MiSTed: The Lesson of Thalidomide, Part 1 of 4


So I have a bit of a format-breaking thing this week. Among my pastimes is writing Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan fiction. Late last year I wrote this bit. It takes an early 60s editorial from John W Campbell, the Thomas Midgley Jr of Science Fiction, and tries to find the fun in it. The essay was long, and made longer by the process of adding commentary to it. This is why I’m breaking it up into briefer pieces. If WordPress is anything, it is “not a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan fiction site” and I wish to respect the audience I’ve got here.


[ OPENING CREDITS, SEASON TEN STYLE. ]

[ 1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… ]

[ SATELLITE OF LOVE DESK. TOM SERVO, and CROW are hotly debating; MIKE is not particularly hotly listening. ]

TOM: So I know you’re wondering about the Rankin/Bass special Twas The Night Before Christmas, Mike.

MIKE: Pretty sure I’m not.

CROW: Obviously we all wonder how Albert Mouse could continue insisting Santa Claus doesn’t exist when Santa starts refusing all letters from Junctionville, New York, when refusing letters is a prima facie case that the intended recipient exists.

MIKE: You know Pearl’s scheduled a short for us to keep us busy while she screens a Magic Garden marathon, right?

TOM: After all, there’s a difference between a reasonable skepticism and a hard-line denialism. But the real issue is: why does Santa get so disproportionately upset about a trivial offense?

MIKE: And it’s some kind of editorial from Analog Science Fiction from back when great crazy guy John W Campbell was editing?

CROW: Especially when he doesn’t appear even slightly miffed, or relieved, or anything but ‘well, this is normal’ when he flies into Junctionville after all!

MIKE: And the Observer said it was a real downbeat one?

TOM: So we’re thinking that some overly enthusiastic support elf in the mailroom noticed Albert Mouse’s nasty letter and vastly overreacted.

MIKE: And Bobo glanced at it and he’s been in the fetal position weeping about that ever since, and that was eighteen days ago?

CROW: Santa’s got a massive organization, surely it has problems with people overreacting to minor slights —

[ MOVIE SIGN. General alarm. ]

CROW: AAH! MOVIE SIGN!

TOM: WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!

MIKE: Oh, let’s just go.

[ INTO THE THEATER … 6… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… ]

[ ALL file in. ]

> THE LESSON OF THALIDOMIDE

CROW: Don’t take it?

TOM: Well, we’re done here.

>
> The thalidomide disaster is, of course, by no
> means finished;

MIKE: We’re still working out how to blame it on the pregnant women who took it.

> it will continue to be a disaster at
> least as long as any of the affected babies are living.

TOM: Accordingly, I am dispatching my operatives with polonium-ricin tablets.

> And the lesson the human race can learn from that
> thalidomide disaster should go on . . . well, really,
> forever.

CROW: In practice, humanity kind of remembered it for like six months, and then was distracted by a shiny bauble.

>
> Unfortunately, I have not seen the proper lesson
> of the thalidomide results published anywhere;

TOM: That lesson being, pay attention to me, John W Campbell.

> what I
> have seen published has, in every case, been exactly the
> wrong lesson.

CROW: People have come out of it saying, maybe there’s not such a thing as telepathy.

>
> Many thousands of years ago now, Man first
> learned — first of all animals — the correct lesson
> from being burned by fire.

TOM: ‘Try not to get burned by fire.’

CROW: And humans were the first animal to think of that one, yeah.

MIKE: Humanity: We do some things okay, eventually.

> The lesson had to do with how
> you could handle fire; the other animals only learned to
> fear fire.

MIKE: Although the lesser spotted vole skipped fire altogether and went right into fusion-powered lasers. Gotta give them that.

>
> The importance of that difference is that they
> are still animals — and this is Man’s world.

CROW: Or it was until Man signed a balloon mortgage on it to the red-tufted speckled jay.

>
> The basic lesson to learn from the thalidomide
> problem is, simply, that human beings were, are, and
> always will be expended in the process of learning more
> about the Universe we live in — and that we’d be wiser
> to acknowledge that, and accept it.

TOM: So all you people whining about poisoning babies, knock it off.

> When you do true
> exploration into the Unknown — some explorers are going
> to die.

CROW: And making it the explorers who had no idea they were doing the exploring or were venturing off into the unknown? That just makes it funny!

> John Glenn stated very flatly that men were going
> to be killed in the effort to penetrate space — that he
> was lucky, but that deaths were inevitable.

MIKE: But killing people in space travel gives us great benefits in finding new ways to kill people on the ground.

>
> The human race just expended several thousand
> babies in a battle against disease and misery;

TOM: By inflicting disease and misery on babies!

> this has
> happened before, and we would be most wise to recognize
> quite clearly — as clearly as Glenn recognized his
> danger — that it will most certainly happen again.

CROW: I didn’t realize John Glenn was so into the needless death and misery of babies.

TOM: Never learn too much about your heroes, I guess.

>
> And there isn’t one thing we can do about it.

MIKE: Except ‘try’.

>
> Human life is not sacred; it is expendable for
> cause.

CROW: So why are you expending that life?

TOM: Just cause.

CROW: Exactly right.

> The Universe doesn’t hold it sacred, quite
> obviously; if we do, we’re unrealistic — which means
> essentially, “neurotic.”

CROW: Yeah, ‘neurotic’, that’s the word to describe people who oppose needless misery and suffering.

>
> Let’s take a solid, rational look at the story of
> thalidomide.

TOM: Because some of you out there are still feeling some hope or joy in your lives.

>
> In the first place, Dr. Frances Kelsey acted in a
> whimsical, arbitrary, illogical, and unscientific manner
> in failing to license thalidomide for distribution in
> this country.

CROW: Dames, am I right, fellas?

> Her course of action — actually, her
> course of inaction — was absolutely unjustifiable.

MIKE: Why does Germany get to have all the deformed seal-babies? It’s not fair!

>
> The fact that it was completely correct and right
> has nothing whatever to do with the question of whether
> or not it was logical, scientific, or justifiable.

CROW: I mean, it was, all three, but that’s no fair.

> It may
> have been a case of pure “woman’s intuition” working with
> illogical, but magnificent accuracy.

MIKE: She should stop using her judgement and just do what the nice men from the multinational pharmaceutical company says, they thought about this a lot more than she ever could.

> It may have been a
> case of precognition — of seeing the future accurately.

TOM: If that’s the case, then, cool.

> If either were the case, it would have been totally
> unscientific, illogical, indefensible . . . and right.

MIKE: If it was precognition, then … she didn’t approve thalidomide because she saw that she wouldn’t approve it? How is that better?

CROW: Analog Magazine: Where hard science fiction was born.

>
> It might have been simply someone with a
> constitutional inability to make a decision who kept
> thalidomide off the market in the United States

TOM: Maybe it was kept off the market by space goats? I don’t know, I’m just saying.

> — one
> of the type who simply can’t bring themselves to make a
> definite decision.

MIKE: I think. Maybe. I don’t know. Ask me later.

>
> Such a person would have been just as helpful, in
> this case, as Dr. Kelsey.

CROW: So I call on everyone to hire indecisive people.

>
> Fundamentally, Dr. Kelsey had absolutely no
> scientific reason — no defensible justification — for
> not granting thalidomide a license.

CROW: Bet she’s still kicking herself about that.

> Her actions with
> respect to the ethical pharmaceutical company seeking to
> produce it were arbitrary, whimsical, and unjust.

TOM: What with how she made them show evidence the stuff worked or was safe or anything.

>
> All of those statements remain one hundred per
> cent true despite the fact that she saved hundreds, or
> thousands, of personal tragedies by her inaction.

MIKE: Will her wanton career of heroism never stop?!

> The
> only circumstance under which it could be held that her
> actions were logical and just are that you hold that Dr.
> Kelsey had clear, reliable, dependable extrasensory
> perception by which she perceived clearly and reliably
> the future facts that, at the time, were not available.

TOM: Or that she was competent. But that’s crazy talk.

>
> And that is, basically, why we must acknowledge
> and accept that the thalidomide type disaster will recur
> so long as human beings seek to explore for a better way
> of doing things.

CROW: That we may someday be able to kill John Glenn in space automatically, instead!

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

4 thoughts on “MiSTed: The Lesson of Thalidomide, Part 1 of 4”

  1. I must admit, I can’t think of John W Campbell without also thinking of a google-eyed alien space monster lurching about an Antarctic base, imitating the hapless denizens before finally being dealt to with a blow-torch just as it’s about to re-invent anti-gravity (I mean, what else ever happens to space monsters?). That wouldn’t worry me too much except that New Zealand actually has such a base in Antarctica – and has had since 1957 – and while they haven’t yet accidentally dug up a google-eyed space monster, there’s always the chance that they might.

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    1. For all the madness of Campbell’s editorials, and his fiction, yeah, that’s the first story of his I think of. There are a couple others of his pieces that are really just exquisite, including a couple that look at humanity millions-of-years-hence and where humanity’s turned to such etherial concerns that the practical everyday aliens contact them can’t even understand what they’re thinking about, or why future-humanity can’t do anything practical.

      I do kind of wonder if Campbell at least had in mind, that story from the alien’s point of view. I’d be interested in that take.

      And then there’s all the many, many crazy editorials and whacked-out stories he wrote … I maybe should’ve taken one of his loony space-opera things instead, as they’re much less depressing apart from the genocidal assaults on aliens.

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      1. I actually wonder if Campbell was a bettet editor and ideas man than writer. Asimov always credited Campbell with the laws of robotics. It was as if Campbell came up with raw concepts for others – who acted as filters for his ‘nuttier’ notions.

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        1. It’s a fair question. I think the number of times that he made editorial commentary or revisions or even simple additions that made stories better [1] and made settings more substantial identifies him as a superlative editor. He had a decent number of quite good stories, but they wouldn’t have set the standard for what science fiction is by themselves.

          [1] The best example I can think of. In Asimov’s Nightfall the story carefully sets up a world that is reminiscent of but doesn’t mention Earth. But in two paragraphs near the end of the story, as the residents of the night-deprived planet are seeing stars for the first time in two thousand years, Campbell added a comparison to the meager night skies of Earth (as they have far more stars than we have). Asimov thought it wrecked the story. But it made the tale: the reader’s self-forgetful illusion about this being a world similar to but not Earth is shattered at the moment the characters’ understanding of their world is shattered. It’s a brilliant moment in the craft of writing, and it was Campbell’s insight to put it in.

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