"To Make a New Neanderthal," by W. Macfarlane
Appeared in Analog Science Fiction / Science Fact, September 1971
He had been located among the teeming millions only because Guert Maury had persevered in his computerized membership and subscription lists; the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, Portola Institute, Environment magazine - habits of mind do not change. Of course Noss had adopted another name, but the temptation to proselytize and associate with his own reactionary kind had turned him up.
The spiritual genesis of the modern environmental movement is widely held to have been December 1968, when the Apollo 10 "Earthrise" photograph captured all of Earth in a camera lens for the first time. If that's the case, it didn't take long for opponents of a heightened ecological consciousness to make their counter-arguments. The September 1971 issue of Analog has two; the first in the form of John W. Campbell's editorial, where he fulminated against Concerned Ecologists who pressed for immediate solutions without concern for unintended consequences, and the second in the five-page "To Make a New Neanderthal."
This story may have been good enough to appear in Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year anthologies in 1972, 1973, and 1974, but honestly, I think that the march of time had seriously left it behind, and while back in the 70s it may have been a "thoughtful subversion" of ideas prominent at the time, here in 2009 I can't help but find it patently ridiculous.
The protagonist of "Neanderthal" is Guert Maury, a man we first meet affixing bumper stickers with such witty messages as "BAN CARS" to whatever cars are convenient, and who is pursuing David Langley Noss, a "paranoiac youngster" described early on as a reactionary. I suppose that only makes sense, when the protagonist is the agent of a worldwide conspiracy dedicated to polluting the Earth in order to increase the average brainpower of humanity with phlogiston.
Yeah, that's right, phlogiston. When, at the end of the story, Noss and his fellow environmentalists are rather cruelly marooned on a planet with no heavy metals and no usable wood - "the vegetation's built like a banana tree" - I found it amazing the protagonist's starship didn't also push against the luminiferous aether to get there.
I've heard it said that if a story pisses you off, it's done its job. That may be so, but "Neanderthal" inspired a special kind of irritation in me, the kind that I don't think would have been possible in 1971. Back then it must have been more of a playful what-if, a quick exploration of a world where everything we know is wrong. Thirty-eight years later, I find it representative of the lackadaisical, laissez-faire attitudes of the time that helped to create the situation we find ourselves in today.
I recognize I'm allowing my political and social beliefs to seep into this review. The way I see it, this was a damn provocative story, and it does not hold up well with what we know now. The author's foreword points to "recent studies... that pasture grass grows best when there's adequate sulfur dioxide in the air." The Wikipedia article on sulfur dioxide says nothing about this quality, though I did find the abstract of a 1975 Soviet journal which indicated that "even at low sulfur dioxide concentrations," the studied grasses didn't take in as much carbon dioxide as they would have otherwise.
Furthermore, the entire concept didn't rest well with me - even if pollution did create a more intelligent breed of humanity, one would think that they'd balance their pursuit of ever-greater cogitation against the expense of maintaining a planetary biosphere reduced to "a brown ball for the mentation of man."
Finally, it uses the word "neanderthal" as a pejorative. Considering I've written stories with genetically-resurrected neandertal characters, I really don't like that very much, anymore.
ANDREW'S RATING: 1.5/5. It very much did not, in my opinion, age well.
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