Saturday, January 28, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #17: The Little Black Bag by C. M. Kornbluth

Kornbluth, C. M. "The Little Black Bag." Astounding Science Fiction, July 1950.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   9.12/10
My Rating:        8/10

"Old Dr. Full felt the winter in his bones as he limped down the alley."

Disgraced alcoholic GP Dr. Bayard Kendrick Full finds himself in possession of a medical bag from the future. With the help of Angie, a materialistic girl from his downtrodden neighbourhood, Dr. Full manages to construct a clean, ethical career for himself as a respected GP. Assistant Angie, however. is less than satisfied with how they are making use of the bag, wanting instead to enter the more lucrative area of plastic surgery, and when Dr. Full is preparing to retire, Angie proves she can go to extremes to realize this goal.

Though the story is set primarily in the present, Kornbluth gives us a glimpse of a future where intellect is minimalized as a result of advanced technology. The instruments in the little black bag heal on their own, so that the practitioners of the future need only to follow the simple instructions included in the bag. There are instruments with which to operate, and medicines with which to heal, pretty much everything. The doctors themselves, in light of this advanced machinery and medicine, are presented comically as buffoons. The comedy in these sequences is, however, distracting from the more interesting dynamics of the present. Dr. Full is admirably attempting to reclaim his former status as respectable GP, to make amends for the awful twist toward alcoholism that his life had taken. There is less characterization of Angie, who comes off as simply a manipulative materialistic opportunistic blonde. Poor Dr. Full thinks she has become more humane, that she has a good heart, and this inability to see her true nature is his ultimate downfall.

"The Little Black Bag" was successfully filmed for an episode of Night Gallery, adapted by Rod Serling and starring Burgess Meredith as Dr. Full. The adaptation replaces Angie with a male vagrant, a character which works better in this scenario than the opportunistic blonde. In addition, the final brutal comedic-tragic scene is played out on a more public arena, which adds to both the comedic and the tragic elements.


Todd Mason said...

Isn't it "The Little Black Bag"?

Kornbluth's ultraviolet view of the world certainly comes through in the text...and while the male sidekick of the NG adaptation might seem a little (not much) less utterly rapacious, I suspect the Universal and NBC folks, then not yet married corporately, weren't too keen on having the villain of the piece be a young woman, much more comfortable with a middle-aged man being the heel.

I do like the story better, but enjoyed both.

Casual Debris said...

I liked the story, but not too sure about the two diversions. I like the reporter's unpublished piece--it has a good consistent tone & succeeds in relaying the info we need to know. But the comedy in the future segment, with the idiotic doctors, is flat & distracting. Dr. Full & the present circumstances are far more interesting.

Todd Mason said...

I agree with that. Some of Kornbluth's comedy-of-humors writing could be pretty uninspired. Utter gallows humor was more his metier.

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