Tuesday, June 1, 2010


I can’t remember when I first read Harry Harrison’s The Streets of Ashkelon, but it was a long time ago – possibly in the Brian Aldiss edited Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus under the story’s variant title An Alien Agony – but it is a story which has stayed with me ever since and one to which I return time and time again.

For me, it’s one of those stories that does what SF does so very well, shining a light into those murky places where mundane fiction either will not or can not go: asking difficult questions about the nature of faith, belief and pride (and taking a few well aimed and accurate shots at the nature of colonialism along the way).

On the backwater planet of Wesker’s World, trader John Garth has found what he believes to be an idyllic place where the native inhabitants – furry little amphibians known as Weskers – live a primative life in a state of primal innocence with neither belief in nor need for religion. As Garth says ‘They have ugly little gods, taboos or spells to hag-ride and limit their lives. They are the only primitive people I have ever encountered that are completely free of superstition and appear much happier and sane because of it.’

This idyll is shattered, however, by the arrival of a Christian missionary, Father Mark, who has come to bring the Weskers to God (or indeed to bring God to the Weskers). The clash between the two men forms the theological spine of the story – faith versus humanism – but also leads to its ultimate tragedy.

Whereas Garth has been teaching the Weskers about the material world – bring knowledge in exchange for their exquisite art – Mark seeks to teach them about the unseen and the power of faith. In their own way, each man seeks to exploit the highly intelligent and inquisitive Weskers, each believing this is way is the Right Way. But for the Weskers the clash is a more personal one, and they are creatures for whom Blind Faith alone is not enough.

Requiring nothing less than a miracle to bring them to God – and reasoning that one miracle is not so much to ask in order to bring an entire planet to worship at God’s Throne – the Weskers set their mind to the ultimate miracle, the miracle that brought humanity to God in the first place.

‘… everything had been constructed down to the last detail, following the illustrations in the bible. There was the cross, planted firmly on top of a small hill, the gleaming metal spikes, the hammer. Father Mark was stripped and draped in a carefully pleated loincloth. They led him out of the church.’

In crucifying the missionary, the Weskers believe implicitly that God will bring him back to life and thus provide the necessary miracle they so desperately seek, but have in fact brought about a state of sin from which they will never be released.

“He will rise, won’t he, Garth?”

“No,” Garth said. “he is going to stay buried right where you put him. Nothing is going to happen because he is dead and he is going to stay dead.”

The rain runnelled through Itin’s fur and his mouth was opened so wide that he seemed to be screaming into the night. Only with effort could he talk, squeezing out the aliens thoughts in an alien tongue.

“Then we will not be saved? We will not become pure?”

“You were pure,” Garth said in a voice somewhere between a sob and a laugh. “That’s the horrible, ugly dirty part of it. You were pure. Now you are…”

“Murderers,” Itin said, and the water ran down from his lowered head and streamed away into the darkness.”

Beautifully crafted, The Streets of Ashkelon is a perfect example of what SF at its best can do: its theology and its human characters in particular fully rounded and realized.

Bizarrely, though, it remained unpublished for a number of years in the USA - although it appeared in New Worlds the UK in 1962 – its themes and questions proving themselves too difficult for editors at the time.

Since then, the story has gone on to appear in many anthologies and is rightly held up as a classic of the genre. Simply wonderful.

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