Anything You Can Do…

randall-garrettRating: ✮✮

Today I have an old one for you. Anything You Can Do… by Randall Garrett was written in 1962 and typifies science fiction of that era. It has telepathy, an alien stranded on Earth, a technologically-enhanced superman (we can rebuild him… make him better… stronger… faster…), and an emphasis on psychology as well as hard science. It’s technically in the New Wave era but it also features a couple of neat technological ideas, like a Golden Age scifi story.

The plot: an alien named the Nipe falls to Earth and the government “allows” it to terrorize the Earth for ten years while they build a superman strong enough to capture it alive. They could have simply blown the alien up but they didn’t want to waste the knowledge it might bring mankind. At this point on Earth, we have colonized the asteroid belt and centralized the world government on the ruins of New York, which had been nuked by a “sun bomb”. Chapters of the Nipe’s actions are braided with chapters about the superman, his training, and his thoughts about himself and his duty.

Spoilers (highlight to view): The superman that the government is training to take on the Nipe is a twin. His father was killed by radiation from the sun bomb and his brother was crippled by it, essentially becoming a vegetable. The superman is reminded that his brother still exists when he goes to a café and sees a newspaper article about a detective who solved a kidnapping case. The man in the picture next to the story is him – well, not him, but the brother he forgot he had. Not only is his brother not crippled, but he’s a famous detective now. The superman feels a slight pang of jealousy because now his brother is the normal one. After he captures the Nipe, the superman is going to be the one who won’t fit in to normal society. The twist at the end is that the superman is actually the crippled brother and the detective is the healthy brother. The crippled brother (the superman) lost his sense of self because of his disease and lived vicariously through his brother via twin telepathy (sounds out there now but it was being considered as a serious scientific field in the 60s). The book ends with them realizing that Mart (the crippled brother) doesn’t exist, and that now there are two Barts (the healthy brother). Dun-dun-dunnnn!

Anything You Can Do… is fun and silly, but some parts are a bit of a slog. The vignettes with the policemen (the one with the baby and the one who wanted to work air control) seemed kind of pointless. It does have a couple of pretty blatantly racist and sexist passages: “men” is used generally to refer to people in “masculine” fields (police, scientists), a female receptionist is called a “girl” while a male one is called “young man” (on the next page!), and a Japanese psychologist expounds on how advanced Western society is and how conquering most of the globe is a great achievement:

“Once a race [the Nipe’s] has evolved a fairly high technological level, it is capable of wiping out races which have not achieved that level… Take a look at the history of our own race. In a few short centuries, we find that the technologically advanced civilization and culture of Renaissance Europe has spread over the whole globe. By military, economic, and religious conquest, it has, in effect, westernized the majority of Mankind. The very same process would take place on the Nipe’s world, only more thoroughly. The weaker tribes would vanish, the stronger would amalgamate… What Western European Man has partially achieved in less than a thousand years, surely the Nipe equivalent could have achieved in ten thousand.”

Funny how some authors think putting white supremacist statements in a POC character’s mouth will make them acceptable. *eye roll*

That really didn’t disturb me as much as that their deductions about Nipe society suggest that it is pretty fascist and neither the superman nor the psychologist recognizes it as such or repudiates it. I understand that this book is promoting tolerance of other points of view by saying that we should try to understand the Nipe, but I think we should be more cautious with Nazi ideology considering its history.

The Nipe have a ritual-taboo society where they keep doing what works (rituals) and everything that is not ritual is taboo. They are capable of learning new things to some degree, as long as it doesn’t contradict an old belief: if I conceive of Saturdays as days when I don’t have work, then if I have work on Saturday it is no longer Saturday, it must be a completely different, as-yet-unnamed day of the week. If a person is defined as healthy, then if that person becomes sick or old he is no longer himself… The Nipe, the psychologist says, must have had some kind of ritualistic tests (like Earthly coming-of-age rituals). If the Nipelings fail the test, they will be eaten. When the Nipe get too old, they get eaten. If a Nipe is disabled or weak in any way? Eaten.

On its face, it sounds like it would be good for the species as a whole: only the most competent would be allowed to live, so as generations pass the general population would get smarter, stronger, etc. The problem is, who gets to decide who’s too weak and by what standards? There is often still value to be found in people who would be deemed valueless by society, and a society such as the Nipe’s would be wasting those with unmeasurable potential. And then there’s love and compassion… but the Nipe does not partake of these silly human emotions.

There’s an undercurrent in of the intellectual elite against the masses running through the whole of  Anything You Can Do…. The superman is worried about how he will live among the populace after he captures the Nipe, either because he’ll be bored by everyone around him or people will turn on him out of jealousy or fear. It reminds me a little bit of Atlas Shrugged or “Harrison Bergeron”, where the superman cannot achieve his dreams because of the rule of the stupid masses. It carries the specter of eugenics, like the smartest should be allowed to live and everyone else should just die, which is kind of a disturbing fantasy, but it appeals to smart kids who are being bullied (or adults who were bullied) for being smart. So when a work of science fiction has this kind of theme running beneath it strikes me as a little bit immature.

What do you think? Does elitism bother you? Would a geniocracy be a utopia or a dystopia?

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