The Streets of Ashkelon by Harry Harrison

First published in New Worlds #122, Septermber 1962.

You can read this one for free courtesy of Lightspeed Magazine.


A brilliant Jim Burns illustration!

Science fiction and religion have always been enemies. Not so science itself – many great scientists were and are religious, some deeply so. There’s nothing in the practice of science that precludes faith, in particular the somewhat abstract faith of the modern believer that focuses more on the redemptive power of ritual than on metaphysics.

Science fiction, however, is always at odds with the supernatural element of religion. The existence of the supernatural itself contradicts the underlying materialism of the science fiction narrative. The Quest for St Aquin and The Nine Billion Names of God both attempt to answer the question of the supernatural, one by conceding that the supernatural is unnecessary and the other re-defining it as a natural process we’re just not aware of. Similarly, Dune and Star Wars place their miraculous events within a context of as-yet unknown science.

Science fiction is also disposed to disapprove of the religion’s powerful role in society, in particular the influence of various Christian sects on Anglo-American politics and culture. That’s the angle this story takes. To get there, it falls back on another science fiction staple: the frontier.

John Garth is a trader based on the remote planet Wesker’s World. The planet is inhabited by furry amphibian creatures – that Garth calls Weskers – with a stone age culture but a keen intellect none the less. Garth has been working with them, trading technology for handicrafts and ethno-botanical information that might be worth something to pharmaceutical companies back in the civilized universe. His amiable life as only white-man in the village is disturbed by the arrival of Father Mark, sent by the Church to minister to The Weskers.

Garth has some strong opinions about the influence of the Church on indigenous life forms.

‘Yours is the insult,’ shouted Garth. ‘The incredible egotism you feel that your derivative little mythology, differing only slightly from the thousands of others that still burden men, can do anything but confuse their still fresh minds! Don’t you realise that they believe in truth – and have never heard of such a thing as a lie. They have not been trained yet to understand that other kinds of minds can think differently from theirs. Will you spare them this … ?’

Things go a bit frontier gothic when the literal-minded Weskers demand proof that God is real.

‘But we need a miracle!’ Itin shouted, and though he wasn’t human there was need in his voice. ‘We have read here of many smaller miracles, loaves, fishes, wine, snakes – many of them for much smaller reasons. Now all He need do is make a miracle and He will bring us all to Him – the wonder of an entirely new world worshipping at His throne, as you have told us, Father Mark. And you have told us how important this is. We have discussed this and find that there is only one miracle that is best for this kind of thing.’

I think we can all see what’s coming and Harrison carries the premise through to its gruesome end. It’s a good story and a highly popular one that’s been frequently reprinted.

It delivers its anti-religious message effectively, but I was struck by the colonial trappings. The Weskers are clearly stereotypically wise-fool ‘natives’ and both Father Mark and Garth are trying to push their own world view on them. Mark wants them to find transcendence by worshipping God, but Garth believes they can be traders like him and ‘pull themselves up’ to the level needed to join the galactic union.

It’s clear which view Harrison favours. In the end, Christianity brings tragedy for Father Mark and the Weskers suffer a biblical-level fall from innocence. But we surely understand a little better about the process of globalisation these days? Under Garth’s model, the Weskers would soon be sewing t-shirts for GAP and Top Shop for pennies while Garth grew insanely rich. The rational world view of scientism doesn’t lead to any more happiness and in the end the Weskers would have been better off if both Garth and Father Mark had left them alone.

Themes: Religion (Christianity), colonialism, cultural invasion, white man’s burden.

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

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