Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Ten Commandments Plus One

Review: The Eleventh Commandment by Lester Del Rey


Way back in the 1960s, as the U.S. Supreme Court was just beginning to consider if the Ten Commandments were appropriate for use as decoration in the nation’s schools, science fiction writer and history professor Lester del Rey was pondering what might be the result of an established state religion in America. He set the stage for such a radical departure from the Constitution in The Eleventh Commandment with another 60s icon, global thermonuclear war.

Following the nuclear annihilation, which destroyed the Vatican City and vaporized the Pope, a new pontiff was selected from amongst the American Cardinals. When Europe also elected a Pope, the American church split from the Old World Catholics in a schism that established the priority of the eleventh commandment:
“Ten were given to Moses, for the Hebrews.” Gordini answered. “And our Lord instrusted us to observe them. But what we call the Eleventh—it should be called the Original—was given by God the Father to the entire human race through Adam, to whom He said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.’ It was the foundation of our accomplishments.”

In the bomb-decimated land, these principles found fertile ground. To Boyd Jensen, immigrant from the colony on Mars, the culture they spawned is frightening, baffling. Four billion people live in North America, another billion in South America; most of them are American Catholic in faith. Contraception is illegal. Boyd’s profession on Mars, biologic research, is an arena restricted to priests on Earth. Poverty is commonplace among the laity, practically unknown in the clergy.

In addition to the misery of the huddled masses, mutations and plagues are everywhere. Boyd learns that he will not be allowed to return to Mars, once he has been exposed to the diseases of Earth—and there is also the hint that his own DNA is damaged, that he was tricked into coming to Earth to remove him from Mars' “pure” gene pool.

Boyd believes he can survive on Earth without subscribing to the state religion. He wears an unobtrusive patch that keeps him sterile; he “isn’t the type” to succumb to the bleeding disease (faint foreshadow of AIDS, there); he does have more training in cytology than many priests, and this is valuable knowledge. He hasn’t reckoned with two things, however.

At a higher gravity than Mars’, his contraceptive is less effective. Boyd is fertile enough to get a young woman pregnant. Her baby is taken from her by the Church to be raised in a special facility, and Boyd is determined to help her get him back.

And the Church Militant knows more than they’re telling about the extent of the mutations. The eleventh commandment may be the only thing that guarantees mankind’s survival on Earth.

Del Rey’s conception of a Catholic America was obviously predicated on the Third World Catholic states of Central and South America. At the beginning of the story, New York City (actually, Long Island) seems more like Caracas or São Paulo. Del Rey seems at first to be saying that Catholicism is the cause of poverty and overcrowding. As you read on, however, his message comes clearer: The root cause of this misery is the human need to contend for survival.

And you don’t get to opt out of the game, as Mars has done with her “pure” racial stock. The crucible is where the metal is purified and made strong, not the shelf.

In the end, The Eleventh Commandment seems hardly dated. Its plot needs little amendment to be conceivable as our own possible future, even though it was written over a half-century ago. And the warning, that the fruitful will multiply and the meek will inherit the Earth, is one worth considering.

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Other conceptions of the Eleventh Commandment have included:

  • Thou shalt not cause thy children pain is a very moving poem set to music by Collin Raye, with the commandment: "Honor Thy Children" (do not abuse them).
  • Bishop Ussher called Christ’s admonition to his disciples the eleventh commandment: “I give you a new commandment—to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” 
  • A bumper sticker supplied Brian Elroy McKinley’s version: “Find God and Find Happiness.” 
  • civil rights campaign from, ironically, 1962 (which is the publication date of my Eleventh Commandment paperback) renders the commandment: “Thou Shalt Stay Out of Downtown Birmingham.”

This thought-provoking novel is, alas, not available for Kindle.