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Language and wordplay


To Serve Man
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Astronomy I'm a complete amateur. I got interested in this… of course, if you live in the southern hemisphere you can't… you can't but be interested in the sky, and of course I would say that most of my interest in the stars was as a… an assiduous reader of science fiction. I became… from about the age of eight – seven or eight – I became a reader of science fiction and this had come about… if I can go back to there… One of my mother's brothers was... was rather wealthy; that is, he had done well. He had a shop in Fordsburg where he sold first bicycles and then… and then radios, and he had done very well, Uncle Harry, and was not married. And I used to go and visit him and one of the things that there was in the street in Fordsburg was… Fordsburg was a suburb of… of Johannesburg, next to an equally depressed area called Mayfair, surprisingly enough, just out on the western suburbs and was inhabited by a lot of people, mostly poor whites then, who had come in as being displaced from the land, had come into the city, mostly Afrikaaners who had come in as a result of the agricultural depression in the thirties. And so they… they were the clientele there, and my uncle would always take me for lunch to the Fordsburg Hotel – which is where he had his lunch – where we'd have something that I think you can only get in South Africa called a mixed grill, and I actually knew someone who could eat three South African mixed grills and… and survive, but still. And then he would give me some money – half a crown, which was, well, amazing – and I would go to this second-hand bookstore where this person had past numbers of something called Amazing Stories which you could buy for about tuppence each. These were the pulp magazines – there were two of them which were the best; one was called Amazing Stories; other called Astounding Stories. They came from… they came from... America and I collected these and this is where I encountered, you know, all the great names – Robert Heinlein and so on. And I still have an enormous collection of science fiction. In fact, this stood me very well in later years, when Francis Crick wrote a paper on the idea of Pangenesis, namely that all life… Panspermia, I'm sorry – that all life had been brought here from outer space and the planet seeded. I told him that I'd read this somewhere before, and he said that was very interesting, could I give him the reference. I said, well, I can't remember the exact number, but it was Amazing Stories, either 1936 or 1937, I'm sure you could find… find it there; it's been published before and he should be careful, you know, not to be accused of plagiarism.

However… but this again was, you know, an interesting… another way of looking at the world and of course in the early days it was the kind of small boy interest. But in later years I… I liked this a lot for what it explored about society and human nature, and I think that some of the inversions, the unexpected inversions… and I can remember two of these, because there's a sort of thinking that I liked… I liked the… I like the playing with words, and the one I think very, very well of is the one written by a man called… August Derleth [sic] I think his name is. The title of this article is How to Serve Man [sic], and it says that earth is in a terrible state. These people come from outer space and they bring enormous benefits; they give humanity boxes which are endless supplies of energy and they just exude goodness – altruism. Of course, the... the teller of the story is a journalist who is deeply suspicious of all of this and all his friends say, 'No, no, no, these come from another planet; they're completely altruistic; there are no hidden motives', and what is then… they then say their slogan is How To Serve Man [sic] – that's what they've entitled it – and they have these courses that people get elected for and go and get taken to wonderful places where they get educated and so on, except what is very strange is that no one has ever met anybody who's come back from this. And of course, the investigation goes on when he discovers that what these people are really interested in is cooking and eating, and How to Serve Man [sic] is in fact not only the title of the most important book in their culture but it's a recipe book, and of course that's the end of the story. So I think this kind of duality has always appealed to me and there are lots of other cases of it and... and I think their experiments with societies, some of them are, I think, brilliant. The Space Merchants I think is a brilliant parody of America; of the future. The only thing in this is, you know, it's come true basically – that's the disappointing thing.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: To Serve Man, Fordsburg, Johannesburg, Mayfair, 1930s, Fordsburg Hotel, Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories, USA, The Space Merchants, Damon Knight, Robert Heinlein, Francis Crick

Duration: 7 minutes, 2 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008