Many years ago, I read a fascinating short story by Theodore Sturgeon, entitled “If All Men were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?”
(A key spoiler follows below the break. It is not necessary to read the story first to grasp my point, but I highly recommend it; it is a good one.)
The story dealt with a future where there was a world named Vexvelt, which was shunned by all the other civilized planets in the galaxy because incest is not only accepted there, but actively encouraged. When the protagonist in the story visits Vexvelt, he finds that it is a virtual utopia — and that its rejection of the incest taboo is in fact precisely why it has achieved such prosperity and peace.
There is a line spoken at one point by a magistrate, one of the few outside Vexvelt who knows the truth about the planet. At one point after the protagonist describes the “sanity” of the Vexveltian society, the magistrate said a line which still sticks in my head: (paraphrasing from memory)
“I would rather go stark, raving MAD than ever endure such sanity!”
Sturgeon later explained that the particular taboo was not the point of the story. From Wikipedia:
“Sturgeon wrote the story with an afterword that makes it plain that [the taboo] is not the real issue here, but rather how we manufacture falsehoods and turn them into perceived ‘truths.’ How we often take something harmless, then add and build on the perceived ‘truth’ to the point of creating something that is positively harmful.”
The funny thing for me, is that as much as incest is seen as repulsive by nearly everyone, writing a story like that did not damage Sturgeon’s career. If you examine his Wikipedia page, there is no mention of any big controversy over it. His writing career continued, and to this day Sturgeon is regarded as one of the stars of science fiction, and rightly so IMO.
Ever wonder what might have happened to him if he had made Vexvelt the only egoist society in the galaxy — if the harmful idea the Vexveltians rejected had been altruism?
I don’t have to wonder. Paul Shirley, a former ESPN basketball writer and former player, questioned altruism in clear terms recently in connection with the Haiti disaster, and the responses were (not to put too fine a point on it), batshit crazy. Evidently, altruists too would rather go “stark raving mad”.
As much as I respect Sturgeon’s writing, I can see why he might have seen the risk of being construed as an advocate for incest to be less dangerous than to be seen as questioning that other, far more harmful taboo.