Monday, 14 January 2008

Bakelite and Uranium Monday: The Streets Of Ashkelon by Harry Harrison

by Edwin Hesselthwite

New Worlds Science Fiction, September 1962, where today's BAUM was first published
“‘Get back in that ship.’ he shouted, not hiding his anger now. With a smooth motion his gun was out of the holster and the pitted black muzzle only inches from the priest's stomach. The man's face turned white, but he did not move.”

Week two of BAUM and already I'm breaking promises, plans to review The Man Who Lost The Sea by Ted Sturgeon have been placed on hold. Instead I have chosen to go for a classic anti-missionary tale by Harry Harrison, a story that has been published as both The Streets Of Ashkelon and An Alien Agony (and primacy of title is a little debatable).

The Streets Of Ashkelon (as I will call it for the rest of this article) is legendary writer Harry Harrison's most anthologised story. Harrison is famous for writing high action stories (his Stainless Steel Rat and Deathworld serieses are canon) that mix classical liberal polemics with spy-romps and planet smashing, and while TSOA may be thinner (it is only 15 pages long) on the high-action it stands as one of SF's most infamous diatribes. It was first purchased for publication in Brian Aldiss's More Penguin Science Fiction, which also included a re-publication of last week's TTUTW, and which is still in print under a different title. It's an influential story for taboo-breaking, and most notably, it's reasonable to suggest that Hugo and Nebula award winning classic novel Speaker For The Dead by Orson Scott Card owes it a debt. Both stories contain a similar set-up of missionaries amongst the dwarf aliens, in which the aliens are treated as innocents in the religious sense but still with sharp and pointy teeth.

TSOA is far more forthright than TTUTW, with the directness that would come to represent the 1960's generation of SF writers. The central conceit being: how would aliens react to a Catholic missionary? The lead is John Garth, a trader who has lived for several years alone amongst the Weskerians (of the planet Wesker), his project is coming to an end but he is loathe to leave. The Weskerians are a race of dwarf sized amphibians, on a world without enough materials for them to have developed a technology, leaving them innocent but intelligent when the missionary, Mark, arrives. The story revolves around the interaction of Mark's moral teachings, and their previous training in logic, empiricism and the scientific method from Garth. In the hands of Harrison it, of course, ends in blood, mud and tears intermixed with lots of passionate debate.

TSOA was at the beginning of a sea-change in SF. While pulp SF had always had a strong element of political commentary in it (Ted Sturgeon's much earlier Mr Costello, Hero is a blatant anti-McCarthy rant, go listen to the podcast linked), the major publishers had traditionally shied away from the issues of God and sex. TSOA, written for an early attempt at a taboo-breaking publication (which subsequently failed to materialise) is probably the earliest SF story to wear it's anti-clerical sentiment so openly on it's sleeve, and to achieve wide-acclaim for it (it was rejected from major magazines repeatedly on initial submission, leaving it to find an English venue for an American writer). Mark is treated very much as a cypher for all the weak arguments Harrison clearly feels undermines organised religion, but he is not drawn as weak, and Garth is the classic Heinleinian SF pragmatist, a hard, honest, whisky drinking intellectual. As the decade progressed this theme was to be repeated (most famously in Michael Moorcock's Behold The Man), but never with the conciseness and power of the ending found in TSOA.

Stylistically it's not as weak as this summary would suggest, there are some gorgeous turns of phrase present here, the last sentence is a real kicker, and he doesn't scrimp on describing the planet. Much like last week's story, Harrison uses a lot of clichés as shorthand, thereby allowing him to ignore some aspects of story construction (Harrison manages to write a story about a trader with less than two paragraphs discussing trading). I continue to view this as valuable, a cliché is better than dragging a perfect 15 page story out to a 40 page ramble. While the humans' backgrounds are ignored, The Weskers are described in detail, a fully realised alien species, and the story would have far less impact if they were less well-drawn. Harrison has decided what aspects matter, and cut the rest. In terms of tone, Harrison creates a set-up that is desperately gritty and empirical, there is no room for honour and false sentiment on the mud and marsh of Wesker, and it is this hyper-realistic tone that makes the climax hit as hard as it does.

In terms of dating, there are no descriptions of technology that date the story, this is a human visitors meet alien planet story of the classic kind, and he avoids description of the spaceship and goods. This is so carefully done that I could easily imagine this being published on Escape Pod at the present time. With this thought in mind, the anti-clericalism would probably cause just as many problems now as it did at the time of publication (SF is again quite a conservative place), and thus this story is still unusually passionate and taboo-breaking.

I have a long, deep fondness for this story, and the art that went into it. There is a place for stories of religious exploration, and TSOA is the definitive SF anti-clerical rant. The story's brevity allows it leeway on it's politics and it's sufficiently intelligent to keep this in the character's behaviour, not in the narrative voice (as happens often in writers such as Heinlein's political SF stories). TSOA is a classic, and is rightly one of the most widely anthologised stories in the history of the genre (48 reprints, and counting).

Harry Harrison

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