I’m fascinated by the number of plants, animals, and even microbes that have traveled with people as they’ve moved from place to place.
Once I listened to a series of lectures about turning points in U.S. history. One of those moments happened even before the country was founded in 1617 when a great epidemic swept across what would become the U.S. and killed 45 to 90 million people.
Just to go into the history, as laid out by the lecturer, the natives had been trading with Europeans for about a century but were tired of having people kidnapped and enslaved. So in 1615, when a French shipwrecked near a Wampanoag village, they killed most of the sailors and kept three or four as slaves.
They probably would have been better off killing all of them because one of them had some sort of disease that they had never encountered before.
Whatever the disease was, historians estimate that 90 percent of the population from Connecticut to Maine was wiped out.
It had several impacts, but the one that really struck me was that it removed a significant obstacle to the British colonizing the area. To quote the lecture:
“About 50 years after the epidemic, during King Philip’s War, the Native Americans nearly drove the Europeans out of New England. Had the epidemic not thinned the native population, the British might not have prevailed.”
The dead were left unburied, and the forests were littered with bones.
It’s fascinating that a small act of revenge ended up leading to such a massive death toll and an opening to change the course of history.
Of course, there are less deadly forms of this. Potatoes were brought to Ireland by Sir Walter Raliegh, and horses came with European settlers to the New World. But in many cases, like Dutch Elm Disease, the invading species leaves a blight on the world.
This is why a question raised by an episode of Galaxy Express 999 was so interesting.
Just in case anyone is actually following along, I’m going to be talking about Episodes 54 and 55 – The Tale of the Endless Summer parts 1 and 2. This show is relatively episodic, so you can jump in, but I am linking a couple of resources, just in case you want to follow along somewhere else.
So let’s talk about what happens when Maetel and Tetsuro end up on the planet where it’s always summer.
A beautiful but empty place
A lot of these episodes start with something of a thought experiment. In this case, the idea is, “What would happen if a bountiful planet never had a winter cycle?” In this case, it creates a planet where there is constantly cicadas singing, leafy trees and long grass, but the only other life form on the planet are called Insectors.
They are insect-like humanoid creatures that exist in a matriarchal society, So the reason the rest of the planet seems pretty devoid of life is that the Insectors have consumed all of the food. They have done this because they are constantly in a cycle of breeding, and that requires energy.
So, I’ll be honest, the science here doesn’t really make much sense if you apply any logic to it. We already have places on our own planet that are temperate all year long. Not only that, but how exactly does a race evolve on a planet where its natural existence becomes destructive. I don’t get it, but, hey, what do I know.
It’s just something that you have to accept on its face because this is Galaxy Express 999, and we need maximum tragedy.
After a couple of run-ins where the Queen tries to eat Maetel and Tetsuro, only to discover that they can’t boil water hot enough on this planet to harm them, the Insector colony comes up with a plan.
First, the entire colony will sacrifice their own lives to become food for the new round of hatchlings. Second, they will build a cocoon around the 999. Third, they will get the babies to eat the 999 while they move onto another planet with new food for them.
This leads to the beginning of the second episode and one of the most compelling decisions in the show. See, the Queen lays out that she expects Tetsuro, Maetel and the Conductor to sacrifice themselves so her babies will live. What I found thought-provoking was the matter-of-fact manner that the Queen, Sharps, laid out her plan.
There really wasn’t any concept in her mind that they would object to being devoured for the sake of her family. This leads to a standoff where Tetsuro needs to decide whether he would kill a baby to survive.
The answer, somewhat surprisingly, is no, he won’t.
I’ll be honest, I like the questions this episode raises, but I find it sidesteps the more complicated answers. Because instead of forcing the children to eat the crew or forcing Tetsuro and Maetel to kill babies, Sharps has mercy on them at the last second and directs the babies not to eat the crew.
To be fair, I’m not sure they could since Sharps had such a hard time of it earlier in the story. But I digress.
So the 999 takes off with the babies eating the furniture in one of the train cars. Here is where I feel like the show provides a compelling question but sidesteps providing an answer. Instead of trying to find a planet to settle all of these monsters on, or throwing them into the darkness of space, all of them die.
This would hardly be the first time the show has dipped into this idea that trying to escape fate can have negative consequences.
Still, it seems like answering whether it would be better to save the babies or potentially save another planet would be better.
That’s because I’m not sure either of these questions has good answers, or at least not ones that can be solved simply in the course of a 22-minute episode.
No good answers
So I want to address each of these questions in turn because I think the first one really is the easier to answer. To what level should you go to ensure your own survival and to ensure your species.
In a lot of ways, I have a hard time blaming Sharps for her decision. Her race is facing extinction. Even if they go into a cycle of consuming all of the tribe’s members for each reproduction, they aren’t likely to stay energy neutral. It takes energy for the children to grow. It takes energy for them to hunt. On top of that, even if they have perfect systems that store all of the energy. At least some amount of it is likely to be lost each time it’s transferred to a new generation.
I’m not a science person, so please let me know if any of that is incorrect.
Eventually, this cycle will run out, and the Insectors will be no more. So Sharps really is left with no other choice for the future survival of her race.
On the other hand, Tetsuro, Maetel and the Conductor have a right to continue living. Ethically, they are not under any compulsion to surrender themselves so the babies can live. And they are well within their rights to defend themselves.
Just to draw a comparison, it’s like an army of starving children invades your house and threatens to eat you and everyone you love. Would you kill them to stop that from happening?
Now there are some lines that even Tetsuro won’t cross, but I’m not sure if it’s the right decision or the wrong one.
In some ways, the second question is even more difficult to answer. While the babies are on the train, they will devour everything, but what responsibility do the characters have for their well-being when they off-load them on another planet.
I’m sad that the story sidestepped this question because it leads to a conundrum. If they unload the babies onto a planet where they thrive, what other life are they pushing out? Do they effectively become like the man who passed typhoid fever onto the natives? Does the Insectors’ survival trump someone or something else’s survival?
The question becomes just as bleak if they just dump them off at some other planet that isn’t suited for them. Are they morally responsible for making sure the babies are OK? Or is just doing enough fine?
Again, I don’t really have a good answer to this question. Or, at the very least, the show doesn’t have a good solution for that question.
Personally, on the first question, I think you have the right to defend yourself. It’s not a question of intent. Sure the babies might not know any better, but they also are going to kill you.
But once they’re off-planet, I don’t think letting them get off the 999 is the correct answer. Once you’ve taken responsibility for them, either sending them off to their deaths or sending them off to cause someone else is wrong.
But I’m curious what other people think. What should they have done with the babies? Would it have been kinder to just kill them all to begin with?
That’s all I have for tonight. As always, thanks for reading.