As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book; rather, it is to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life.
The Purpose of Life by Hayden Howard is a short science fiction story found in the April 1967 edition of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine. It is part of the series in which Howard published in a variety of magazines, all of which were later combined into the novel titled The Eskimo Invasion.
Originally, we stumbled across this series after finding the Galaxy Science Fiction magazine on eBay. Not knowing it was part of a larger set of work, we read the story, and then, subsequently, searched for other works by Howard. As it turns out, The Eskimo Invasion was the only novel Howard completed, but it was nominated in 1968 for a Nebula Award. However, one would never expect the nomination from Goodreads reviews, which only gave it about a 2.5 out of 5 overall.
The series is about a scientist named Dr. West and his genocidal quest to rid the world of Esks, which are mutated Eskimos that suddenly appeared in Canada's Boothia Peninsula. Esks are always smiling, always reproducing, and more than willing to do any type of work if asked. Because their reproductive cycle is so fast in comparison to traditional humans, people are becoming worried about overpopulation (Dr. West included). Well, at least some people, that is. Others like Mao III, the ruler of China, have put them to good use creating rice paddies and other jobs in order to help bolster China's presence in the world. Esks are very productive labors since they eat so little and are more than happy to do anything. Mao III would claim that the USA is doing the same, and even shows Dr. West how the USA has put them to work just as China has done, but we never find out if Mao III is being honest or not. Dr. West is both disgusted and conflicted by the idea that his home country would not see the emerging population disaster the Esks posed.
Dr. West didn't start out as a genocidal maniac, rather, at first he wanted to help the Esks. At least until he realized the dire consequences of the Esks' fast reproduction cycle (which is only one month). That's right, put a fertilized egg in the basket, and out pops a baby in a month. Dr. West, after all, fathered several Esk children, and more just kept coming. Unbeknownst to his wife, Marthalik (an Esk), he used an experimental bacteria on her to make her infertile. It is here that she loses all sense of purpose in life. To quote Marthalik, Children are so nice, Joe. They are our purpose in life. If you love me, you will permit me to have children. Not being able to do this, she falls apart mentally—and possibly either runs off with one of Dr. West's best friends or is taken by his best friend for government research. We never discover what happens to Marthalik. What we do know is that Dr. West eventually returns to Canada and starts murdering Esks, knowing that one day they'll overpopulate the world.
What Howard is doing throughout the work is fascinating and deep—challenging us to ponder our purpose in life. Ask any parent, and most parents will say their kids, or at least their children will compose some component of the answer to that question. But what if we as a species reproduced at a much swifter rate? Instead of just one child per year, we now on average produced twelve? If the gestation period was one month and the child grew more quickly, it would take a lot less time and energy to raise each child, so the emotional bond between parent and child would be lessened. Still, even if this were the case, children would still likely bring meaning to the lives of those fortunate enough (or unfortunate enough) to be parents.
Howard also forces the reader to consider what it means to be human. Esks are essentially just mutated Eskimos, they are just happier versions of humans that reproduce quicker and eat less—basically more efficient, friendlier versions of us. Thus, are they homo sapiens or something else? If Esks aren't human, might their purpose in life be different from ours? What is the purpose of life for a bonobo vs. a human? Since the Esks may not be human, does that give us the right to treat them differently? Will evolution or advances in genetic engineering lead us to fight between those sentient beings that are different from us? Unfortunately, most likely, if history or Hollywood has anything to say about it.
Getting back to the story, Dr. West is no hero, though he would take on a savior complex. He sterilized his wife, left his kids and returned to Canada, killed Esks, and eventually is imprisoned in a New Ottawa Reformation Center, where interestingly, he is treated quite well—there are even women that would spend time with him, both socially and physically, so he feels less isolated. Eventually, to get out of the prison, he attempts suicide, and ends up being put into cryogenic freezing. The US government resurrects him years later and ships him off to China (we're, of course, skipping a bunch of parts here, as the main purpose of this blog is to talk about the meaning of life and/or other philosophical contents of the work being reviewed). Once in China, Dr. West realizes he has the ability to mentally control Mao III, who was recovering from a stroke. The two eventually hunker down in an underground bunker.
In the bunker, Dr. West is uncertain what his mission in China was to begin with, so he has to figure things out for himself, and decide what direction to take. Does he kill the smiling Esks to save the world, or does he try something else? After torturing an Esk or two, killing a bunch more in the bunker, he really starts questioning his purpose in life—questioning his savior complex. Eventually, Dr. West and Mao III are trapped in the bunker with the rapidly increasing Esk population. There was enough food for 50 years, but with the Esk numbers growing so quickly, they'll be lucky to make it to two. Dr. West has no choice but to kill a few, luring them to a room, retelling the story of Grandfather Bear—and for Grandfather Bear, the Esks believe they are filling the earth. Not so different from the biblical, go forth and multiply idea—only God/Jesus doesn't come back and eat everyone in the end. Or if that was the original biblical idea, it has since been modified or lost in translation.
Mao III begs Dr. West to kill him, to end his suffering as he lays in bed suffering stroke after stroke. For awhile Dr. West cannot bring himself to do it—perhaps it is being alone with the Esks he fears, or lack of intelligent conversation. But for someone who has killed so many, he struggles to put Mao III out of his misery—struggles to kill one. Dr. West has the Esks dig for years back to the surface of the world. As they dig, we transition through layers of soil, layers of history—layers of evolution, of humankind, and eventually to present day, modern humanity. As he approaching the surface, he tells the Esks to stay beneath for fear of what awaits them on the surface—ironic for someone whose quest was previously to sterilize all Esks. What Dr. West finds are skeletons as far as the eye can see. But are they Esks, or human, or both? They are Esks. They've all returned to Grandfather Bear.
So what was the Esks' purpose in life? Was it just to multiple and produce as many offspring as possible? Apparently, when beings die, their consciousness expands into space. Since the university is expanding at an ever increasing rate, the afterlife consciousness will, if left to its own vices, dissipate into nothingness. However, the more beings to have existed, the more their consciousnesses fill the universe, leading to immortality for all. So yes, the purpose of the Esks was to produce as many beings as possible, and once the planet reached maximum capacity, they were harvested to help fill the void. As quoted from the book:
Now Dr. West thought he understood the purpose for the Esks within the larger purpose which is immortality. He understood the purpose of dying in cohesive billions at one time, all over one planet, the Esks——. "Their brain patterns fill a little more of space," he whispered, "to help maintain the pressure of life for YOU."
Although we find out the purpose of life for Esks (kind of—immortality after all, in some sense gives no more meaning to life than mortality), we never discover our purpose in life. In fact, the book ends on the following quote: Now all we need to know is OUR purpose in life. One politician's son, Henry LaRue, whose father is racist, finds his purpose in life to save the Eskimos/Esks. So, again, what Howard is doing is very interesting. Dr. West views his purpose as eradicating the Esks, LaRue to save the Esks, the Esks to save humanity through immortality, and Mao III—no purpose at all.
Overall, Howard does challenge the reader on many different levels. The story was unique and kept our attention to the end. Not only are we thrown into the completely foreign society the Eskimos have built, but we're confronted with challenging philosophical questions: should uncontacted people remain isolated, what is the purpose of life, if there life after death, etc.
The Eskimo Invasion is well worth the read. We recommend getting the novel, rather than trying to track down the individual short stories. If you read the book, let us know what you thought by commenting below.