that get above themselves are ants and termites – a tradition stretching from at least H. G. Wells’ “The Empire of the Ants” to the strange movie Phase IV.

The usual gloomy premise behind these plots is that man is somehow not fit to be the pinnacle of creation. And, yes, this premise saw greater use between the two world wars.

Gunn divides this subcategory into three.

Mutant Insects and Animals Battling Man for Supremacy on Earth

In addition to “The Empire of the Ants”, Wells’ “The Valley of the Spiders” gets mentioned here. (Wells hasn’t been dubbed “The Father of Science Fiction” for nothing.). The amusing sounding “The Day of the Dragon” from Guy Endore gets mentioned here. In it, a scientist decides certain design flaws in alligator hearts need to be fixed. The next thing you know, “the few remnants of humanity” are huddling in New York and its subways, their survival in doubt. I wonder if they were foolish enough to head for the sewers.

Gunn thinks this plot type has “very definite limitations” and mostly of use for satire and social commentary.

Animals or Insects That Take Over Earth

Gunn has some tacit warnings to writers on using this one: it’s hard to get reader identification and present “a state of affairs already accomplished”. (It would seem one could do a story about the transition from battling uppity critters to them taking over.) However, like the previous mutant animal plot type, it’s suitable mostly for satire and commentary.

Animals or Insects Cooperating with Mankind

This is the romantic version of the mutant animal plot. Because it’s romantic, it’s not realistic, and Gunn is concerned with realistic sf.

And what animal do you think gets this treatment most? (Hint: It’s not cats.) Dogs, of course. Mention is made of a story later incorporated in Clifford D. Simak’s City, and another such look at this dog-man relationship is Eric Frank Russell’s “Follower”.

In the next look at Gunn’s thesis, we’ll start looking at “plots of creation”.

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