They Fly So High by Ross Rocklynne

You know who else liked messianic protagonists….

First published in Amazing Stories, June 1952.

After World War 2 showed that many of SF’s warnings were not the fantasies that many believed, SF writers felt somewhat emboldened to give the world a good ticking off. That’s what Memorial is all about: it’s basically a scolding showing us what silly fools we are. It’s a popular form, and one that’s often aped by writers from outside the SF tradition when they want to make a point through the medium of the post-apocalypse or dystopian satire: You silly fools! See what you have done!

Within the genre, this type of highly didactic story has another form. In this form, the story centres on a messianic figure who stands in as a mouthpiece for the author to express his (always a him!) ideals to the captive audience. Hari Seldon, for example, gives us great slabs of Isaac Asimov’s political world view, Robert Heinlein wrote a string of opinionated novels climaxing with A Stranger in a Strange Land and Frank Herbert’s Dune is entirely focused on the transformational possibilities of radical politics.

Unsurprisingly, L Ron Hubbard, who made such a big impression on the SF community in the era covered in this volume, was also fond of this technique.

This story concerns a young police agent Dornley charged with bringing in the terrorist Skutch, accusedof plotting the over-throw of the human race. Dornley has to match wits with the avuncular Skutch in a battle of ideas as much as muscle. Early on, Skutch exhorts Dornely to see through the false barriers put up by conventional society:

Skutch abruptly leaned across the table on his elbows, staring intently at Dornely. ‘You do have brains,’ he said in the gentlest tone he had used so far. ‘But you have not been taught to think. Think young man, think.’

Skutch puts Dornely through what looks to me a lot like the kind of tough-love initiatory ritual that’s been a feature of esoteric practice since at least the Rosicrucians: he manipulates circumstances so that Dornley is faced with critical choices about his very survival. It’s presented as a thriller – with bombs hidden on spaceships and the struggle for survival on the hostile surface of Jupiter while handcuffed together – but every survival challenge is interpreted presented Skutch as an existential dilemma.

‘You can think,’ [Skutch] said, nodding his great gray head. ‘But here without a spirit of revenge motivating me, perhaps you have here an excellent example of how the free individual can manipulate the Universe. I, Skutch, am manipulating you, am manipulating this ship, am manipulating events – even though I am chained to this table. Wouldn’t you give much for such an accomplishment?’

Yes, he sounds a lot like a super-villain: I think this is part of the point. It’s the growing counter-culture we see growing here: everything you know is wrong, there’s another way, a better way. It involves leaving the old ways behind, your old notion of what being a human means

I hate these types of characters. It’s one of the big reasons I’ve never got on with later Heinlein: he went from being the writer of solid space yarns to a creepy nutter. These stories aren’t about exploration, they come with a solid view of the moral texture of the world and ask you – demand in you, in fact – to believe in it.

‘You will re-examine every tradition, every convention, every idea that has been thrust at you and you have been forced to accept. You will ask why you must do such and such. Who said so? You will begin throwing out hundreds of false ideas, but you will use them, they will not use you. You will examine your fears, your guilts, your jealousies, your envies. Eventually, you will compel them, they will not compel you. No thing, no one, no idea, will ever use you again. Unless you want it to.’

Screw you, Mr Skutch. Life is neither as simple or as complicated as that, and we all make those judgements every day. The fact is that there’s very little most of us can change the world for the better and most of us manage to muddle through anyway without all this self-important shouting.

Posted in History of the Science Fiction Magazine, pulp, reading log, science fiction is dead, SF
2 comments on “They Fly So High by Ross Rocklynne
  1. Stephen says:

    Skutch is presumably a spiritual ancestor of V in “V for Vendetta”?

  2. Yeah I guess so. You could also see him in McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or even Tyler Durden in Fight Club.

    Execution is everything, I suppose!

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