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On 'Vrilism' and genocidal science fiction (1)


Biological history gets politicised in a way that is not justified by the agreed facts of biology.  There is no evidence whatsoever that fiercer competition means more evolution or better evolution or a higher chance of intelligent life.  It is doubtful that it even improves the chances of long-term survival.  

To distinguish the politicised doctrine from the general views of biologists, I’d like to speak of ‘Vrilism’, a nasty little word for an unpleasant doctrine.  The first interpreters and popularisers of the Darwin-Wallace Theory of Natural Selection were Vrilist and this coloured their understanding of historic biology and natural selection.  The whole lot got bundled up and called ‘Darwinism’, a term that was already in use in connection with Charles Darwin’s famous grandfather Erasmus Darwin.  But you also find non-Darwinian Vrilists, or people who mix bits of biology with ideas that biologists would see as laughably silly.

One such was Baron Lytton, originally Edward Bulwer and later Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton.  He is best remembered for The Last Days Of Pompeii, but in 1871 he wrote an SF work called The Coming Race.  This is about a strange type of people living in a lost world underground, but having superior powers including a type of energy called vril.  (If ‘vril sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because a UK maker of beef-tea took the name to make Bovril.)

Although the way of life of the Vril-ya is peaceful, non-competitive and utopian, they are also very ready to exterminate any lesser peoples who get in their way—which will eventually include all of the surface-dwellers.  The ultimate Liberal-Imperialists, in fact.  

The book itself is silly and shallow.  Vril-ya social organisation is borrowed crudely from Plato's Republic, but without Plato’s occasional deep insights into life.  There are also some odd additions like making the females the dominant sex—always a neat trick in fantasy novels.

If it was just Baron Lytton, it would hardly be worth mentioning.  It’s actually much more widespread.  Science fiction and fantasy enables people to imagine whole worlds, and what they imagine tells you a lot about their prejudices.  Vrilist ideas are found in Wells, Verne, Edgar Rice Boroughs, Jack London, John Wyndham and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as more recent writers mostly known to SF fans.

Conan Doyle’s The Lost World culminates in a showdown between modern humans and ape-people, together with a celebration of past victories that modern humans are assumed to have won.  Like most genocide-fantasies, it is associated with the racism that had been growing from the mid-19th century and was not fully rejected by Anglo culture until the 1960s.  It’s not always an anti-Jewish flavours of racism, but you can find instances: Conan Doyle explicitly compares the defeated ape-people to the Jews in their Babylonian captivity.

Attitudes can be complex.  Edgar Rice Boroughs was also a racist, and I would class him as a Vrilist.  He often includes stereotyped Jewish villains in his stories, but I don’t remember anything by him that is hostile to Jews as such.  Nor does he particularly advocates the removal of inferior peoples or regards race conflict as inevitable, though notions of racial superiority are routine in his Tarzan and in his novels set on an imaginary Mars.  I’ve not read all his stuff, but his unrelated series of novels set on Venus definitely do have the idea of ‘race purification’; improving a superior race by killing off its own criminal or substandard elements.

Jules Verne’s stories are mostly gentle romances.  And he is typically French in showing some sympathy for non-whites.  His famous Captain Nemo was eventually revealed as a Hindu pursuing a vendetta against Britain, though at the time he wrote 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Verne had planned to make him a Pole pursuing a vendetta against the Russians.  His publisher persuaded him to leave it hazy to avoid causing offence, so later the man’s identity was reworked.  Still, there is a short story by Jules Verne in which the inhabitants of tropics and polar regions get wiped out when a climate-control experiment goes wrong. The story’s tone is flippant, certainly—but can you imagine him taking such a view of the accidental destruction of Paris?

Jack London was a racist socialist, a category that only vanished in the 1930s when radicalism was polarised between Bolshevism and Nazism.  His Before Adam also features genocide among pre-humans, though he unexpectedly tells it from the viewpoint of one of the sub-humans whose genetic heritage somehow managed to sneak through.  One of his short stories features a successful biological war that depopulates China, but against this must be set another story show a real sympathy with Chinese migrants as victims of White oppression and ignorance.

Wells was another Vrilist, though not really a racist.  The obvious case of Vrilism in action is his War Of The Worlds, and he also has a short story in which an encounter between humans and Neanderthals results in immediate violence.  Wells could be foolish, but he could also write Star Begotten, a gentle story from 1937 in which some sort of benevolent influence from Mars is causing a better sort of human to be born.  A lot of the time, he seems to be protesting at the waste and futility of war.  The World Set Free was published just ahead of the actual war, and perfectly anticipates the horrors of trench warfare before expanding into a limited nuclear war that brings people to their senses.  

Sadly, Wells was massively wrong at the one moment when he might have done a great deal of good.  Britain soon realised that the war it had merrily entered in 1914 was going to be long and terrible if it were fought to the finish.  Wells’s Mr Britling Sees It Through was direct and successful propaganda in favour of a fight to the finish, as well as appealing to US opinion at a time when the USA was still neutral.  Wells was not immune to the English-nationalist hysteria of the time, and did his bit to see the war through to an utterly destructive conclusion that left the victors almost as badly off as the vanquished.  He then caught a dose of religion, made a fool of himself by proclaiming his own creed and then bounced back with other works of mixed significance.  

Wells’s non-fiction work The Open Conspiracy reads like a manual for modern globalisation: the main difference is the lack of the libertarian rhetoric.  Empty talk about Freedom helped make US corporatism and militarism acceptable to the Baby Boomers when they tired of 1960s rhetoric and found that positions of power and wealth were open to them.  (One can hope for a big shift back to sympathetic-state ideas when large numbers Baby Boomers start retiring and discover what it’s like to live on an Old Age Pension and to need the services of a messed-up National Health Service.)