I recently read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, a sci-fi novel written in 1968 and set in 2010. In his version of the – well, of last year, from my perspective – the world has about 9 billion people (enough for all to stand on Zanzibar if everyone had a space one foot by two feet – not something that happens in the novel; just a bit of trivia that is the only mention of Zanzibar in the book). This overpopulation is resulting in severe overcrowding, such that every so often a person will simply snap and run amok, slaughtering those around. (Given our experience of a world fast closing on 7 billion, Brunner seems to have overestimated the demographic pressures and their effects.)
Anyway, a result of this overcrowding is that much of the world, and especially the developed world, has taken on strict eugenic legislation. People must be tested for genetic defects they might pass on, and if they have a gene for anything such as hemophilia or colour-blindness – let alone worse – they are not allowed to have children. Along with this prevailing ethos is a shift in the terms of abuse – bleeder is among the most common, replacing bastard and similar – and an overall focus on a melange of possible genetic defects. Among these is phocomelia; Brunner’s book is the first place I am aware of having heard of this condition by this name.
Brunner never explains what phocomelia is, but he tosses it in – and the noun for a person afflicted with it, phocomele, which he spells phocomel, and the adjective phocomelic – here and there to exemplify some particularly dreadful congenital condition. Now, I read novels on the subway and bus, well away from a dictionary (I do not have an iPhone), and once I get where I’m going there are other things on my mind and I tend to forget to look up any word I don’t know (a phenomenon I encounter once in a while). So it was only just now that I looked it up and found out what it meant.
I have to admit that phocomele was not morphologically transparent to me – I am not actually fluent in Classical Greek, and this word’s parts are not so often used in English word formation. I knew it was from Greek, due to the ph spelling. It did seem odd: like a respelling of focus or focal, though I was sure it wasn’t. It’s reminiscent of Phocis, a place name mentioned in The Libation Bearers, a drama by Aeschylus that I performed in once. It’s also reminiscent of Jacmel, a town in Haiti that my mother once lived in long ago. The word seems an awkward joining of two parts that aren’t quite meant to join together: a hard, cold, round phoco and warmer, more voiced, more front, nasal-and-liquid mele.
By the context, I made the assumption that it must be a mental disability. After all, in the real 2010, when people focus on congenital disabilities and talk about one as though being particularly unfortunate, there’s a fairly strong chance in our culture it’s in some way cognitive. But in 1968, there was a different kind of congenital disorder that was still much on everyone’s minds. You may recognize the word thalidomide: a drug for morning sickness that came out in the early 1960s. It was found to have an association with phocomelia.
Phocomele comes, as it turns out, from ϕώκη phoké “seal” (compare French phoque) and μέλος melos “limb”. It refers to a condition where the long bones of one or more limbs are shortened or nonexistent, so the hands and/or feet are joined closely to the trunk of the body. I have been aware of the existence of this condition since I was a child, but I do not recall ever having seen this name for it. People affected with it were and are (in my experience) called thalidomide babies. Frankly, phocomele seems a rather unkind word, not just for meaning “seal limb” but for equating the person with the condition. In Brunner’s dystopia, the person is inseparable from the disorder; it has a deterministic effect on them. Today we lean towards seeing such things as incidental to the person: something that has happened to them, rather than something they are.
Brunner’s book is not without hope, but it has a strongly bitter tinge. He gets some things close to right, and other things rather less so. His faith in science is hardly untarnished. But given that he was writing in the era that had just been reminded of the dark side of scientific advancements, is it any wonder? What we have learned better between then and now is, perhaps, that while humanity and its sciences can be very destructive, there is also corresponding growth in enlightenment and redemption.