Book Review: The Eleventh Commandment, Lester del Rey (1962, revised: 1970)

(Dean Ellis’ cover for the 1970 edition)

3.5/5 (Good)

Lester del Rey’s The Eleventh Commandment, originally published in 1962, was revised by the author in 1970. I’ve reviewed the 1970 edition — I do not know to what extent the original was changed.

My first exposure to Lester del Rey’s sci-fi bucks the impression of general averageness conveyed by my fellow reviewers.  This work strikes me as a product of the more mature side of del Rey, a move away from his normal space opera YA fare.  In The Eleventh Commandment del Rey explores the religious ramification of overpopulation (see list) concerns of the 50s/60s.  Due to the fact that overpopulation fears gained a lot of currency after the publication of the 1968 bestselling non-fiction work The Population Bomb,  I suspect it provided the impulse for del Rey to rewrite the novel.  Despite the involving premise, the plot is often a rambling muddle, and I found that the polemic was tempered by a less than satisfying conclusion.

Brief Plot Summary (*some spoilers*)

In the era before the atomic war, Earth set up colonies on Mars.  Thankfully for these colonists, they are saved from the horrid political situation on Earth.  It is unclear how the war was started or what exact role, preventative or not, the Church played.  However, post-atomic war plagues, mutations, physical destruction destroyed a large proportion of the population.  Mars, reluctant according to one version of the history to expose their citizens to the radiation, declines to aid their Earth brethren except for occasional trade vessels.

In resulting post-apocalyptical wasteland, the Catholic church fills the political/moral power void in North America, and to a lesser extent in Europe.   Del Rey’s novel is a future extrapolation of the ramifications of a state controlled completely by the church.  In order to repopulate the Earth, the American Catholics promulgated a doctrine of the Eleventh Commandment:

“Ten were given to Moses, for the Hebrews,’ Gordini answered. ‘And out Lourd instructed us to observe them.  But what we call the Eleventh — it should be called the Original Commandment — was given by God the Father to the entire human race through Adam, to whom he said, ‘Be Fruitful and multiple and replenish the earth.’ It was the foundation of our accomplishments” (15).

del Rey pursues the ramifications of this commandment in the post-atomic war future defined by this doctrine in a world which has already been overpopulated — Earth, 2190 A.D, population circa 22 billion.  As a result, del Rey can make his social commentary on religion more relevant to the current day.  Obviously, in a world where there are almost no one a Catholic doctrine which facilitates births would not be that surprising.  However, in a world where the environment is suffering, cropland is increasingly sterile, or billions could die due to a single famine or contaminated plankton harvest, del Rey’s warning rings loud and strong.

The main narrative concerns Boyd Jensen’s arrival from Mars to an incredibly overpopulated, stench filled, religiously rabid Earth.  The reason for Boyd’s exile is slowly revealed over the course of the novel.  Boyd, due to his previous education on Mars, quickly becomes involved in biological research — a field completely controlled by the church.  Of course, del Rey introduces a love interest — Ellen — who is desperate, along with all members of church indoctrinated families in this future, to become pregnant.  In a society which values the creation of life so highly additional babies bring large benefits (social, economic, etc).  The paradox of the societal benefits of having children vs the physically realities of massive overpopulation is explored in depth.  Boyd is more reluctant and wears a highly illegal birth control patch.  However, he does not take into consideration the different environmental conditions of Earth.

Final Thoughts

The Eleventh Commandment is a thought-provoking piece of 60s social science fiction — the themes of religion, bioengineering, overpopulation, pollution, are all discussed in depth.  Although in no where as poignant, experimental, and brilliant as John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) which discusses similar themes, del Rey’s contribution to the overpopulation subgenre is worth reading.

Due to the centrality of the polemic, I recommended the novel for fans of 60s/70s social science fiction only (and perhaps del Rey completest, although I suspect, tentatively, it is unlike the majority of his work).  I found del Rey’s vision incredibly relevant to our current political environment.

(Dean Ellis’ cover for the 1976 edition)

(Serge Chirol’s cover for the 1977 French edition)

(Diane Dillon and Leo Dillon’s cover for the 1981 edition)

(Diane Dillon and Leo Dillon’s cover for the 1960 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Eleventh Commandment, Lester del Rey (1962, revised: 1970)

  1. Recently, I have become once more aware of how many of the Sci Fi authors of the last century, particularly in the Cold War era, made such cunning commentary on society, often in a more subtle form than they are accredited to. Oh with some it’s obvious, too obvious, but others hide their true intentions quite well.

    Of course, del Rey was never too subtle, and it sounds like this was a blatant commentary. Even so,I should really pick up some of his stuff.

    • I’m not convinced that sci-fi has become more subtle (or, any less blatant) as it approaches our contemporary era 😉 I’m thinking Haldeman’s Forever Peace (1997) or David Brin’s ham-fisted attempts at utopian alien societies cavorting in blissful innocence, i.e. Heaven’s Reach (1998), Brightness Reef (1995), Infinity’s Shore (1996) — as preachy as the most preachy authors of the 60s. Of course, my knowledge stops in the late 90s. Although, Kiln People (2002) was as un-subtle as a medieval battle-ax.

      And, if they are obviously writing social science fiction I’m not convinced it needs to be subtle. I guess the difference is how the polemic is conveyed. By means of characters lecturing us? Or, by their actions…. engagement with societies, etc. Here, it’s more the engagement with society type of polemic.

      • And, for a recent less than subtle polemic which hammers home its point with every tool at its disposal, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl (2009)….

        So, my point in a nutshell — not sure why people complain about polemical works of past eras. Our current one is little different. It’s a shame that people dismiss the social sci-fi novels of the 60s for their so-called preachy nature and lack of subtlety.

      • Some modern authors, like Say Banks, have some fairly subtle… or at least not totally blatant commentary (though some of his work is as subtle as a nuke), yet I agree with you that the last century also saw some very intelligently put forward critiques, sometimes so subtle as to be misconstrued.

        For example, I just reread Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” which when read as a kid, I had taken as blatant ham-fisted “this is the way you should run society.” Reading it again I suddenly realized the irony that runs through it.

        Oh don’t get me wrong, I think he honestly was putting forward a thought experiment, and the anti-communist sense to the novel is about as hammer handed as one can imagine. Even so, there is a stream of cynical critique, both about the system he is suggesting, and Western capitalist democracy as a whole.

        Indeed, the very gullibility of the gung-ho Johnny Rico that manifests through the book is nicely put, and few of the more modern Sci-Fi books put forward such a hidden cynicism in a still sympathetic character.

        It is interesting to see how much modern writers have missed or forgotten about the form of hidden and subtle commentary. One wonders if we all need to go back and read some Swift for a bit.

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