Friday, April 3, 2009

Book Review: Voyages: Scenarios for A Ship Called Earth

Book Review: 'Voyages: Scenarios for a Ship Called Earth' edited by Rob Sauer
3 / 5 Stars

‘Zero Population Growth’ was a population control advocacy group founded in 1968 by entomologist Paul Ehrlich (author of the best-selling The Population Bomb), Charles Remington, and Richard Bowers. It quickly became a very ‘in’ thing among academic and intellectual circles to join ZPG, and to participate in rallies, teach-ins, and lobbying campaigns that urged the citizenry to ‘just have two’ (children). 

Eventually the movement gained sufficient traction in the popular culture to lend its title to a feature film, 1972’s ZPG, starring Oliver Reed. Even leftist folkie Pete Seeger- always ready to capitalize on the Issue of the Moment- turned out a bit of doggerel titled ‘We’ll All Be A-Doubling’ (!) as the theme song for ZPG.

Alas, like many other groovy 70s phenomena, ZPG lost momentum as the decade wore on. As exemplified by Allan Chase’s massive 1980 book The Legacy of Malthus, attacks against the Population Bombers for being racists and elitists gathered strength, and the movement lost influence and prestige. Nowadays ZPG operates as ‘Population Connection’; still a reasonably effective lobbying group, but with a profile decidedly less prominent than in those heady days of the early 70s.

‘Voyages: Scenarios for a Ship Called Earth’ is an anthology of Eco-catastrophe stories assembled by ZPG staffer Rob Sauer and published by Ballantine books in 1971. Paul and Anne Ehrlich were SF fans, and they provide an introduction stating that genre tales about overpopulation can be valuable tools for demonstrating what could happen if measures are not taken to implement population control. The ‘ship’ metaphor is of course derived from the potent ‘Spaceship Earth’ iconography of the Apollo moon missions.

The book has five Parts, with several stories in each Part, along with framing commentary by the editor. A Bibliography of stories and novels for further reading appends each story, and there is a listing of nonfiction ecology and overpopulation books provided at the book’s end.

Since there simply weren’t enough SF Eco-catastrophe tales available at the time, Sauer had to incorporate some non-SF stories in order to provide the anthology with sufficient material. These include stories by Doris Lessing, Moshe Shamir, and Emilio Belaval. The latter author’s ‘The Purple Child’ is a particularly grim, but effective, account of poverty and childbearing in rural Central America.

Some of the SF entries are old standbys, such as J. G. Ballard’s ‘Billenium’ and C. M. Kornbluth’s ‘Shark Ship’. Other stories represent products of the ‘speculative fiction’ movement fashionable in SF circles from the late sixties to the late seventies. Unfortunately, Pamela Zoline’s ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, ‘The Other’ by Katherine MacLean, and Norman Spinrad’s ‘The Big Flash’ haven’t aged all that well, and come across as trying too hard to be Arty and Profound.

Other entries that possess even less kinship with mainstream SF are ‘Food Farm’ and ‘Golden Acres’ by Kit Reed, and ‘Consumer’s Report’ by Theodore Cogswell. These stories are more in the vein of social satire than efforts to depict an overpopulated, future earth.

‘Population Control, 1986’, by Horacio Paredes, is an interesting entry; first appearing in Atlas magazine in 1970, it’s a rare tale about the Population Bomb by a ‘third world’ writer (Paredes is a Filipino author). ‘Population Control’ is a brief but competent tale of drastic measures taken to curtail population growth in India and the Philippines.

Alice Glaser’s ‘The Tunnel Ahead’ is a dystopian vision of the US in 2100 AD with a population of 1 billion. The cherished Retro-SF fantasy of an 8 – lane superhighway with auto-controlled, teardrop-shaped cars speeding into and out of a Mongo cityscape (a la ‘The Gernsback Continuum’) is given a cruel twist.

‘Student Body’ by F. L. Wallace is genre SF set on the earth-like planet Glade; it’s one of the more clever attempts by an author to design a rational tale around an alien ecology.

Other entries include several short-short stories by Frederic Brown and Wayland Young and some unremarkable tales by Roger Zelazny and Ray Bradbury.

All in all, ‘Voyages’ is of interest less for its qualities as an SF anthology, and more as a example of how fiction writers in the early 70’s were addressing the prominent social and environmental issues of the forthcoming decade. It’s also a glimpse into the Zero Population Growth movement at the height of its influence. Anyone curious about the literature spurring the advent of Earth Day, and the environmental awareness movement, may want to give ‘Voyages’ a look.

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