Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #42 of 107: “Day of Wrath” by Sever Gansovsky
Even though “Day of Wrath” is translated from Russian, it sounded completely American. The story is about two men riding on horseback into a backcountry settled by folks who work the land, live in cabins, and who fear people they don’t consider humans. I don’t know if Gansovsky intentionally wanted us to think of Native Americans but I did. There is one scene that reminds me of The Searchers.
“Day of Wrath” reminded me of stories I read in old issues of Astounding, Analog, or Galaxy from the 1950s and 1960s. Stories like those written by Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, or Jack Vance. Stories that began with two riders, sometimes on horses, and sometimes on strange alien mounts, with one rider who knows the country, and one rider who doesn’t. That setup lets us the reader learn the backstory with the newcomer. I assume we’re on Earth, but that might not be true.
The two characters are Meller, the forester, and Betly, the journalist. Betly wants to find out what people think of the otarks, superintelligent creatures that escape from a science lab years ago and are now populating that rural area. They are pushing out the humans. The city people have heard about the otarks and are fascinated by the fact they know advanced mathematics. But the local people only know the otarks as killers, and consider them inhuman. Gansovsky also tells us this society has intelligent machines but doesn’t make much of them.
“Day of Wrath” wants us to consider the old question: What is human? That’s a favorite science-fictional theme I enjoy. Like the androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, we’re told the otarks have no empathy, no compassion. They do have brilliant analytical minds that do higher mathematics and understand the Theory of Relativity. But the otarks also kill wantonly. To portray them as the ultimate evil, Gansovsky has them eat humans and even each other. Does he do this so we’ll think they are worth exterminating? But then, does he tell us they understand Einstein as a reason to save them?
Gansovsky brings us these issues, but the ending suggests he’s on the side of extermination. I assume the ending is the day of wrath. That’s an interesting word to use since we usually associate it with God. We are the gods of the otarks, and it’s our wrath that will destroy them. It’s telling that Gansovsky begins his tale with this quote from a hearing:
The key to the story is deciding if humans have qualities the otarks don’t. This is my first reading of “Day of Wrath” and I expect to reread it because I believe it’s a deeper story than possible to understand from one reading.
But I have a question for Gansovsky: Does killing make us inhuman? Humans kill all the time. Sometimes we’re even cannibals. Maybe we lack that divine spark we think we see in ourselves. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick does advocate extermination because the androids lack empathy. His novel focuses on what makes us inhuman. But the film version Blade Runner focuses on what makes the Replicants human. I tend to feel, that Gansovsky is positioning himself closer to PKD here, and not seeing the otarks as a Roy Batty who gives us a “Tears in the Rain” speech. But when I reread this story in the future I might change my mind.
James Wallace Harris, 11/10/21