Tuesday, December 5, 2023
Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 34: The Quest for Saint Aquin by Anthony Boucher
Boucher, Anthony. "The Quest for Saint Aquin." New Tales of Time and Space, Raymond J. Healy, editor, November 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 here. I am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.
ISFdb Rating: 8.86/10
My Rating: 7/10
"The Bishop of Rome, the head of the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the Vicar of Christ on Earth--in short, the Pope--brushed a cockroach from the fifth-encrusted wooden table, took another sip of the raw red wine, and resumed his discourse."
In a post-apocalyptic future, the technocratic government has banned all religion, and those who insist on practicing must do so in secret or risk imprisonment or death. The story opens with the secret pope meeting a devout Catholic, Thomas, at the back of a quiet, out-of-the-way pub. The pope engages Thomas to seek out the remains of a long-deceased Catholic orator named Saint Aquin, who it is said had the power to convert people in droves. It is also rumoured that Saint Aquin's body remains entirely intact, and the pope believes that if they can find these remains, they would attract many more converts to the church. The body, however, is located in the radioactive zone, and Thomas would need to successfully sneak past government officials and loyal atheist citizens who are always on the lookout for believers. To help him in his quest, the pope gives him a robotic horse, or "robass" as it is called (more of a robotic donkey, but despite the "ass," still it is referred to as a horse). The robass is sentient, a robot instilled with artificial intelligence, and en route the two are able to freely converse.
On their quest they face many dangers, of discovery, physical violence and doubt. The voyage is filled also with many biblical allusions. Saint Aquin is a barely disguised reference to Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas is, without a doubt, Doubting Thomas. The robass is Balem's donkey, a tale mentioned in the story, and amid the biblical allusions there is a different kind of reference.
The story outright mentions Isaac Asimov's short story "Reason" (Astounding Science Fiction, April 1941), one of the robot stories later included in his 1950 collection I, Robot--one of my favourites in the collection. In "Reason," a robot deduces that humans could not have created it, since the robot is far superior than humans, and therefore worshipped a robot god. Amid Thomas and the robass's ongoing discussion of faith, the donkey-horse states: "I have heard of one robot on an isolated space station who worshipped a God of robots and would not believe that any man had created him." (Though perhaps what he heard about was the short story, rather than the event, though an AI of today wouldn't confuse the two.) Boucher places his story in the same universe as Asimov's robot stories, and the anecdote of the reasoning robot is set in "The Quest for Saint Aquin's" distant past, as though the technocracy occurred following the robot age. Perhaps the technocracy was established by Asimov's now-ruling robots (really there is nothing in the text to suggest this.)
"The Quest for Saint Aquin" is a good short story, with some good ideas interweaved with plotting that is expected of such a story. It is an idea that we encounter quite frequently in science fiction, that science and robotics will eventually help in eliminating faith, as we continue to learn more about the world around us, and can argue less and less that what is in nature is a miracle, since we can explain its existence in scientific words. These earlier stories do it in simpler terms, but it continues to crop up as a sub-genre. Or perhaps a sub-sub-genre.
The story was reprinted a few years later in the January 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, shortly after Boucher stepped down as its editor. The note on the story indicates that the reprint was aimed at getting the story out to a wider audience, as "its single previous appearance, in an anthology some years ago, did not give it as wide a readership as it deserves." There is no indication that Boucher himself had any influence in its publication, but perhaps it was included partly as homage to the magazine's previous editor. The reprint is reformatted, and ignores the original breaks that appeared in its original publication, replacing them with new breaks in unusual places.
For more of this week's Wednesday Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.