Bewildering Stories

Philip Wylie, The Gladiator

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

The Gladiator
Author: Philip Wylie
Publisher: Bison Books, 2004
Paperback: $15.95
Length: 332 pp.
ISBN: 0-8032-9840-4
We forget, today, just how popular the now discredited science of eugenics was in the early part of the last century. Nazi racist policies gave eugenics the smear from which it has really never recovered, but it wasn’t just the Nazis who espoused social Darwinism to improve the race to fulfill nature’s wishes. In 1927, U. S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled in support of involuntary sterilization in order to prevent ourselves being swamped with incompetence. As a result, 45,127 American citizens were involuntarily sterilized between 1907 and 1945. Even today, and especially today, with the new discoveries in genetics, the dark shadow of eugenics hangs over us. Eugenic laws are still being passed (China, for example, enacted legislation in 1994 restricting marriage for persons having certain disabilities; modern Dutch euthanasia laws could also be considered questionable). The moral and ethical issues of eugenics will never go away.

Philip Wylie wrote his story The Gladiator when eugenics was in its heyday. The story has been cited as one of the inspirations for the hero we know today as Superman. In Wylie’s version, a scientist discovers a treatment that imparts tremendous and unnatural strength to living beings. He doses his own pregnant wife surreptitiously with the substance. Lo and behold, a monstrously strong son is born to the twain. The boy can hurl boulders like baseballs and lift cars off their wheels. Growing older, he exhausts the weaker sex with his demanding virility — no woman can handle Hugo Danner for long!

But though handicapped with some of the chauvinistic and racist attitudes common to the time, Wylie at least makes his superman more complex than his later cartoon namesake. Danner is as tempted by the dark side of his powers as the light. He remarks, “I would set out to stamp crime off the earth,” then dreams of scorning the universe and unleashing the strength, which he has choked back all his life, in killing and destroying.

For humanity never quite accepts Hugo Danner. He’s a freak, until he finally meets Professor Daniel Hardin. Hardin is the noble, white-haired professor who dreams of starting a new race of people, eugenic offspring, reared secretly in the wilds, who will one day conquer the world of lesser human beings and rule supreme.

Hugo is tormented. Does Hardin’s plan defy the Creator? Is there any God to defy? Well, let’s say that Hugo does get his answer, though the reader is left to interpret his death for himself: does Hugo die the just death of a blasphemer or suffer as a Promethean martyr?

The book is dated, in both its writing style and its attitudes, but it remains a thought-provoking work and one of the early classics of speculative fiction. The questions it raises with regard to eugenics are still as applicable or more so today as then. I admit, these issues are of particular interest to me at this time, I am in the process of writing a science fiction novel (entitled MWB-11) that envisions a limited survivor society facing, among other things, issues of genetic health due to the ravages of a terrible futuristic war. Not only do the survivors have to solve the problem of health for their limited and damaged gene pool, they have to face the temptation to breed for certain superpowers of their own. A temptation they’ve already succumbed to, in fact.

I know where I weigh in on the subject, of course. If eugenic sciences and social Darwinism were allowed full sway, who would pay the price? We’d have no Stephen Hawking; no Vincent van Gogh; no Lou Gehrig. Science, art, and sports would suffer. Most of all, we could no longer be called, in any ethical and moral dimension, what I recognize as Humanity.

Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker

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