“The Engineer and the Executioner”

My look at the stories in Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry collection continues.

Review: “The Engineer and the Executioner”, Brian Stableford, 1975, 1991.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

While this is the oldest story in the collection, it is the most extravagant in its speculation and simplest in plot. The Brian Stableford Website says that Stableford rewrote it slightly for this collection but that the changes were minor and done to make the science correct.

The plot is simple. 

A robot, the Executioner, shows up at the asteroid Lamarck. It’s been hollowed out and used as a vast experimenal lab by the Engineer, Gabriel Samarra. While the other stories in this collection feature genetic engineering on earthly biology, the Engineer has created artificial life with various modifications including a double set of chromosomes each carrying a complete genome. The modifications facilitate constant mutation and give the organisms the ability to incorporate the forms of other organisms. 

The Executioner has shown up to take the Engineer off the asteroid and send it into the sun. The Engineer’s artificial lifeforms are deemed too dangerous to allow their continued existence. The Executioner cites the possibility of it seeding “Arrhenius spores” into space that would find their way to Earth.

The Engineer dismisses this as nonsense and sneers the robot can’t understand life because his kind can’t reproduce or evolve. The men who sent the Executioner are just afraid of what they don’t understand, and the fruit of fear is murder. 

The Executioner responds that fear is also a defense mechanism provided by nature. 

The Engineer refuses to go, gets out a gun, and shoots the robot with a sneering denial that the robot is self-aware and has life of a sort. Knowing that the robot has condemned him and “the most wonderful thing that men have ever made” to death because the asteroid is still heading towards the sun, he shoots out the window between him and Lamarck’s ecosystem and then goes inside. 

There is a long, extravagant sequence of his creations consuming his body and mutating. Eventually, they mutate into forms that dissolve the iron hatches of the asteroid and even colonize the space near it. 

And, eventually, the Engineer’s creations do send spores to Earth which will, indeed, destroy life as we know it there. 

There is irony aplenty here. The Engineer may be brilliant, but he is too dogmatic in his assumptions about the dangers of his creations. He dismisses fears that turn out to be true. He is bigotted toward artificial life of another sort, robotic. And, ultimately, the Engineer becomes an Executioner of Earth’s ecosystem.

Coincidentally, as I write up this review, I am reading the first volume of Stableford’s New Atlantis: A Narrative History of the Scientific Romance. In it, he describes Edmund Burke’s essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful and its influence on scientific romance. Burke emphasized how both beauty and the sublime manifest in human emotions.

You can see the Engineer and the Executioner as representatives of the beautiful and sublime.

The former sees beauty in his artificial ecosystem. Stableford says, “Burke finds the formal cause of beauty in the emotion of love”. The Engineer does love his work at the cost of his life; he chooses to spend the last bits of his life among it, to sacrifice his body to it.

The sublime, Burke said, is manifested in fear. While the Engineer accuses the Executioner of just being “metal” and not really understanding what it’s doing, the robot (or the men who sent it) acknowledges it is afraid and that fear is a valid and useful emotion to the Engineer’s actions.

I get the increasing impression – admittedly based on a pathetically small sample size – that most of Stableford’s fiction, past a certain point in his career, was partly written to respond and extend works and themes he uncovered in his scholarship of science and Decadent fiction.

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