Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Bitter Bread

In several works by Poul Anderson -

the Maurai future history;
Twilight World;
Vault Of the Ages;
Tau Zero;
"Kings Who Die";
"The Bitter Bread"

- society does what it deems necessary to survive the damage caused by a third world war and to prevent a fourth.

The occurrence of such a war in the near future was one of the standard assumptions of post-World War II science fiction (sf). Isaac Asimov's Empire series made this assumption whereas his Robots series did not. Thus, when the two series merged, an inconsistency had to be ironed out: the radioactivity of Earth in the Imperial period resulted not after all from a nuclear war in the near future but from attempted genocide during the intermediate Outer Worlds period.

In "The Bitter Bread," (Explorations, New York, 1981) after the Armageddon War, a puritanical form of Christianity becomes the state-sponsored ideology. Anderson does a typically expert job of showing us a future society that is not what we expect but that, of course, is taken for granted by the people living in it. Astronautics coexists with older forms of social organization. Homosexuality and fornication are illegal while Earth is ruled by a line of "Protectors" with names like Enoch IV and David III. This is not what we want but is what we could get after a global social breakdown - I do not say after a global nuclear war because I do not think that we could have anything after that.

Still reading this story for the first time, I have not yet encountered any unfamiliar vocabulary but maybe a couple of proof-reading points:

"...hills where sheep still gaze..." (p. 82) presumably should have been "...hills where sheep still graze...";

"...sending messages or gifts to the men they would never remeet in his life" (p. 83) should have ended "...this life"?

This story is yet another new combination of familiar Andersonian ingredients. The next ingredient is an unusual stellar system, in this case one containing both a recent blue giant supernova and the neutron star remnant of an earlier supernova. The first explosion should have flung the two stars apart so why are they still orbiting one another? It is theorized that a still earlier explosion had expelled these two bodies on a trajectory that had preserved their proximity.

The stated reason for sending human explorers:

"'We could not tell what observations to program [unmanned probes] for. Only man has the flexibility to see the unforeseeable.'" (p. 91)

- exactly echoes Anderson's words in his Introduction that I quoted in the previous post.

A third ingredient is space explorers coping when their technology fails, as in The Enemy Stars and some other works.

One final point here: a pastor objects to a single woman traveling in close quarters with men because it would be difficult for her not to reveal "'...what should not be revealed...,'" because she "'...could not help arousing lust...'" and because the mere sight of her by men condemned, by circumstances explained in the story, to lifelong celibacy might "'...weaken their resolve to accept the will of God...'" etc. (p. 100) (There is more like this.)

I can only find the pastor's remarks obscene. I suspect that some of us would have preferred death in the Armageddon War rather than survival into a society controlled by people with ideas like that.

1 comment:

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

While, as a Catholic, I would no doubt disagree with many of the theological views of the Established Church of the Protectorate we see in "The Bitter Bread." But I would agree and sympathize with the pastor's views about the wisdom of a woman traveling and living with men who could never again hope for a normal married life. To me, what the pastor said was merely common sense.

Hard and harsh tho the Protectorate of "The Bitter Bread" might seem to us, it also does not seem all that bad. One of the other characters described it in terms boiling down to it being not much more than a policeman trying to keep the peace over a ravaged world struggling to rebuild after the ruin of the Armageddon War.