RETROSPECTIVE: The Dolphins of Altair by Margaret St. Clair

Monday , 22, August 2016 2 Comments

Long and long ago, I witnessed first hand the final echoes of the eighties Satanic panic. It wasn’t D&D, rock lyrics, or daycare centers that had my modest sized Bible Belt town up in arms in this late stage. It was New Age Teaching Techniques IN OUR SCHOOLS. The local newspapers were running articles about it and there was bit time speaker whipping things up at one of the larger churches. (I don’t think mega-churches were a thing, yet.)

To get our attention, the guy opened up with scenes from The Empire Strikes Back where Yoda teaches Luke how to reach out to the force. They then broke down what all was going on with the weird lightsaber duel from the cave sequence, and– spoiler warning!– it was revealed that elements of eastern philosophy and religion were hard wired into the film’s message. It was an impressive multi-media tour de force by pre-Youtube standards.

I was truly and genuinely outraged by it, of course. (Geek that I was, hating on Star Wars like that struck me as being downright blasphemous at the time.) But then they moved on to their smoking gun. They had footage of an area teacher putting her students in some kind of trance. She got them to relax, and breath… to search their feelings… to let go… to… talk to their inner dolphin. On the back pew, we were like, “inner dolphin? Wha…?!” It was hilarious. It was embarrassing. In fact, to us rationalistic science fiction reading “intellectual” types, the only thing more embarrassing was the idea that someone could be threatened by something so stupid. Ah, we sure yucked it up in the parking lot afterwards. What a bunch of hicks, right…?

But use your imagination for a second with me, here. What if there really was some sort of spiritual threat that was putting our town in peril…? What if our less sophisticated peers really could discern that to be the case…? And what if there reaction was not some kind of temporary insanity, but rather was a sort of social defense mechanism going into action like some kind of bible thumping white blood cell…? Yeah, I know… that’s hard to imagine. And this is not something that’s easy to talk about in any kind of mixed company. If only we had crazy science fiction story to grapple with it on a metaphorical level, just like the old Outer Limits show could do…!

Well, that book exists. It’s Margaret St. Clair’s Dolphins of Altair, and let me tell you… it’s positively mind-blowing. Just not in the way that its author intended….

What is it like exactly…? Well, take an expansive Lovecraft-style evolutionary backstory, take an author that could pass for a real-life antecedent for Kurt Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout, take sort of the ur-story which could well have been the type of thing Douglas Adams was lampooning with So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish— take all those things together, and you have the gist of this one. But (pardon the expression) the devil is in the details, here. There’s really is something creepy about the entire package.

For starters, it is about the least thinly veiled “Mary Sue” type story that I have ever read. The female protagonist has this sort of deep spiritual connection to dolphins that manifests itself through psychic powers and so forth. It wouldn’t be that bad of a premise, really, but the way the critters praise here, revere her, and dole out the terms of endearment to her gets kind of sickening after a while.

What’s so bad about that…? Now, I don’t want to get all “geek hierarchy” on you here, but there is something objectively wrong with this type of fan fiction. And I don’t mean merely on an aesthetic level, either. Being immersed in this particular type of fantasy for 188 pages, all I can say is that there has to be something downright broken about the people that make this sort of thing. No, really– it’s just not normal. Of course, that invites a sort of reflexive sneer: “normal…? You’re talking about fantasy and science fiction here. There’s nothing normal about that!” People that have been following along with me for a while are well within their rights to point out that I’m just sensitive about so many people ragging on stuff I like as being disgusting “male power fantasies” and that I’m just trying to get back at them.

And that’s a fair point, all things considered. But let’s digress to those male power fantasies for a second. Take the classic Princess of Mars story arc. The Confederate cavalryman is whisked away to an alien world. He faces one danger after another. He meets the most beautiful woman in the universe. She likes him, but he bungles things. He likes her, but there are many, many complications. One thing leads to another and then boom… they’re settling down together. She lays an egg and he’s well on his way towards establishing some sort of dynasty. Crazy stuff, right…? But think about it. As “fantastic” as that story really is, it’s still pretty danged normal. I mean that’s just a larger than life version of the average successful guy’s life story– one that pretty well cuts across history and across the vast majority cultures as well!

Just like kittens clawing at each other and wrestling around, there’s something about this that functions as kind of a dress rehearsal for real life. And surveying a whole pile of these from the 20th century, as trashy as they often are there is nevertheless something to them. The hero generally succeeds due to any number of practical virtues: from daring to patience, dedication and hard work– and on to loyalty to one’s allies and the perseverance, especially when things look their worst. Say what you want, but whether you look at this from an evolutionary or a religious perspective, this is all healthy and wholesome stuff.

How does the Mary Sue type story play out in comparison…? Well it’s a cheat, really. There isn’t really the need for some sort character arc anymore because the character is “special” by default. There is no need for virtue in order to progress across that arc, either. That in and of itself wouldn’t be so bad, I guess. Taken to the extremes Margaret St. Clair does, it’s the consequences of shoving most all of the rest of the world into the “unspecial” class that becomes problematic.

Take a look at this passage where the trio of protagonists are discussing their plans:

“I wish we didn’t have to use it,” he said. “I don’t suppose any other mine in history has caused as much damage as this one will. It’s in a good cause, of course. But human history is full of people hurting other people for what they considered good reasons.”

Dr. Lawrence raised his eyebrows a little. “How highminded you all are,” he said mockingly. “Even the dolphins, whose very existence is at stake, have scruples about incidentally killing some of their enemies. Speaking personally, I can regard the elimination of half the human species without emotion. If we don’t do it, they’ll do it to themselves. Are you trying to tell us, Sven, that you object to detonating the mine?”

Sven’s face turned red. “Of course not, I stole it, didn’t I? I only wish we didn’t have to use it, that’s all.

In this twisted, upside down approach to adventure stories, the protagonists don’t risk their lives to save innocent children and families. No, they they bend over backwards convincing each other that just this once throwing them under the bus would be awesome. In this particular scene, the debate centers on to use a navy mine to set off an earthquake on the California coast in order to rescue some dolphins. They time it in order to minimize the human casualties, but once this particular ball gets rolling, it’s not that long before they convince themselves that they have to melt the polar icecaps, drastically raise the sea level, and wipe out well over half of human kind.

Maybe this read a little differently at the time that it came out, but for the entirety of my adult life this particular scenario has been drummed into me as being very nearly the ultimate evil. It all started with the bad juju of holes in the Ozone layer. (If you don’t remember how big of a deal that was, check out how via Star Trek VI it the issue was linked to a Chernobyl-like incident to alter the course of Klingon and Federation relations.) And then Ozone Layer begat Global Warming, which begat Climate Change, which begat Climate Chaos…. I can’t keep up with it. (And I guess it was threat of a second ice age that was the ultimate problem back in the seventies, but never mind that for now.) The subtext here for decades now has been that we basically have to dismantle Western Civilization in order to pay for the original sin of putting more than our fair share of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

For better or for worse, that’s the world we live in. We sit around feeling guilty about the fossil fuels that were burned in order to bring California produce to our kitchen tables. Some of us even feel guilty about the tree that was cut down to make our kitchen table. And even the people that feel not one iota of shame have to cooperate with policies that are predicated on this sort of thing. It’s ubiquitous.

From that frame of reference, this book is just utterly gobsmacking. I mean, here you have a hip counter culture type person from the sixties writing about the ultimate climate-related disaster… and she has the “good guys” making it happen on purpose.

Granted, Margaret St. Clair did live in under the threat of nuclear war breaking out at any moment. The intense anxiety this produced had a tremendous effect on fantasy and science fiction produced between World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Judging from The Sign of Labrys, it’s pretty clear the St. Clair believes that pretty much any good Wiccan is justified in wiping out 90% of humanity in order to “save” it from its self-induced apocalypse.

In that one novel, we have a rogue witch to unleash a bio-engineered fungus without checking in with her coven to make sure it’s a good idea. In this one we have psychics with a spiritual bond to dolphins talking to aliens and using those crystals you see for sale in those tacky “New Age” type stores. What’s the common denominator? People that think they’re so danged “special” that they have license to set off disasters that can kill billions.

If this is what these “alternative” spiritualities boil down to, then I really can’t blame regular people if they wanted to keep these weirdos as far from their children as possible. Indeed, Margaret St. Clair paints these people as being so odious, she makes witch-burnings seem like a perfectly rational response.

  • Ostar says:

    I’m not sure of St. Clair’s beliefs, but in the end this usually boils down to believing there is either no afterlife or no judgement of your sins in the afterlife.
    So with no spiritual consequences to your actions and only the Earth being important in the long term, mass killing of humans is often a “regrettable necessity” for the “enlightened” few.

    • Jeffro says:

      St. Clair was a Wiccan. Also a fangirl that wrote letters to Weird Tales.

      Odd that Lovecraft’s character’s went nuts when they found out the “truth” about reality. St. Clair presents essentially the same thing as being simply groovey.

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