Review: “Judgment Day”, James Gunn, 1992.
My look at the unpublished works of James Gunn continues with a look at the fourteenth story he wrote. It was written in 1951 while Gunn was finishing up his master’s thesis Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis.
This one takes up a mere three pages in The Unpublished Gunn, Part One.
It opens with a description of a dead Earth, its surface only disturbed by wind and the sea bereft of life.
There is a spaceship on it and five “man-like” figures discuss what they are finding in their survey, discuss without speech “nor yet telepathy”.
‘Dead’, the Philosopher said. ‘Quite dead.
‘Too late,’ the Psychologist, behind, said softly. ‘We were too late.’
The other characters with allegorical-type names are identified only as the Biologist, the Archaeologist, and the Sociologist.
They confirm the Earth is lifeless, perhaps from a nuclear war (there are destroyed cities), perhaps a “chain reaction” in the atmosphere, triggered by nuclear testing, that created radioactive carbon.
“’The stars in their grasp,’ said the Philosopher, ‘and they chose the dust.’”
The Psychologist says “life failed on this planet”. Rationality lost to “blind, animal competitive spirit”.
But it doesn’t have to stay dead. Evolution can be rebooted. (An idea and set up reminiscent of Alfred Bester’s “Adam and No Eve” from 1941.)
The Philosopher rules that sentence has been passed on the Earth, and it should stay that way.
Then scanners detect a faint signal of life. It turns out that – Gunn anticipating the need for that sterilization procedures that NASA does on planetary landers – it’s a single cell brought to the planet by their spaceship.
A debate ensues. Is the spaceship an instrument of fate that will give life on Earth another chance? The Archaeologist worries about the interference this represents. The Biologist argues they aren’t “wanton destroyers”. Why not let the cell live?
But the Philosopher sternly argues that they shouldn’t embrace either the god-like power of destruction or creation. If they allow Earth to be re-seeded with life, they will be responsible for all the misery to come.
Somewhat prefiguring the opening of Gunn’s The Immortals, the Philosopher argues “the long dying that is life – the creation of life is also the creation of death”.
And the five reach a verdict. They kill the single cell that could lead to new evolution on Earth.
Gunn is implying that human irrationality has created a sort of bad genius loci on Earth. In effect, it’s polluted with the evil of irrationality. Another round of evolution will produce nothing better.
It’s not exactly a rational idea.
Gunn also casts the universe and evolution as the final moral arbiters.
I can see why no editor bought this one. There is, I think, not only the problem of that underlying irrationality but its general gloominess.
There is also the fact, as Gunn mentions in the very thesis he wrote about the same time, that editors eventually banned atomic war stories, which this is close to, in Astounding and the “Thrilling group” of magazines.
The inspiration for this story may go back to 1945. Gunn was in Miami for Advanced Line Officers Training and heard of the bombing of Hiroshima. Thinking back to the many science fiction stories with atom bombs, he said
I had knowledge not shared by my fellows; but I also had special apprehensions. Some of the stories had suggested that the atom bomb might set off a chain reaction in the Earth’s crust, and I wondered if something like this had happened how long it would take for the reaction to reach the United States.
And, for me, the story didn’t impress for a very idiosyncratic reason.
In junior high, I wrote a story called “The Gods” that also had a collection of allegorically named figures gathered to judge Earth.
Not that my story was at all at the level of competence of Gunn. It only got second place in a competition at a small school, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling of reading something a bit amateurish from Gunn. That’s unfair given Gunn’s level of realism, but, nevertheless, that was my reaction.