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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Superheroes, spaceships and thick description

Deep reading Galaxy Primes

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What do anthropologists do? According to Clifford Geertz, what we should be doing is producing "thick descriptions," detailed accounts of other worlds. Our aim is not to construct simplistic explanations, to reduce the complex to the simple. We aim, instead, to substitute complex images for simple ones, while, at the same time, writing clearly and persuasively. But how should we go about that?

To me the answer lies in the art of deep reading, the ability to distinguish multiple layers of meaning and nuance. I would suggest, however, that, like swimming, deep reading is an art best practised first in the shallows. We could begin with literary classics or other great works of art and drown in their subtleties. We could plunge straight ahead into fieldwork, spending a year or two living in some place where our grasp of the local language is weak and our street smarts on a par with those of a toddler. We may learn a lot; but to think that we have got to the heart of the matter, that we understand "the native's point of view" (which native is that, pray tell?) is intellectual hubris.

I am thinking about these issues when, at the end of a long day, I stumble across Galaxy Primes by E.E. "Doc" Smith, a space opera published in 1959 in the free books available via my ebook reader. Why does it catch my eye? In 1959, when Galaxy Primes was published, I was fifteen years old, and like many young men of my era, I was fascinated by science fiction. Except for required reading in school, I read almost nothing else from the age of thirteen, when I acquired my subscription to Astounding Science Fiction until well into my twenties, when marriage introduced me to classic English murder mysteries.

I start to read. I am sucked in. I reenter a world once familiar that now seems very strange. Let me give you a taste, beautifully captured by a reviewer self-identified as wiredweird on Amazon.com.

You didn't have anything else planned for the afternoon, right?

"Belle" Bellamy (green-haired super-babe) and Clee Garlock (super everything else) are the two people on Earth with the highest innate degree of that amazing psionic-thingie. With it, their minds can hurl them between star systems, detonate nuclear blasts, and do lots of other neat tricks. In their interstellar gadding, they discover other intelligent and psi-capable humans. In fact, those others are so human-like that they are reproductively compatible. And, since the Earthian guys are obviously such superior beings, offers to test that compatibility come often.

It's not all good times and spread-the-genes, though. Dozens of star systems harbor human life, and psionic Primes, all at nearly identical levels of social development (except that some have decidedly inferior tobacco). Unfortunately, they're not all as easy-going and altruistic as Earth's Primes. As a result, Earth's Primes need to rough them up in their easy-going and altruistic way, to unify them under the newly-designed Galaxian banner. The Galaxian inner council consists of one Prime pair from each of those dozens of planets, in Noah-like male/female couples. How do we know they're the finest of each star system? Well, for one thing, the ladies of those planets are super-babes, too. Not only are they as mighty of mind as their men, they are also mighty in their womanliness and eager to prove it by racing the others to a demonstration of fecundity.

This is a wonderful artifact of its time, as close to Buster Crabbe's "Flash Gordon" as it is to the current day or maybe closer. It has all that cowboy exuberance and technological optimism, with gender relations a bit past the neolithic. (He and she both seem to long for a little more of the caveman/cavegirl between them, but even Doc Smith smelled women's lib in the air.) Despite the cultural imperialism and shallow sterotyping, or maybe because of it, Smith brings us space opera at its very finest.

Galaxy Primes is not, however, the best of the space operas for which E. E. "Doc" Smith became famous as a pioneering science fiction writer. Other critics, in their own online reviews, consider it his worst, with plotting and characterization far inferior to Smith's more famous Lensman series. It is, however, that very thinness of plot and character, its shallowness as literature, that appeal to me. Here is just the sort of example I need to illustrate deep reading. In Galaxy Primes, my readers will not be drowned in literary art. As I consider what Galaxy Primes reveals about that world in which I grew up, three themes leap out at me.

A cover of The Galaxy Primes by E.E. Smith.

A cover of The Galaxy Primes by E.E. Smith.

Air Power and Superheroes

Consider the following timeline: 1903, the year in which the Wright brothers achieved heavier than air flight was also the year in which the novel The Scarlet Pimpernel introduced the masked avenger, the prototype of the Marvel and DC comics superheroes who are now the staple of summertime blockbuster films. Zorro, his El Norte/ "Californio" equivalent was introduced in the USA in 1919.

Meanwhile, in 1911, war between Italy and the Ottoman Empire saw the first military use of fixed-wing aircraft for reconnaissance, transport, artillery spotting and limited bombing roles. Giulio Douhet, a member of the Italian general staff, drew on that experience to write a report on the potential of military aviation that launched a debate, still very much alive today, on the effectiveness of airpower in modern warfare. Superman appeared in 1938, just a year after the bombing of Guernica in 1937, regarded as the first test of the proposition that airpower alone could bring an enemy nation to its knees.

The failure of the bombing to achieve its intended effect would be repeated in the Battle of Britain and the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo. Then, however, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki appeared to have been decisive in ending World War II. The Cold War would remain frozen thanks to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) if nuclear war broke out. The Cold War inspired arms race would lead to rapid improvements in aircraft, missiles and other technologies, and 1957, the Soviet launch of Sputnik and the threat of a "missile gap" between the USA and USSR would ignite a space race to see which nation would dominate "the high ground" from which enemies below could be bombarded with impunity.

In Galaxy Primes the fears and fantasies that propelled the space race are acted out on a galactic scale. Like other superheroes, the protagonists descend from the sky like angels. They come in peace but armed with invincible weapons that make short work of any monsters or villains they encounter. Of particular importance is what wiredweird calls "that amazing psionic-thingie." Our heroes are mutants whose powers include telepathy, teleportation, and telekinesis. They can read minds at a distance and transport themselves or other material objects to wherever they like with mental powers alone.

Note, moreover, that the nuclear blasts they detonate are precisely calibrated, exactly on target, and totally convert nuclear materials into energy, eliminating radioactive fallout. Here we see airpower without the stigma of mass destruction of civilian populations, the military planner's dream of precisely targeted air strikes without "collateral damage" that is still very much with us. Now, drone controllers sitting thousands of miles from their targets and fed information by what are purported to be increasingly omniscient surveillance systems engage in what are called "surgical strikes." Superpowers, indeed.

Race and Meritocracy

The plot of Galaxy Primes depends on the proposition that human beings of the same species as H. Sapiens will evolve on all earth-type planets. It is also taken for granted, however, that environmental differences will produce distinct races that differ from the protagonists' muscular Aryan norm in such superficial features as skin and hair color.

Unilinear evolution with racial differentiation is the underlying theory. There is, however, no correlation between race and hierarchy. Instead, the primary driver of social inequality is genetically driven meritocracy. Every race on every planet includes superior individuals.The critical differences in every case are the degree to which individuals have achieved the psionic powers described above.

An important subplot in Galaxy Primes turns on clashes between talent and bureaucracy. After discovering that the universe is filled with people like themselves, with every planet evolving its own Primes, whose godlike powers may not, however, be accompanied by moral maturity, our heroes set about forming a Galaxian federation dedicated to protecting the weak and ensuring universal peace. UN, NATO anyone?

When, however, they return to Earth our protagonists must still find a way to free themselves from the contracts that bind them to the corporations that employ them. They do not, however, act out the Nazi Nietszchean übermensch or Ivan the Terrible possibilities that their psionic talents make possible. Fully capable of obliterating the planet, they choose instead to insult their bosses who react by firing them. Then they go off to protect the universe.

Feminism and Gender Equality

At the end of the day, however, this particular space opera turns out to be space operetta. Inspired perhaps by Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, the central plot turns on the fact that, when the four protagonists set out in their spaceship, they do not yet know how to control it. That is why there are four of them, two women as well as two men, the notion being that if they cannot find a way to return to Earth, they will be able to settle on an empty planet, a new world, and become the ancestors of future generations of superior human beings.

The problem is, however, threefold. First, the women have been assigned to the expedition at the last minute. There are no established couples. Second, one man and one woman are Primes, the highest class of psionically talented individuals. The others are only Operators. Their talents are similar to those of the Primes but weaker. Third, the female Prime "Belle" Bellamy is not only a green-haired super babe whose bikini-like costume, also green to match her hair, reveals her ample charms, she is a woman convinced that she is utterly superior to any man in the universe.

Needless to say, Clee Garlock, the male Prime, does not agree with this assessment. Clee and Belle do not get along at all. Forced to pair up by the plan described above, Belle chooses the male Operator, leaving Clee with the other female. As every trained social anthropologist will suspect, these hypogramous/hypergamous pairings do not work out. As the spaceship ricochets around the galaxy, the conflicts between Belle and Clee continue. The initial pairs break up. The two Operators fall in love with each other, but Clee and Belle are still at loggerheads.

The comic opera continues until the ship arrives at a planet whose Primes have achieved a mature relationship of equals and always act as a unit. Noting their example, Clee realizes that his and Belle's inability to control where the spaceship will travel reflects their disunity. An experiment reveals that, if only they will agree on where they want to go, the spaceship will take them there, making possible their return to Earth. There they trick their employers into freeing them from their contracts. Belle disappears but then reappears. Her once green hair is now brown. Her green bikini has been replaced with an elegant and more sedate costume. She and Clee marry and go off to pacify the galaxy together. The comedy is resolved.

And Now

Reading Galaxy Primes, I see three themes: airpower and superheroes, race and meritocracy, feminism and gender equality. I look around me and see that these issues are still with us. Why, then, does that world of my youth seem so strange?

Back then the answers seemed so simple. The superheroes and their mighty machines would make peace possible. Race would not be an issue, and even the supremely talented would behave in socially responsible ways. Gender meant simply male and female. That women and men would be different but equal and form the dyads from which a healthy society was built? That, too, seemed only natural. We were all looking for simple explanations. We weren't reading deeply enough.

It is the very thinness of plot and character in Galaxy Primes that makes it ideal for thick description, an ethnographic window on what is now another world

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Monsters, superheroes, and babes on the cover of Space War no.29: Enchanted Planet, May 1978.
Monsters, superheroes, and babes on the cover of Space War no.29: Enchanted Planet, May 1978.