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:

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.
posted by Mr. Justice to Writing & Language (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think the point is that utopia has been achieved - but it's only sustainable if everyone actually agrees that it's utopia, and is willing to maintain it. This is what you're getting at in point 2; it's stable in the sense that it can be maintained indefinitely, but "can" and "will inevitably be" are not synonymous.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:27 PM on April 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't think the story was trying to portray a utopia, per se, let alone suggest it would be a permanent utopia. It was just a society that was working pretty well.

That said, I think one of two things are probably the case:

1) Tomorrowful's take on it

2) Anderson the right-winger managed to seize the typewriter from Anderson the writer (who was frankly smarter than Anderson the right-winger) and insisted on working in "SEE! THE SUPPOSED PEACENIK ENVIRONMENTALISTS ARE REALLY TYRANNICAL BASTARDS WHO CAN'T WAIT TO START KILLING PEOPLE!"
posted by Zed at 4:30 PM on April 21, 2014

My take is that there is always "that Guy" who has to pee in the pool. Then the old eye for an eye response kicks in.

Ahhh, human nature. Ain't it grand?
posted by moonlily at 10:18 PM on April 21, 2014

Based on what you've told us, I agree with the shock-ending reading. Structurally speaking, it's actually somewhat conventional for idea-driven scifi short stories of this type to end with a quietly destabilizing turn like that-- I know I've encountered similar twists in a bunch of other places. The idea is to complicate a fairly commonplace political/economic binary for the time (libertarianism v. communism) by asking whether hippiedom, basically, could construct a post-political society where questions of resource allocation would be altogether irrelevant. And then to complicate that, at the close, by asking further whether our fundamental human tendencies to dogmatism and aggression wouldn't eventually spoil even a scarcity-free society in the end.

Not sure why that final tension would necessarily be a bad thing-- I'd dissent from Zed's perspective and say that in my book it certainly makes for a better and more complicated story. I can see where someone who agreed politically with the utopia described in the first part might feel uncomfortable when that's questioned at the end... but isn't that the point? The idea of literature (vs. propaganda) is to get you to think, not to tell you the answers.
posted by Bardolph at 7:23 AM on April 22, 2014

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