“Genesis”

Review: “Genesis”, H. Beam Piper, 1951.

This gripping tale of survival and technological devolution appeared in the September 1951 issue of Future

The story opens on a starship with 1,000 colonists. Their leader is Colonel Kalvar Dard, and their voyage from Doorsha to Tareesh is almost done. 

Dard is in the cargo hold with six women helping him to inventory stowed construction materials. The expedition also has small arms, artillery, explosives, prefabricated dwellings, non-steel drill bits, and fissionable materials for its colonization effort.

There was tall blonde Olva, the electromagnetician; pert little Varnis, the machinist’s helper; Kyna, the surgeon’s-aide; dark-haired Analea; Dorita, the accountant; plump little Eldra, the armament technician. 

Tareesh has a melting ice cap at its North Pole. The whole planet has more water than Doorsha, and they plan to land on the border of the grass and forest lands of Tareesh’s northern hemisphere. Dard reminds them the plants of this region will be different than what they are used to.

Varnis hopes some of the local fauna are furred. She likes furs and hopes the Colonel will “shoot something with a nice soft fur”. Dard tells her that, with her “carbine and pistol scores”, she can shoot her own fur.

Just then another crewmember breaks in with very bad news. The meteor detectors went out and, about half an hour ago, the hull was struck. The Colonel is mad that the Air Force’s crew is incompetent. Indeed, the officer who tells him about the accident isn’t even supposed to mention to him. Kard tells him that, unlike the Air Force, his colonists won’t panic.

But then another meteor holes the hull. The oxygen starts to give out. Since they are near Tareesh, the order is given to abandon ship, and Kard, Air Force pilot Selvar Glad, and the six women find themselves in a lifeboat.

Shortly after they cast off, the ship blows up. The blast damages the lifeboat and sets its engines ablaze, but it manages to land on Tareesh. Its passengers flee, and the lifeboat’s fuel tank blows. 

There is no doubt that, back on Doorsha, observatories have noted the expedition’s fate. But that doesn’t mean help is coming. Glad says

‘ . . . that was the first and only space-ship ever built. It took fifty years to build her, and even allowing twenty for research that wouldn’t have to be duplicated, you can figure when we can expect another one.

‘The answer to that one is, never. The ship blew up in space; fifty years’ effort and fifteen hundred people gone, like that.” Kalvar Dard snapped his fingers. “So now, they’ll try to keep Doorsha habitable for a few more thousand years by irrigation, and forget about immigrating to Tareesh.’ 

Maybe, remarks Olva, their descendents will go to Doorsha. Populating Tareesh was why the ration of women to men among the colonists was seven to five. 

Varnis is despondent. They’ve lost all their supplies. They are going to be living like animals. 

Not all the supplies are gone. The party still has “have two heavy rifles, six carbines, and eight pistols, and these two bags of bombs.”

They took stock of their slender resources, even Varnis joining in the task, as he had hoped she would. There were over two thousand rounds for the pistols, better than fifteen hundred for the carbines, and four hundred for the two big-game guns. They had some spare clothing, mostly space-suit undergarments, enough bed-robes, one hand-axe, two flashlights, a first-aid kit, and three atomic lighters. Each one had a combat-dagger. There was enough tinned food for about a week. 

They have landed on some grasslands and, beginining the business of survival, move towards some mountains and a forest. 

The next scene is five years later. The party is all dressed in skins now. Dard, still the leader, still has his heavy rifle and some bombs. Beside Dard, Analea walks. She has three spears with flint heads and some javelins with an atlatl. She is carrying her six-month-old child, fathered by Dard, and beside them walks the couple’s four-year-old son. Glav still has a gun. Olva, carrying a carbine and spears, walks beside him. They have a three-year-old daughter. Varnis carries a baby too, but it’s Kyna’s. She died in childbirth. Dorita carries a baby and is accompanied by two children.

And we get the first mention of the Hairy People, who killed Eldra of the original party. Three years after landing, she was ambushed by the Hairy People when she left a cave to get water.  We also hear, when this incident is related, that two children have already died from hypothermia. 

The Hairy People are described as

great shambling parodies of humanity, long-armed, short-legged, twice as heavy as men, with close-set reddish eyes and heavy bone-crushing jaws. They may have been incredibly debased humans, or perhaps beasts on the very threshold of manhood. From what he had seen of conditions on this planet, Kalvar Dard suspected the latter to be the case. 

After that initial encounter, any Hairy People the colonists encounter are killed. The colonists were attacked by the Hairy People, once on the march and once in camp. While the attacks left no colonists harmed, they did use up precious ammunition. Dard is sure the Hairy People have the rudiments of language. 

The colonists are hunting a herd of horse-like animals. They want to kill a bunch of them. While they can only eat a couple before the meat goes bad, they need skins. 

The hunt, successful, is done with spears and javelins. That night Dard uses his “atomic lighter” to start a fire, ruefully noting it’s wearing out. Dard knows their situation is precarious.

If their ammunition can last long enough for the children to become old enough to fend for themselves, if they can avoid the Hairy People, they might survive. Until then, they must follow game. 

The next scene is 20 years later. The ammunition for the heavy rifle is long gone, and now Dard carries a hand axe and a spear with a steel tip made from the rifle’s barrel. He has eight bullets left for his pistol, a big “demolition-bomb” and a grenade. 

Analea died by her own hand with a dagger after she fell and broke her back. Glav lost his rifle when he went through the ice on a river, and he died of hypothermia. Olva died in an attack by the Hairy People, and Varnis’ children were killed then too, and Varnis went mad. After burying her children, she says

Come on, Dard; what are we doing this for? You promised you’d take us to Tareesh, where we’d have good houses, and machines, and all sorts of lovely things to eat and wear. I don’t like this place, Dard; I want to go to Tareesh. 

She just wanders in “merciful darkness”. 

Varnis, lost in her dream-world, and Dorita, hard-faced and haggard, were the only ones left, beside Kalvar Dard, of the original eight. But the band had grown, meanwhile, to more than fifteen. 

Dard even has a grandchild, the first child born of Tareesh parents. The group is trying to cross a mountain chain, and Darad fears a Hairy People ambush. He thinks they can force a pass if that happens, but he doesn’t know what’s on the other side of the mountains. 

The party is attacked, but two of the Tareesh-born repel it. Bo-Bo, Dard’s son, expended a pistol round, and Dard gives him two bullets for his gun. Now they each have six rounds. 

Dard is worried about a ledge the party must travel on. The party could be wiped out on it. 

And they are attacked on it. A boulder rolled down by the Hairy People pins Dard’s legs. It’s removed, but his legs are broken.

(Spoilers ahead) 

The attack is repelled, and Dard orders Dorita to go ahead on the path and find a place it can be blocked if Dard detonates his demolition-bomb there. Dorita asks him what he has planned.

What do you think? . . . I have both legs broken. You can’t carry me with you; if you try it, they’ll catch us and kill us all. I’ll have to stay behind; I’ll block the trail behind you, and get as many of them as I can, while I’m at it. 

Dard tells Bo-Bo he’ll have to carry on leadership of the group when he’s dead. A spot is found, and the Hairy People’s attacks continue, but Dard is dragged to a narrow spot on the ledge. Dard drills Bo-Bo again on how to use his one remaining grenade, and he reminds him of other rules: 

. . . use it only in greatest danger, to save everybody. Spare your cartridges; use them only to save life. And save everything of metal, no matter how small. 

The other rule is always take care of Varnis who shows up, still thinking she’s on the colony ship. 

Dard tells her “I have something to do, here, but I’ll meet you on top of the mountain, after I’m through, and in the morning we’ll all go to Tareesh.” 

As he waits to set off his bomb, Dard thinks about all the things he should have done after landing:  

. . . there were so many things he might have done, if he had tried harder. Metals, for instance. Somewhere there surely must be ores which they could have smelted, but he had never found them. And he might have tried catching some of the little horses they hunted for food, to break and train to bear burdens. And the alphabet— why hadn’t he taught it to Bo-Bo and the daughter of Seldar Glav, and laid on them an obligation to teach the others? And the grass-seeds they used for making flour sometimes; they should have planted fields of the better kinds, and patches of edible roots, and returned at the proper time to harvest them. There were so many things, things that none of those young savages or their children would think of in ten thousand years. 

Dard sets off the bomb. Up the trail, Dorita watches with the others. Varnis thinks Bo-Bo is Dard, and he wonders if Dorita will dispute his claim to leadership, but she doesn’t.  Bo-Bo promises Varnis he will take them to Tareesh. 

In the last section, Piper says

The last cartridge was fired; the last sliver of Doorshan metal wore out or rusted away. By then, however, they had learned to make chipped stone, and bone, and reindeer-horn, serve their needs. Century after century, millennium after millennium, they followed the game-herds from birth to death, and birth replenished their numbers faster than death depleted. Bands grew in numbers and split; young men rebelled against the rule of the old and took their women and children elsewhere. 

It’s revealed the Hairy People are Neanderthals, hunted to extinction by the Doorshans’ descendants.  The colonists landed somewhere in Europe or Asia. 

They left the mountains— were they the Caucasus? The Alps? The Pamirs?— and spread outward, conquering as they went. \We find their bones, and their stone weapons, and their crude paintings, in the caves of Cro-Magnon and Grimaldi and Altimira and Mas-d’Azil; the deep layers of horse and reindeer and mammoth bones at their feasting-place at Solutre. We wonder how and whence a race so like our own came into a world of brutish sub-humans.

“Just as we wonder, too, at the network of canals which radiate from the polar caps of our sister planet, and speculate on the possibility that they were the work of hands like our own. And we concoct elaborate jokes about the “Men From Mars”— ourselves

Yes, it’s a bit of a shaggy god story, but I found it moving. 

Piper liked to build sf plots from historical analogies, but, even though he was well read in history, I’m not sure he based this story on anything he read. It does have some analogies to what happened to the first humans who settled in Australia and Tasmania and how their technological sophistication regressed by the time Europeans made contact with them. However, I’m not sure if archaeology had made that clear by the time Piper wrote this story.

There is a debate among Piper fans and scholars about whether this story links Piper’s two main series, the Paratime series and the Terro-Human Future History since both hint at settlers from Mars becoming the first humans on Earth.

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