Student Body by F L Wallace

First published in Galaxy 1953.

Another one available at Project Gutenberg. You could also listen to an audio version from the 50s courtesy of the Biology in Science Fiction page.  Sorry it’s not a better story!

 student1A striking illusatration by William Ashman from
this story’s first appearance in Galaxy magazine.

I’ve previously noted how important the idea of the frontier is to classic SF. SF’s golden age coincided with the golden age of the western; while the western was America’s nostalgic harkening back to the times of reader’s grandparents in the 30s and 40s, SF was a forward-looking take on the lives of readers’ children and grandchildren.

As well as the numerous stories in these collections, off the top of my head I can think of Jack Vance’s Gaean Reach novels, Dune, The Martian Chronicles, several Philip K Dick novels and many short stories by both Bradbury and Dick, among others. It’s a huge part of popular SF on TV and movies: Star Trek, Alien, Babylon 5, even Star Wars with its colonial rebels. In the right hands this isn’t a bad thing.

Unfortunately these are not the right hands.

This has got all the hallmarks of entirely generic colonial SF. It’s very blokey, with no female characters at all. The alien planet is a very close analogue to Earth with only one material – and crucial – difference. On this world there’s a single species of mammal, but it evolves quickly, taken on incredibly different forms with a generation. They start as mice, quickly grow to be the size of rats and then tigers.

It’s a typical humanity versus the alien environment story. The entire relationship between the colonists and their new home is one of antagonism and conflict. The creatures evolve from rodents into predators without stopping to consider more symbiotic forms of exploitation. After all, if one considers a large population as an evolutionary success, then domestic cows and sheep are one of the most successful large animals in the history of the world. Tigers on the hand ar enot doing so well.

This is evidence of this story’s biggest weakness: it just doesn’t make much sense. It’s trying to say something about evolution, but it falls for a lot of the obvious clangers. IN fact, it doesn’t operate by a process of evolution at all – there’s no natural selection at work. The creatures just give birth to a next generation that is cunningly adapted to the challenges thrown up by the colonists. The story’s climax epitomises an anthropocentric view of evolution that sees humanity as the top of the evolutionary tree.

student2Another one.

All this wouldn’t be so bad, except it’s not very interestingly written. The style is very plain, and there’s not much effort put into the world or the characters. At the climax, I couldn’t help imagining what Philip K Dick would have done with the idea. I can almost hear those down-beat characters, scraping a living out of the hostile planet, surrounded by the eerie, shape-shifting aliens. For PKD, the climax would have just been the start of the story.

It’s another story, following on from The Country of the Kind, that extols the virtues of violence. Before the colonists arrived, the creatures were more or less dormant, small in in numberand living unexceptional insectivorous lives. As soon as their environment is under threat, they begin to change, finally reaching human perfection.

Once more, it seems to me that evolution should favour peaceful times. When there are no predators and plenty of food there’s surely more time to breed and produce more and stronger children. Do such populations inevitably become flabby and decadent?

It feels like a very mid-century American sentiment. These were the years when America was at its most peaceful and its most prosperous, but they were haunted by dreams and nightmares of conflict. The lingering echoes of hard colonial days and the bloody theft of the land from the indigenous people resonated in popular culture. SF paints a world where the expansion can go on forever, where there are always more worlds to conquer and more space in which to expand.

In the 21st century, our world is completely explored, mapped down to the metre across the huge majority of its surface. In fact, the limits of human expansion are now more pressing than missions to Mars or the Moon. SF has dealt with this issue, too, but the loss of the frontier promise has robbed it of one of its most powerful central themes.

Themes: the frontier, man versus the environment, anthropocentric evolution.

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Golden Age of Science Fiction

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