Sunday, March 28, 2010

And all the Stars a Stage; Childhood's End, passage Compare and Contrast

Originally posted December 6, 2009

I found it absolutely fascinating that the last two novels I've read both had very similar passages in which it is purported that oral contraceptives and paternity tests will revolutionize society. Here are the two passages, after which I will do some compare and contrast.

"In particular, the pattern of sexual mores- insofar as there had ever been one pattern- had altered radically. It had been virtually shattered by two invention, which were, ironically enough, of purely human origin and owed nothing to the Overlords.

The first was a completely reliable oral contraceptive: the second was an equally infallible method- as certain as fingerprinting, and based on a very detailed analysis of the blood- of identifying the father of any child. The effect of these two inventions upon human society could only be described as devastating, and they had swept away the last remnants of the Puritan aberration." (p 73 in my copy of Childhood's End.) 1953

"The relevant technique was called sperm electrophoresis, a ridiculously simple trick to perform in glassware- and the pharmaceutical manufacturers had quickly come up with a medium, an anion or cation exchange gel, which made it equally easy to perform in situ. Its purpose was sex determination of the child at conception….

Had it not been Selektrojel, it would have been something else. That had appeared almost simultaneously with another dangerous triumph of the pharmaceutical research laboratories: a cheap, simple, safe, foolproof oral contraceptive. This, couples with the fact that venereal disease had disappeared (as a natural consequence of the virtually complete conquest of infectious
disease by chemotherapy, immunology, and universal sanitation), might easily have destroyed the immemorial family system entirely, by making sexual relations so free of any unwanted consequence that they could hardly seem worth the price of a lifetime contract, especially to the innately roving-eyed- male. "In fact," one of the leading doctors of the time had remarked in an immortal burst of unconscious humor, "venereal disease is now almost as pleasant to cure as it is
to catch.") Legal protection could still be afforded the woman afflicted with an accident of impulse, since modern genetics made it possible to determine the parents of any child ninety-nine times out of a hundred by blood tests alone." (6-8 in my copy of And All the Stars a Stage) 1960 or 1971

As I stated in my review of Childhood's End: "We of course have both of these technologies. "The Pill" came out in the 60s and it about 99% effective if properly used. I'd call that reliable. And DNA testing first reported in 1985 can offer definitive paternal proof.

So did these two discoveries change sexual mores, absolutely without the pill there would have been no free love movement in the 60s and DNA testing in paternity cases can be really important. On a lighter note, I've heard that on "the Montel Show" "you are not the father" is practically his catchphrase. However, have these discovers lead to an end to the "Puritan aberration?" Not so far. Not as long as the bible belt pushes abstinence only programs, television
networks get sued for showing a nipple on television for 3 seconds, and every day it seems like from the way people talk about abortion, it was outlawed instead of legally protected in the Roe vs. Wade judgment. So in my opinion, the sexual mores of today may be different than those of the 50s, but we still have a long way to go."

And as Bill so brilliantly stated more so than the two changes purported in Childhood's End it was the more seemingly mundane change of woman joining the work force that truly revolutionized modern sexual mores. For the first time woman did not necessarily have to get married in order to have children. Today with artificial insemination a guy doesn't even have to be involved, but that's getting off topic.

The Blish passage brings up some new and interesting ideas. And by interesting I mean crazy. The idea that "venereal diseases disappeared as a natural consequence of the virtually complete conquest of infectious disease by chemotherapy, immunology, and universal sanitation." Okay, lets pick this apart one at a time. The conquest of infectious disease by chemotherapy, I'm guessing that Blish is using the word chemotherapy to mean antibiotics not its modern usage as a cancer medicine. The story originally appeared in 1960 in "an abridged form" and the novel in 1971. Chemotherapy had a major breakthrough and first started to be used for cancer in the mid 60's.

Okay, "the virtually complete conquest of infectious disease by [antibiotics]" at least makes sense as an idea. I can't help but still consider it naive through no fault of Blish's though. When he wrote this book, no one yet experienced the ultimate venereal disease AIDS.

I have nothing to add about immunology, but universal sanitation just makes me laugh. Yes, third word countries have problems with diseases that first world countries don't because of sanitation issues, but America's sanitation is great but our population does still get venereal diseases. Not as much as third world countries, but it is probably sex education and medicine that helps us fight STDs.

Okay then looking at the passage as a whole he is saying that four things, the power to pick the sex of a baby, an effective oral contraceptive, the conquest of venereal diseases, and an accurate paternity test, resulted in the destruction of the whole ideas of marriage and monogamy. Now that just makes no sense to me. The ideas of monogamy had been ingrained into the human psyche seemingly since the days of cave man and certainly since biblical times. I don't see a couple of inventions changing this. Men, as the novel states have had "Roving eyes" for generations, but most men still seem to settle down with one partner because there is something innately special about such an arrangement. I would even concede that polygamist relationships are still the same thing because the man or men are committed to the woman or women in a way equal to a single marriage.

That said despite Blish's statement about the end of families this world does seem to find a different definition of family. The popularity of being able to pick the favored male babies results in there being lots of men and a lot less women. Suddenly due to the laws of supply and demand woman are the greater commodity and find themselves taking over society and the government. It seems that they keep this power by continuing the trend of flooding the market with men rather than correcting the population ratio which would theoretically lessen their power. However, there are still families a single woman has many husbands, but they are still a family unit.

I actually think that the scenario Blish has unfolded seems possible.

Perhaps the present day model of China can serve as an example. There male babies are preferred and that coupled with their governmental controlling of the birth rate result in, "according to a report by the State Population and Family Planning Commission, there will be 30 million more men than women in 2020, potentially leading to social instability." 1

Only time will tell whether this leads to woman gaining more power in Chinese
society as a result of their scarcity.

So anyway, what do you all think about these changes to the social makeup of society. It seems that picking the gender of a baby is now scientifically possible through a form of in vitro fertilization, but it is not yet cost effective for the majority of the population. If and when it becomes more common what long-term effects do you think it will have on society?

Also, does anyone else think it's weird that two authors wrote such similar passages?

Original post at Classic Science Fiction Message Board
Review of Childhood's End

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