Thursday, May 10, 2012

Damon Knight's "Rule Golden" (novella): What if we had an additional _empathy_ sense?

Quote from short story Rule Golden by Damon Knight
I loved the early parts - fast paced, quick pick up. After a while, it begins showing warts. And it's much too long. Still, I'll say time not wasted.

Story summary.

An alien from some sort of galactic federation of civilized species has arrived on earth - to civilize us, so we can join the federation. And his prescription is: stop all killing. And his device to enforce it is: a powdery chemical that spreads through air & water, infects through skin, & turns on a new sense in those infected - the sense of empathy. You step on somebody's toes; you feel the pain too. You butcher an animal; you feel the
terror of being butchered too.

By the end of the story, governments & nations would have collapsed, & aliens will be dropping food packets all over the world. We are supposed to consider this temporary pain, part of progress.


Part way through the story, I started picking up warts - too many of them:
  1. The empathy infects all life on earth "above" insects. So lions & wolves can no longer kill & must die of starvation. How will that affect ecology? Brushed aside. Humans can no longer kill rats & other pests that can now multiply boundlessly. Oh - they can kill them, there is an empathy loophole! In fact, humans can continue butchering animals for food - so we are told when author was faced with too many contradictions.
  2. Story is ethnically insensitive at several places.
  3. There are places where it's factually incorrect. E.g., you are supposed to need a Pakistani visa to travel to Amritsar! Or jumping to conclusions when there is not enough data: e.g., anyone not wearing a turban in India must be a Hindu, even in a Muslim majority state!
Title comes from the "Golden Rule in reverse: Be done by as you do to others."


  1. On on options a race has on first contact:

    "You were a cannibal islander, & a missionary came along. He meant well, but you thought he wanted to steal your yam-fields & your wives, so you chopped him up & ate him for dinner.


    You were a West Indian, & Columbus came along. You treated him as a guest, but he made a slave of you, worked you till you dropped, & finally wiped out your whole nation, to the last woman & child."
  2. "Treason is a word every man has to define for himself."
  3. On how this new empathy sense works if you act violent: "It makes you love what you destroy--as you love yourself--& it makes you hate yourself as your victim hates you."
  4. "Who's going to build the ships?"

    "Those who build them now."

    "Governments build them now."

    "No. Men build ships. Men invent ships & design ships. Government builds nothing but more government."

Collected in.

  1. Groff Conklin (ed)'s "Six Great Short Science Fiction Novels".

Fact sheet.

First published: Science Fiction Adventures, May 1954.
Rating: A.   
Related: Stories of Damon Knight.