In the 1950s many science fiction writers explored the idea of a global disaster that leaves behind only a single man and woman, who would then have to carry on the human race. According to science fiction editor Gordon Van Gelder, a popular variant of this idea featured a twist ending in which the last man and woman turn out to be Adam and Eve.

“It was one of those stories that science fiction would lend itself to so readily, and newbies would be drawn to it, like ants going to a sugar cube,” Van Gelder says in Episode 308 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

The idea became so overused that magazines would specifically prohibit writers from submitting “Adam and Eve stories.” And while such stories would remain the bane of science fiction editors for decades, the theme of repopulation also produced a number of interesting thought experiments, many of which Van Gelder collected in his recent book Go Forth and Multiply. He says that despite obvious concerns about inbreeding, the idea of one man and one woman repopulating the world isn’t impossible.

“There’s an epigraph from a book that came out while I was working on the whole thing called The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell, which is about how to rebuild civilization in the aftermath of a cataclysm,” Van Gelder says. “And he says that two survivors, a male and a female, is the mathematical minimum for the continuation of the species.”

Repopulation stories largely disappeared in the 1980s. Partly this was due to the idea being played out, with so many stories exploring every possible variation on the theme having already been published, but an even bigger factor were the advancements in reproductive science, which sapped some of the urgency from the “last man and woman” scenario. “Reproductive science had gotten so far beyond what it was in the ’50s that writers couldn’t seriously suggest, in most cases, that one man and one woman wouldn’t have frozen embryos in their spaceship, just in case of something,” Van Gelder says.

He notes that repopulation stories have actually made a comeback in recent years, citing examples such as Seveneves by Neal Stephenson and the TV show The Last Man on Earth.

“It’s obvious that we started in the book with a lot of stuff that is born out of anxiety of the A-bomb and nuclear war,” he says, “and then that sort of fades away and technology advances. But then we come back around to nowadays, when people are feeling anxious again about the future of the planet and the future of the species.”

Listen to the complete interview with Gordon Van Gelder in Episode 308 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Gordon Van Gelder on “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin:

“The added weight of the stowaway means that there isn’t enough fuel to complete the mission, so if the pilot of the ship keeps the stowaway on board, they won’t be able to save the lives that they’re going to save by bringing the medicine. So the ship’s captain is in the position of deciding, ‘Do we keep the stowaway alive and fail our mission, and all these other settlers die? Or do we throw the stowaway out of the ship?’ … Campbell‘s own letters at the time say that basically the story should be controversial, because humans—and especially men—are conditioned to keep women alive, in order to allow the species to continue. He also said the story is basically an argument for human sacrifice. It’s not spelled out in those terms, but that’s the gist of it. So it’s a very controversial, very provocative story.”

Gordon Van Gelder on John W. Campbell:

“He was definitely trying to get reactions out of people. Campbell had a long history of this. His editorials would frequently take very strong stands on things, and then he’d welcome angry letters in response. One of the great things in researching Go Forth and Multiply was that I read through scads of 1950s issues of different science fiction magazines, and Campbell especially, you could see him pushing people’s buttons. … I recently read this upcoming biography of Campbell by Alec Nevala-Lee, and from having read that I think Campbell just naturally liked to challenge people. A lot of writers have anecdotes about going up to Campbell’s office and him just kind of haranguing and berating them with this or that, until they responded in some way that he’d say, ‘There! There’s a story idea. Now go and write it.’”

Gordon Van Gelder on “The Queen Bee” by Randall Garrett:

“The gist of the story is that a team of explorers or scientists crash-land on a planet, and I don’t remember what the breakdown of the group is—four men and three women or something like that. And one of the women, the titular character, basically wants all the men to herself, and kills off the other women. So basically the men are not enthralled with her—she’s a murderer for one thing—but they know they need her alive for breeding purposes, so the resolution they come up with at the end is they decide to lobotomize her. Vonda McIntyre and Joanna Russ both singled this story out in fanzines in the late ’60s and ’70s, and said this is the story that made them realize there was no place for women in the field. This was as clear a message to the women, ‘This is a boy’s club, stay out,’ as they could get.”

Gordon Van Gelder on Go Forth and Multiply:

“I did wonder if anyone would respond [with hostility] to the book, but I also thought that hey, most of these stories are 50 or 60 years old, is anyone really going to get that worked up about a story from 1959? I didn’t think it was that likely that there’d be an internet mob at my virtual door screaming, ‘How could you reprint “The Queen Bee”? Don’t you know it’s awful?’ … And the reviews have pretty much all picked up on what I was trying to do, as opposed to reading it with a sense of, ‘How can I be outraged by this book?’ Instead they’re looking at it saying, ‘How did this whole subject evolve? And what were these stories actually doing? And what were they really about?’ Which is what I found so fascinating about them, so I think by and large the reception’s been very good.”