Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Halliday Sutherland's "Valley of Doom" (novelette, totalitarian state, humor, free)

Illustration accompanying the reprint in Worlds Beyond magazine of short story Valley of Doom by Halliday Sutherland. Picture show the death row victim driven towards gas chamber by his executor.
You've probably read stories of the ilk: life in a totalitarian state gone absurd. This one one brought me smiles, in spite of being an old trope.

Story summary.

Good state ("Total State") is not named, but it has pictures of Karl Marx galore. Bad state is the Christian Ireland, where folks even choose their own spouses & kids are not even forbidden to read poetry!

Story follows the life of Mr Smith & family. Mr Smith is picked up by the State to be executed for "being unhappy"! He will do a little cheating, ensuring the death visits his executor instead!

And being a fool, he returns home, quickly being picked up again - & now the State knows the whole family is of undesirables. Only, this time, they'll be exiled to Ireland instead of being executed, both being equally dreaded outcomes!

Fact sheet.

First published: Fantasy, #2 (1939).
Download full text as part of the scans of Worlds Beyond, February 1951 where it was reprinted.
Rating: B.


Mark Sutherland said...

Hi Tinkoo, I read your post on Sutherland's "The Valley of Doom" with interest. The author was my grandfather and is the subject of my blog: hallidaysutherland.com. I am getting in touch because I know from personal experience that it is nice to know that people actually read your blog, and also to give you the back story on "The Valley of Doom".

Halliday Sutherland was born in 1882 and died in 1960. His primary career was as a doctor who specialised in tuberculosis. When he qualified he worked with the "father" of the "Edinburgh System" Sir Robert Philip, and Halliday worked tirelessly to implement Philip's schemes to treat and cure tuberculosis among the urban poor.

At first Sutherland was optimistic that TB could be beaten, but later he became less confident it could be done. The reason for his change of heart was not so much to do with disease or medicine, so much as the ideologies that were around at that time (1900-20). Eugenics (race science) was popular at that time in Britain, particularly among the intelligensia and other influential people. Whereas a doctor or social reformer thought that improving urban living conditions would reduce suffering, eugenists (and social Darwinists) believed that the reason for the plight of the poor was genetic. They argued that the reason slum dwellers suffered from poverty, alcoholism, TB and other diseases, was genetic. The solution to the problem was not to spend money on the poor or on improving conditions, but on ensuring that such people did not have children. The ways people believed this could be achieved varied. Marie Stopes campaigned for the compulsory sterilization of poor and working class people, and later opened a free birth control clinic in a poor part of London in 1921 which dispensed contraceptives under her "Pro Race" brand), while others proposed equally drastic measures. For instance, in 1912 Karl Pearson, the first professor of eugenics at London University said that the public budget on TB be cancelled. In 1910, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, lectured the Eugenics Education Society in which he suggested that a "lethal chamber" be used to gas those who the eugenists deemed "unfit".

Halliday Sutherland opposed eugenics and eugenists. In 1923, Stopes sued him for libel and it took three trials (the original hearing and two appeals) for him to defeat the action in 1925 in the House of Lords.

As well as being a doctor, Sutherland was a successful author (in 1934 his book "The Arches of the Years" was included in the "Publishers Weekly" list as one of the top best-selling books in the world for 1933). He included the "The Valley of Doom" as the final chapter of his book "In My Path" as "The Perfect Eugenic State". Sutherland wasn't a science fiction writer really, and to my knowledge it was his first and last venture into Science Fiction. In "The Valley of Doom",he tried to imagine what the world would be like if the eugenicists had their way. The lethal chamber is there as is the approval of marriages by the state (the founder of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, outlined it in his utopian vision "Kantsaywhere", whereas others, like the British philosopher Bertrand Russell suggested that people be allocated a colour based on their genetic worth, so say if you were a "blue", you could only marry a "blue" of the opposite sex). So despite the limitations of the story, it is creepy that is is based on the direction that many of the "movers and shakers" of Edwardian Britain wanted to take.