Consideration of Works Past: The Fittest

(Picture from here.)

I’d pretty much given up on this one. It was one of those stories where you remember bits and pieces but can’t recall the title or author. I’d put up phrases I remembered and got nothing.

Then I was reading an article on “cozy catastrophes” (see here. for the article and here for the wiki.) The phrase is attributed to Brian Aldiss. It means different things to different people. To some, it’s a catastrophe that ends with a whimper rather than a bang. The result may or may not be horrific but it leaves behind people who are trying to live in the resulting world and the result isn’t all that bad– for them.

One of the premiere examples– Oh, wait a minute. Forgot to introduce the novel. The book is The Fittest, by J. T. McIntosh.

Back to cozy catastrophes. 

The example often used in SF is Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. The cause of the catastrophe is a stunning light show high above the atmosphere that draws people out by the millions. The next day they are blind. This opens the way for the triffids, a walking plant thing that has been raised for its oil, to try to take over the world. The few sighted people left quickly settle into a few camps, some clearly evil, some misguided and some who are actually better suited to the new environment than the old.

It’s this latter category that can give people heartburn. It’s analogous to the problems I talked about in Farnham’s Freehold. In FF, the main character before the catastrophe is a misanthropic abusive asshat But once the catastrophe is over and the piece picking begins, those people who are preserved or thrive in the aftermath do well precisely because of those asshat qualities that either emerge or were there beforehand.

We’ve seen this before in a lot of post-apocalypse films. Usually violence. Selfishness. That sort of thing. Heck, The Admirable Crichton, is a play about exactly that, substituting a shipwreck for a global catastrophe. But where the cozy catastrophes can go off the rails is when these qualities turn out to be sqishy. Where people of race or profession or gender are “naturally” disadvantaged in the new world.

Now we get to The Fittest.

In this case, the catastrophe is the endowment of certain animals with human like intelligence: cats, rats, mice and dogs. (There were horses but it didn’t work out.) They escaped and the world fell apart. The animals early on figure out that though they were enemies of each other, they didn’t like human beings, either. So they did their best to bring down human civilization– not with that in mind. They weren’t that smart.  But they were above to figure out that humans valued wires. So the rats and mice chewed on that. They figured out how to eat what humans sowed. Civilization falls.

This is the kernel I remembered: what happens when animals we either intimidated or dominated were suddenly smart enough to figure out the trick?

There’s an old trope in SF where the humans are shrunk down to the size of mice and often have to contend with the household cat or dog. The cat thinks of them as mice with the inevitable conflict. The dog smells them and realizes they are his master and helps. Or some variation thereof. The whole mice or rat with human intelligence has been done a million times in film. Not to mention various indigenous people’s tales and Greek stories.

This put a different stripe on it that I liked. It was sort of cool that we could have intelligent animals. What I remembered was the idea and the ending where two of the intelligent dogs take up as partners with the humans. What I had forgotten was the rest of the book.

The Fittest is not a very good book. The main character is the son of the same Paget that invented the animals. Once the danger of the pagets (the popular name for the animals) is realized, his family is persecuted and escapes to France. But the animals take down the world and now it’s survival of the fittest. (Hence the title. Get it? Get it?) He ends up with a community in Britain that has successfully repelled paget invasions. There are other surrounding communities that are filled with losers. One community is rapacious, preying on the weak in the evil Mad Max villain manner. Another serves up tribute to them. But only Paget’s community has the character to withstand the strife of the new order. Ultimately, they are attacked by the predators, both paget and human, and hold fast. Those that were ill suited to the new life (the weak women, non-whites, and disloyal) are killed.

The roughness is not the problem. Heck, I liked Mad Max. All of them. Rapacious post-apocalyptic psychopaths are my cup of tea. The problem is the choice of survivors, both human and animal.

I can see how intelligent mice and rats, and maybe even cats, could turn on us. Not in the Emperor Palpatine, moustache twirling way that is in this book. Certainly, intelligent mice and rats would give us a terrible time– hell, we have a problem with them now. Go watch this video and then imagine they’re smart. And I think that the relationship we have with cats isn’t always based in love. I’m a little dubious about dogs. Not completely. I had a friend who bred Canaan Dogs and they’re smart enough to realized they don’t have to obey if nothing’s in it for them.

But while our relationships with cats and dogs may not be the sweetness and light we want it to be, it’s not so antagonistic, either. Smart dogs and cats could make use of us just as we’ve made use of them. In The Fittest they take a perverse (and often self-destructive) turn towards tormenting humans just for the fun of it. That part I didn’t buy. And, at the end, when a couple of dogs actually throw their lot in with the humans it comes to the characters as a surprise.

Hm. Nobody thought to negotiate with the dogs? Or the cats? At least to the extent of making a deal with them against the mice? I guess intelligence is not favored in this brave new world.

I think McIntosh was too enamored of the horrific aspects of the world he was creating. That sort of took over. Still, there’s a lot of problems with women characters in this book. They range from the silly and the weak (but beautiful) to the rough yet vulnerable. And they’re all scared of mice. Not smart mice. Ordinary mice.

(Where did that idea even come from? I’ve never met a woman intrinsically afraid of mice. I mean no one wants to get bit in a dark basement. But that woman standing on that chair over there on the movie screen, snatching up her skirts and screaming? Never met her.)

So: a sad end to a long search.

There’s another catastrophe book I want to re-read. It’s a story involving the politics of nuclear war, incurable plague, Australian politics on the world stage and killer rabbits. It may be Not with a Bang by Chapman Pincher. But we’ll see see how that turns out.




Consideration of Works Past: The Fittest — 3 Comments

  1. I think the women-with-skirts-and-mice cliché may have come from a time when women wore skirts that swept the floor, and an enterprising mouse could climb up the infrastructure of a hoop and infringe one’s personal privacy. As it were. I may be wrong on this. It’s a stupid cliché, anyway.

    • It is dumb. And made worse by 1) it’s SF, which should know better and 2) it’s in 1956, which should know better.

      Lord knows how SF has had its terrible portrayal of women. But this one was way worse than most. Almost made me want to read one of the bad Heinlein novels to wash the taste out.

      That said, it was a good idea and I understand his other work was better. We will see.

      • I was just discussing movies with Sherwood, but what I was thinking applies to books, too. I think the 50s were a terrible era for women both as people and as fictional characters. Things were better in the 40s, I suspect.