Today's science-fiction story: P. Anderson's classic "A Plate of Beans."
April 21, 2014 1:16 PM Subscribe
In Poul Anderson’s “The Last of the Deliverers,” (spoilers ahead) he describes a future America in which, for all practical purposes, cheap solar energy and a culture of decreased desires for material advancement (people are essentially satisfied with a comfortable, but low, standard of living) have led to a kind of utopia. The plot of the story is, more or less, that two representatives of remnants from an older culture – a small-government type in the Barry Goldwater mold as well as a member of the American Communist Party – meet in a village and argue about the virtues of their respective ideologies, but cannot appreciate that social evolution and the lack of scarcity produced by it has made their political differences (and their politics) largely pointless and obsolete. So how am I to understand the last half-paragraph of the story, which seems to undercut the entire story in a most paradoxical way:
posted by Mr. Justice to Writing & Language (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
That was the year the Brotherhood came to power in the north, and men wondered what this could mean. The next spring they learned, and there was an alliance made and war went across the hills. For the Brotherhood gang, just as it had threatened, cut down trees wholesale and planted none. Such evil cannot go unpunished.
Here are some observations about that last paragraph:
1. It seems to be in a great deal of tension with the entire first 99% of the story, the entire point of which describes a stable and idyllic society that is almost completely free of conflict.
2. The last paragraph, in some sense, seems to argue that the politics-free utopia that the story describes is a kind of mistake or illusion, or at least not nearly as stable as the villagers (and the rest of the story) imply.
3. I think Anderson revised this story from its (originally published) form to its book form in The Best of Poul Anderson. Originally, I believe the last sentence of the story read “For the Brotherhood gang, just as it had threatened, planted no Trees at all, and such evil cannot go unpunished.” The revision apparently emphasizes that it was the cutting of trees, not simply the non-planting of trees, that was offensive to the narrator – presumably underscoring that it was the lack of a stewardship/conservation ethic (an ethic which sometimes entails burdensome work) that “cannot go unpunished.”
4. From a literary standpoint, the last paragraph is puzzling (or maybe just bad writing) because I don’t think it is at all foreshadowed. It seems at best to be something of an out-of-left-field shock ending conceptually.
5. Poul held libertarian/Goldwaterite views, which adds support to the theory that Poul was more sympathetic to (at least one of) the remnants of an earlier society than the ‘evolved’ culture was. (But the two remnants speak in such clichés!) This would further suggest some skepticism about the kind of utopian equilibrium that Anderson portrays here.
So how do you understand the significance of the last paragraph? What is going on here? I don’t want to overthink this, but am I missing something about the way this story is supposed to work? To me, this reads like having a new last paragraph inserted into Orwell’s 1984, in which Eastasian soldiers invade the pub in which Winston Smith is drinking and then hand him a copy of a new Constitution.
I know this is a very small thing, but it has bothered me for nearly three decades.