Sunday, July 11, 2010

True believers

I have just read one of the most stunning short stories I have had the opportunity to read. Also, one of the grimmest. Written by Steven Popkes, a long-time author of short fiction, it is an alternative-history piece of science fiction called "The Crocodiles," published in the May-June issue of "Fantasy & Science Fiction." It curls your toes.

The story is simple. A young family man, a chemical/biological engineer working in Germany at the beginning of World War II, is tasked with using a newly discovered combination of diseases to create among its victims a vicious, zombie-like horror that just might win the war for the Nazis. He thinks of these nasty changed people - formerly Jews, gypsies, and other outcasts - as "crocodiles" for their cold-blooded killing potential once infected. The idea is to turn these monsters against the Allies - particularly after they invade the continent.

The outcome is obvious - the end of the world as we know it - but the most chilling part of the story is the young man's love for his wife and young son, together with his blind faith in the Third Reich - and his belief that German heroism will prevail, despite the obvious success of his terrible creation.

The allegory is easy to see - man's evil, stupid nature will do him in, the monsters of his making will kill us all and take over the world, and so on -but Popkes' cool prose is powerful. Buried in a bunker, like a certain German leader we can think of, our protagonist must kill his family and himself. But his faith remains.

I read this while learning about the leaders of the French Enlightenment in the 1700s - Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, etc. - who saw the need to translate philosophy into a means of bringing about social and political change. Then came not only the French Revolution, but a few changes in Russia and Germany. Popkes' story, ultimately, is about true believers.

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