Sunday, November 26, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 33: The Marching Morons by C. M. Kornbluth

Kornbluth, C.M. "The Marching Morons." Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1951.

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:   8.86/10
My Rating:        7/10

"Some things had not changed."

An average man from 1988 is awoken in the distant future to a world in which the average IQ is 45.

In his time, Barlow was a successful but dishonest realtor. A dental accident left him in a coma, and he was sealed in a vacuum until, centuries later, a potter discovers his body, recognizes his ailment and immediately cures him. Barlow is brought to a government rep and eventually learns of the current state of the world. Evidently, over the last generations, the more educated classes produced less children while the less educated continued to breed furiously, so that the genetics passed down led to a crisis of idiocy, and an overpopulation of morons. The government wants Barlow to help find a way to reduce the population, so that eventually a balance can be found. Being a man of greed and lesser morals, Barlow comes up with a harsh solution while demanding a dictatorship in return.

While this is among Kornbluth's best-known stories, and much praised, I was less taken by it. The circumstances are certainly interesting, and I do like the depiction of the chaotic future society where objects are oversized rather than miniaturized, radios are still the main source of information and entertainment, and paper money is still being used while movie theatres have become so advanced that sensory enhancements include scent, despite featuring primarily blatant propaganda. Other than the radio news segment, I did not care for the overt comedy and feel the story would have had a natural element of comedy in the circumstances alone. The tone is comedic though the storyline is quite dark--extremely dark as it deals with eugenics in a plot set up by a clearly racist man, so that the need to eliminate morons can ultimately be diverted to a need to eliminate anyone of a darker skin tone or a different set of beliefs. While Kornbluth does not pursue this particular route outwardly, the two are placed side-by-side, so that racial cleansing is a possibility in a world determined to pursue moron-cleansing.

There are a lot of similarities between "The Marching Morons" and Kornbluth's other popular story "The Little Black Bag." For a premise, each presents us with unlikeable characters accidentally embroiled in time travel who gain fame and fortune by taking advantage of the people around them. In "The Little Black Bag," however, protagonist Dr. Brayard Kendrick attempts to improve upon himself and, despite conning those around him, does perform positive acts for society. In "The Marching Morons," Barlow has no intention or even a kindling of awareness of doing good, and goes to extremes to gain as much from helping government than he possibly can. He is overtly racist and egocentric, and sees people as cattle, or more specifically, as lemmings. Nowhere is there even the hint of any gains he might make, and his desires are to the extremes of selfishness. The end differs greatly, for while they are both taken down from the heights they have achieved, Barlow suffers a cruel death through an act of vengeance by those who promised him great wealth, while Kendrick's demise is quite somber, as he has given a great deal of aid to those around him, and has learned to be a better person through his experiences, despite having begun his career with less than moral motives.

This characterization of Barlow in the midst of a moronic dystopia leads us to wonder if it is not the constant breeding of the genetically poor that leads to a bleak, dysfunctional future, but instead the lack of morals in the average contemporary man and in government. And this, subtly presented, is the most interesting idea in the story. Barlow behaves similarly to the higher IQ government officials, whose intelligence is used not to save humanity, as they recruit Barlow for this, but to eventually execute Barlow once humanity has been saved. The officials use Barlow to exterminate the moron population, and are pleased at the extermination, but primarily because it was done other hands. They in turn exterminate the exterminator on grounds that he is dangerous and a threat to them, whereas the officials were the threat to the moron population--the entire citizenry of the planet--as the ruse to wipe them out was effectively their own. In fact, it is implied that the officials have conjured up this idea of extermination but were unable to act on it, as soon as an outsider with the ability to effectuate the plan is easily paid off to do so. There is no talk of education programs or methods other than propaganda aimed to reduce the birthrate, and the simplest form of cleansing is death, not rehabilitation of any kind. A comment on the current state of an uninvolved mass and a government out to protect itself. 

I do not like this story as much as I liked "The Little Black Bag," but I do like the thinking it offers if we peel away the humour.

For more of this week's Wednesday Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 32: Second Variety by Philip K. Dick

Dick, Philip K. "Second Variety." Space Science Fiction, May 1953.

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:   8.88/10
My Rating:        8/10

"The Russian soldier made his way nervously up the ragged side of the hill, holding his gun ready."

Opposing Russian and American forces are nearing the end of a lengthy world war that has decimated much of the Earth. The Russians were in control of the war, but the Americans developed a new weapon, small machines called "claws" that dig around searching for prey, essentially tearing to pieces any life it encounters, human or otherwise. Americans have radiation shields to protect themselves from attack, and in the latter stages of the war it was the Russians who were being decimated. But these machines have evolved, gained sentience, and have been able to construct improved versions of itself, and smarter claws have begun to appear. Humans have been forced to live sheltered underground, the only place they are protected from the claws. The American leaders, however, have managed to escape to the moon, where they are safe from both claws and the Russian military. Communication has become difficult on- and off-planet

An American bunker is visited by a single Russian soldier who is taken down by a claw as he delivers a message, asking for an American officer to visit the Russian bunker. Senior officer Major Hendricks decides to comply, and makes his way through ash-ridden wasteland France toward the enemy base. At the Russian base he discovers a new kind of claw, far more advanced than former counterparts. The remaining three Russians show him faded photographs of other advanced claws, and inform him that the two they have encountered each have a plate indicating their make: V1 and V3. Therefore, there remains a still undiscovered second variety.

Then the real paranoia sets in.

I have always admired the work of Philip K. Dick, and I have read a good deal of it. "Second Variety" is among his better stories. While it has some clunky bits in the first half and some less polished sequences in the latter quarter, it is nonetheless a good, energetic read. (Dick rarely polished his work as he was in a rush to get it published.) In this story Dick mixes his usual paranoia with a powerful comment on human nature, and it is this comment that he chooses to end the story with, rather than the expected final twist. Dick does try to veer us away from guessing that twist, but really it is only direction in which the story can head, and because he chooses to end on his social commentary, the story is not weakened by predictability, but rather elevated by this decision.

Oddly, the original interior artwork used in Space Science Fiction, by Alex Ebel, gives away the story's two major surprise plot points. It would be interesting to know what was Dick's response response to this, as well as that of the readers.

The story was adapted in 1995 as Screamers, an entertaining movie diminished by a final act made up of generic drawn-out fight sequences. The ending tries to capture Dick's intention but is not as effective, though has Peter Weller and a nice post-apocalyptic setting filmed in my home city. If I were to re-watch it today, though, I would probably be disappointed.

For more of this week's Wednesday Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 31: Sandkings by George R.R. Martin

Martin, George R.R. "Sandkings." Omni, August 1979.

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:   8.88/10
My Rating:        9/10

"Simon Kress lived alone in a sprawling manor house among dry, rocky hills fifty kilometers from the city."

Wealthy and arrogant Simon Kress likes to amuse himself with unusual pets, and needs a new kind of somewhat self-sufficient pet as he is often away from home for lengthy periods. At an obscure rarities shop, he purchases psionic insect-like creatures called "sandkings." These creatures have a "maw" that  lives underground and is protected by its minion "mobiles," who built elaborate castle-like structures over their maw. Moreover, these creatures can wage war among their groups, and worship their owner who feeds them, to the point that they can carve the owner's likeness into their castle.

Kress purchases four maws and a large aquarium-encased desert is installed in his house. Seller Jala Wo tells him to be patient, that the creatures need time to evolve and develop their communities before the warring and worshipping can begin. Yet Kress is nothing but impatient. Utterly spoiled by wealth and the social circle in which he revolves, Kress learns to provoke the sandkings into battle through calculated starvation, and soon places the creatures on display for his impressed elite guests. Betting ensues, and things get pretty nutty. As we expect, everything escalates, from the growth of the sandkings to their abuse, their battles, the social gatherings and even the skewed worshipping of Kress.

The story straddles many genres, from science fiction with elements of fantasy, it soon evolves into pure horror with even quite the all-out action sequence in its latter stages. The story is satire and a cruel depiction of wealth and greed--its protagonist is not one who will change but instead become more and more warped as his situation becomes more dire, and he shows absolutely no compassion, or even the slightest acknowledgement of those he harms along the way, committing acts to protect himself that can pretty much harm anyone and everyone who get involved. The violence too escalates as does the gruesome horror. It is all done well though, as the novella-length allows for good pacing and story development. Unlike Kress, the narrative is very patient, giving the reader first Kress's current situation and circumstance, nicely bringing in the sandkings and developing those creatures at a nice pace as well. Martin then begins to toss everything into the story, placing Kress through various stages of horror and desperation, as he attempts so many ways in escaping his ever-evolving sandkings.

And that ending is excellent.

As much as we despise Kress, and pretty much everyone else in the story, we cannot help feel threatened by these creatures and hence drawn into Kress's own desperations as he attempts to leave the hell that he has created. We want Kress to get what he deserves, but we do not necessarily want the sandkings to be victorious. These creatures essentially evolve from Kress's own warped psychology, and the physical world that the sandkings begin to build around Kress are pretty much emulating his own warped mind, as though they are evolving as Kress himself had evolved, from opportunist to egoist to murderer.

This story left a strong impression on me when I first read it as a teen. Incidentally, in Nebula Winners 15 (Frank Herbert, ed., Harper & Row, 1981), which is where I also first encountered a couple other stories that impressed me, including Barry B. Longyear's "Enemy Mine." This is my third reading, I believe, and I have enjoyed it each time. The novella was loosely adapted for the pilot episode of The Outer Limits, and while much was changed to make the story more contemporaneous and appropriate for prime time, an to make Kress into a mad scientist rather than a greedy young professional, it is on its own merits enjoyable television, with a great performance by Beau Bridges.

For this week's Wednesday's short stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.
free counters

As of 24 December 2015