Thursday, 5 September 2013

Earthman Beware! By Poul Anderson

First published in Super Science Stories, June 1951

I hope you all read this article in the Guardian I linked to earlier in the week about the main-streaming rise of geek culture. There are a number of reasons why this has happened that are touched on the article, but one that I think is only tangentially approached is the myth of self that’s expressed by the figure of ‘the geek’.

The geek is a loner. The geek never compromises. The geek is an expert in his specific field. The geek is so exceptional that he’s permitted – even expected – to act like an ass. Most of all, the geek’s power is hidden. Yes, they all think he’s just a poindexter, but if they only knew! Peter Parker is a geek. Clarke Kent is a geek. Bruce Wayne pretends to be all lah-de-dah but what does he do in his spare time? Geek!

In the olden days men grew up wanting to be their Dads. That lost it’s appeal after we all realised that Dads aren’t always the kindly figures they claim to be: it’s called the patriarchy for a reason. Starting after World War II, that all began to change and one of the places the change started was at the greasy fringes of pop culture, in sci fi mags. This story is an excellent example of the dawn of this geek myth of self-actualisation.

Joel Weatherfield is a prodigious intellect, he went to Harvard at 13, graduated at 14 and by the age of 30 had invented an ion space drive, the controlled disintegration ion process, the cure for the common cold, the crystalline structure determination of geological age and a new category of maths and won the Nobel prize for physics. He’s a multi-millionaire thanks to a variety of extraordinary patents, one of the richest men on Earth.

At thirty, he threw it all a way and vanished from sight. Now he lives in isolation in the Alaskan wilderness, living off the land and avoiding contact with humanity. After months of solitude he’s tracked down by his former colleague and love interest, Margaret who confronts him about his disappearance.

But Joel Weatherfield is not like other men!
I was found in a filed of grain one summer morning thrity years ago. A... woman … who must have been my mother, was lying beside me. They told me later she was og my physical type, and that the curious iridescent garments she wore made them think she was some circus freak. But she was dead, burned and torn by the energies against which she had shielded me with her body. There were only a few crystalline fragments lying around. The people disposed of that and buried her.
Does that remind you of anyone? Apart form the addition of the mother, it’s pretty much the origin of Superman. The alien cuckoo is a familiar theme in SF, it’s true, but the corn field really makes me think of Ma and Pa Kent. He even affects a secret identity for a while.
I soon devised the perfect toupee to cover my hairlessness, and with that and ordinary clothes I’ve always been able to pass for human. But you may remember I’ve never let any human see me without shirt and pants on.
So, he’s human but odd looking and has some major body image problems. That sounds like your cliché high-functioning autistic geek to me.Another dead give away is how he behaves aorund girls.
Suddenly he knew exactly what was going to happen, what he would have to tell her and the responses she would make – almost to the word, he foresaw it, and the futility of it was like a leaden weight on his mind. But he had to go through with it, every wrenching syllable must come out. Humans were that way, groping through a darkness of solitude, calling to each other across abysses and never, never understanding.
It doesn’t escape Margaret’s notice, either.
She thought, briefly, about how banal his words were, and then remembered that he had always been awkward in speech. It was as if he didn’t feel the ordinary human nuances and had to find his way through society by mechanical robot.
Well, Joel gets it through to Margaret that it’s not going to work out. ‘Also, I’m not too interested in sex yet,’ he says. ‘I’m still in early adolescence.’ In the end he convinces Margaret that it would be for the best if she let him re-arrange her mind so she forgets all about him and marries the normal, but uninteresting Professor Langtree. Which is a pretty good break up move, if you think about it.

After he’s alone again, he spends weeks meditating and trying to get in touch with his own alien race. Projecting his thoughts into space, he finally reaches them. It's noit a happy reunion. Having been brought up by primitive humans, he’s stunted and handicapped by the standards of his own race. He describes himself as a feral child, unable to use the language and ignorant of the most basic customs.

The god like elders of his own people give Joel the same treatment he gave Margaret. In a victory for neuro-typicality they re-arrange him into a human being and manipulate his mind so that he forgets all about being a genius alien. At the end of the story he saunters off, to sweep Margaret out of the arms of the dreary Prof Langtree and settle down for a happy life, presumably in the suburbs.

So, in the end order’s restored, but for most of the story Joel was an angsty super-being. We live in a neurotic age now, and alienation like Joel's has won over the easy confidence of suburban life. Nobody ever felt like settling down in the suburbs - not unless they'd had their brains alteredt like Joel. Today's myth is that we're all geeks because we play X Box and watch Game of Thrones and that French thing about the dead people. If you wrote a version of that today, Margaret would be a goth girl and Joel would do a banging electro night at a local after-hours club, get around on a mountain bike and be covered with neo-primitive tattoos. 

But if no one really beleived in living in the suburbs how many people really believe in Star Wars and skateboarding? In the end, we're all caught up in the trends, formed by the influences around us and the accidentsof cultural history.

Themes: geek outsider, doomed love, alien cuckoo, UFOs, Superman, scientific prodigy.

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