Let Your Patriotism Explode
The Eleventh Commandment
By Lester del Rey
Lester del Rey’s The Eleventh Commandment: A Novel of a Church and its world is a standalone population-bomb novel. My edition is the revised 1970 edition.
A tragic mishap during a program of world nuclear disarmament led to the very nuclear war that the program was intended to prevent. As lethal fallout covered the Earth, sparing only a few lucky refugia, American and Russian spacemen1 created a new society on Mars. Mars became a high-tech utopia, populated by a eugenic elite, whereas Earth was left to stew in its own juices.
Boyd Jenson believes he has been sent to Earth to study there, a kind attempt to salvage his academic career after his long illness. In fact, the government of Mars has quietly decided Boyd does not meet Mars’ exacting genetic standards. He is not a transfer student. He is an exile. Boyd only discovers this after he is stranded on Earth, far too late to escape his terrible fate.
North America is a particularly dire part of a battered world, thanks in large part to the American Catholic Eclectic Church.
Following World War Three, cardinals from an America already Catholico-formed elected a pope. So did the European cardinals. They did not elect the same pope, however, and the American pope conferred on his branch of Catholicism characteristics uniquely American. In particular, the American Catholic Eclectic Church has eleven commandments, not ten. Americans follow “thou shalt be fruitful and multiply” to excess. Only a century and a half since the nuclear war reduced humanity to a handful of people, North America has four billion half-starved people, while South America has a billion.
Boyd is not ever going back to Mars. He has no choice but to find a niche in a society as ignorant as it is poor. It’s a dangerous world (even though he has a mentor and even though the American peasants aren’t hostile). This is an America filled with hazards from famine to criminal gangs to taboos Boyd does not comprehend. Boyd’s life could be very, very short.
Boyd may not be a genetic superman, but by American standards he knows his biology. He finds jobs easily, which makes him as a secure as anyone can be in the precarious world of tomorrow. His jobs eventually answer the question that nags at him: why is the state church so determined to keep the population on the ragged edge of sustainability? He finds out that it isn’t because they are deranged fanatics. It’s because … all will be explained later in this review.
I found myself wondering which Lester del Rey novel would have been the first one I had read, back when I was a teen. I would have guessed that it would have been The Runaway Robot, but it’s not clear that this book would count as an actual del Rey. A number of del Rey novels2 were in fact written by Paul W. Fairman from outlines by del Rey. The Eleventh Commandment, however, appears to be pure del Rey.
The Eleventh Commandment was exceptionally fortunate in its North American covers, starting with an early Dillion cover. Subsequent covers were by Dean Ellis and Michael Whelan.
Not bad for a fairly obscure novel. In fact, the book had a pretty good track record of staying in print, although it probably didn’t hurt its chances that of the four American editions, two were published by Del Rey Books, named for Judy-Lynn del Rey. On the other hand, two of the four editions were not published by an imprint helmed by his wife.
SF’s stock answer for why people insist on overpopulating the world is that people are horny, stupid fools with a dubious grasp of contraception. While you might think SF writers would be compelled by the fact of the demographic transition to abandon this model, you might be surprised at how often they do not. Ben Bova’s 2006 Campbell-Memorial-Award-winning Titan, for example, is largely driven by the conceit that women not constrained by firmly applied regulations will pop out as many babies as they can, regardless of their circumstances.
It’s somewhat of a surprise then, that while The Eleventh Commandment teases readers with reasons to think that the author is sticking to this tried and true trope (the Catholico-forming of America following JFK’s election, the near-universal horror at contraception). As it turns out, this is misdirection. The situation is to a very large degree deliberately orchestrated by American Catholic functionaries for science-based reasons3.
[rot 13 for spoiler]
Gung yvsr ba Rnegu jnf fb onqyl qnzntrq ol Jbeyq Jne Guerr gung nyzbfg nyy crbcyr pneel zhgngvbaf, zbfg bs juvpu jvyy riraghnyyl qbbz gurve yvarntrf gb rkgvapgvba. Gur bayl ubcr, tvira gur yvzvgrq grpuabybtl ninvynoyr, vf gb unir nf znal xvqf nf cbffvoyr naq ubcr gung n srj yvarntrf jvyy cebir ivnoyr.
Nobody bothers to explain this to Boyd until the end of the book. There is no particular reason to withhold the information; it’s just that a mystery might keep the reader turning pages.
That bit of misdirection and the trope subversion is not enough to save the book, which is short on compelling characters and not all that well-written.
The Eleventh Commandment is out of print.
1: I presume that there must have been spacewomen as well but they don’t get mentioned. As perhaps could be expected of a book published in 1962.
2: ISFDB suggests that the Paul W. Fairman writing as Lester del Rey books were
- The Runaway Robot(1965)
- Siege Perilous(1966)
- The Infinite Worlds of Maybe (1966)
- Tunnel Through Time(1966)
- The Scheme of Things (1966)
- Prisoners of Space(1967)
While I was checking to see if Fairman wrote The Eleventh Commandment, I came across this amusing del Rey-related anecdote.
3: In another challenge to the reigning tropes, the eugenically perfect Martians are eventually dismissed as a sterile dead-end, a population fated to be outcompeted by their more vigorous and virile Earth cousins.