The Defenders

Galaxy Magazine, Vol 3 No 5, 1953

While waiting for the film to start yesterday we had a rifle through the south bank book market outside the NFT, and I came across this. It’s from early 1953 and contains one of Philip K Dick’s earliest published short stories – it’s listed seventh in my rather battered copy of Beyond Lies the Wub, which is a must-buy if you like his stuff. The cover art is by Ed Emshwiller.

The story (or ‘novelet’, as it’s billed)  includes three black-and-white illustrations, also by Emshwiller, which you can see scanned nicely in this Project Gutenberg edition (HTML). It’s a classic cold war science fiction piece in which humanity has retreated underground while robots fight on their behalf up above, and was used as the basis for his novel The Penultimate Truth.

(Massive spoiler warning here – if you haven’t yet read the story, please do so!)

I first read this story in maybe 1993 – in fact, I tore through the entire anthology, and then the next three volumes. I still have the books, although they’re now so faded that it took a while to find them this morning. I can remember enjoying the clever twists in so many of these early tales, including The Defenders, but what leaps out reading them over 15 years (plus most of high school, a degree and a few jobs) later is the political context.

The story was published in the middle of the McCarthy Senate Committee era, and yet portrays a conclusion to the cold war (it’s not even thinly disguised – one side is American, the other Russian, both have spheres of influence in Europe) in which, having nuked the hell out of one another, soldiers from the US and USSR are convinced that it’s in their best interest to set aside weapons and differences and work together:

The Russians waited while the Americans made up their minds.

“I see what the leadys mean about diplomacy becoming outmoded,” Franks said at last. “People who work together don’t need diplomats. They solve their problems on the operational level instead of at a conference table.”

The leady led them toward the ship. “It is the goal of history, unifying the world. From family to tribe to city-state to nation to hemisphere, the direction has been toward unification. Now the hemispheres will be joined and—”

Taylor stopped listening and glanced back at the location of the Tube. Mary was undersurface there. He hated to leave her, even though he couldn’t see her again until the Tube was unsealed. But then he shrugged and followed the others.

If this tiny amalgam of former enemies was a good example, it wouldn’t be too long before he and Mary and the rest of humanity would be living on the surface like rational human beings instead of blindly hating moles.

“It has taken thousands of generations to achieve,” the A-class leady concluded. “Hundreds of centuries of bloodshed and destruction. But each war was a step toward uniting mankind. And now the end is in sight: a world without war. But even that is only the beginning of a new stage of history.”

“The conquest of space,” breathed Colonel Borodoy.

“The meaning of life,” Moss added.

“Eliminating hunger and poverty,” said Taylor.

The leady opened the door of the ship. “All that and more. How much more? We cannot foresee it any more than the first men who formed a tribe could foresee this day. But it will be unimaginably great.”

The door closed and the ship took off toward their new home.

I think I’m going to have to go back and do some re-reading of his other stories – who knows what I’ve missed.

All © 2020 Tom Royal