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Vance, Jack – “DP!” (1953)

06/18/2013

In which a fissure opens up in a remote valley in Austria, issuing forth pale, hairless figures, netted with blue veins and much beleaguered by the sunlight. A local peasant summons help (“Fiends from the pit! Walking in all their evil; with two eyes I’ve seen them!”) and the creatures are quickly destroyed. When thousands and then millions more emerge, though, a refugee camp is set up (by French occupation troops), and the world sets about figuring out how to handle this influx.

A number of theories are advanced to explain this population of displaced persons – against the idea that they are demons, the village atheist points out that supernatural creatures “presumably would not succumb so easily to dog-bite and bullet; these must be refugees from the Russian zone, victims of torture and experimentation,” to which the village Communist “angrily pointed out how much closer lay the big American lager near Innsbruck; this was the effect of Coca-Cola and comic books upon decent Austrians.” Once the phenomenon attracts worldwide attention, others conjecture that they are cavemen, members of the lost tribes of Israel, refugees from another dimension, zombies, Salamanders*, harbingers of Armageddon, the results of Nazi experiments, the descendents of Lost Atlantis, or perhaps escapees from the land of Oz. Linguistics, fortunately, is around to show that the trog(lodytes) are “descendents of a group of European cave-dwellers who either by choice or by necessity took up underground residence at least fifty thousand, at most two hundred thousand, years ago.”

The migration, caused by some sort of upsurge of lava into their caves, ends with some six million of them having reached the surface, and the issue of where to house them and how to feed them lies at the heart of the story, even as the trogs themselves are curiously displaced and distant. We never see an individual trog, nor are we told about any individual trogs doing anything – their arrival sets the plot in motion, and then then we just witness the discussion of the trog problem. Part of this is due to the format of the story, which is initially presented by an omniscient third person narrator before moving on to news reports, UN Council transcriptions, opinion columns, neo-Nazi handouts, letters to the editor, and so on for the bulk of the narrative. In order to simplify matters, Vance makes sure the readers know that trogs “ have no grasp of ‘time’ as we understand the word. They have only the sparsest traditions of the past and are unable to conceive of a future further removed than two minutes…” They are nothing more than new mouths to feed, although the experts agree that given a typical education a trog child would grow up indistinguishable from other humans other than appearance. Note that this idea of a “people without history” is a common trope rolled out by Europeans to justify exploiting other peoples. The “trog problem” is also explicitly compared to the “Negro problem” of the United States (“The U.S., with both room and money, already has serious minority headaches and doesn’t want new ones”), and Neo-Nazis and nationalists complain about miscegenation and immigration. No easy solutions are found, the world soon lapses into apathy. The story closes with three brief news items

LA, December 14: The Christmas buying rush got under way early this year, in spite of unseasonably bad weather…

Trog City, December 15: A desperate appeal for penicillin, sulfa, blankets, kerosene heaters, and trained personnel was sounded today by Camp Commandant Howard Kerkovits. He admitted that disease among the trogs was completely out of control, beyond all human power to cope with…

The Trog Story December 23: “I don’t know why I should be sitting here writing this, because–since there are no more trogs-there is no more trog story. But I am seized by an irresistible urge to ‘tell-off’ a rotten, inhumane world…”

“DP” for “Displaced Persons,” one assumes, and it is tempting to read this as a commentary on European Jews after the war, although an effective commentary it is not – plus the modern Israel had been in place for around 5 years at this point.

* Presumably a reference to Karel Capek’s 1936 _War with the Salamanders_, which offers a vaguely similar story of a newly-discovered intelligent race on Earth which is quickly subject to human malevolence.

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