A Thought for the Month

By John Hertz:  It’s Black History Month here in the United States.

There are plenty of reasons to have it in mind, even outside this country.  Some have to do with speculative fiction.

The sorrows of slavery, its temptations for both the enslaver and the enslaved – when my own co-religionists finally got out of Egypt, with a river that turned to blood! plagues of frogs! a sea that parted! we begged Moses “Take us back to Egypt! They fed us!” – can inspire us to think better when we meet beings who look radically different, whether we or they seem more powerful.

As it happens I just re-read the novels Too Many Cooks (Rex Stout, 1938) and To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee, 1960).  As it happens their stories are contemporaneous: Many is set in 1937 and Mockingbird in 1936.  They relate to Black History Month.  I think they’re relevant here.

I think cross-cultural contact is homework for speculative fiction.

I’ll go on talking to you who didn’t run away when I said “homework” – both of you.

I recommend these two masterly books.  If you know them, or if you take my recommendation, and go after them, and come back, compare them.

Neither of them is SF.  Each is very much concerned with aliens.

As it happens each is very much concerned with crime.

Some of the characters are alien because of race.  Some because of sex.  Some because of aesthetics.

Each book is a first-person narrative.  The narrator is somewhat alien to what’s going on.  Some of the characters are inclined to suppose the narrator naïve. To borrow a line from an SF book I happen to like, that turns out not to be the case.

Each book is very much concerned with lies.

In each book the narrator is only in a sense the main character.

In each book alienness gives rise to the story; complicates it; leads to a resolution.

One book’s author with various techniques invites us to think it light, even frivolous – although it turns on eating, sex, and death.  Also large amounts of money; fifty thousand dollars then would be nine hundred thousand now.  The other book’s author invites us to think it serious.

I don’t say these invitations are insincere.  I only say they’re literary.

There’s also the human comedy.

My grandfather used to say “If it weren’t my fool, I’d laugh.”

If you’ve come this far, do you think these books illuminate SF?  Does the comparison?