Birthday Reviews: Davis, Keyes, Slonczewski, Varley

This week’s birthday celebrations provide us with satires on how to get science into society and how to get tuberculosis into the UN, as well as giving us tickets to Mercury (where we’ll learn that the future may not see us as morally pure as we see ourselves at this time) and to some progress reports on one man’s experience with intelligence enhancement (which will stick with us for all time).

Chan Davis (1926-08-12)

“Adrift on the Policy Level” (Star Science Fiction Stories No. 5, 1959)

Minimally adapted from a 2019-10-21 review of The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl.

Though in the editor Pohl’s frequently occupied bailiwick of satire, “Adrift on the Policy Level” by Chandler Davis didn’t initially grab me or even ultimately overwhelm me, but did become more clearly pointed and funny as it progressed through its Kafka Americana narrative of a scientist recruiting a worldly brother-in-law to aid him in his quest to win the favor of The Powers That Be by playing the required social, bureaucratic, and self-deluding games that the suitor only dimly comprehends. The twice-twisted conclusion is effective.

Daniel Keyes (1927-08-09–2014-06-15)

“Flowers for Algernon” (F&SF, April 1959)

Through the progress reports Charlie Gordon writes, we learn that he is a 37-year-old man with an I.Q. of 68 who works as a janitor at Donnegan’s Plastic Box Company and takes night classes with Miss Kinnian because he wants desperately to be smarter. This has led to his chance to be selected by Doctors Nemur and Strauss to be the first human to undergo a brain operation to triple his intelligence, as has been done in mice such as Algernon, who beats Charlie in maze races several times. We then follow the arc of Charlie’s selection and the results of his surgery.

This story is an example of why the ancient Greeks conceived of Muses: once in a great while, everything just seems to fall into place and an author is blessed with a perfect story. This tale is splendidly simple in concept and structure and complex in detail. It’s simultaneously the purest of science fiction and deeply humanist. Charlie Gordon is the ultimate naive narrator who innocently conveys heart-wrenching pathos and painful double visions but, through his innocence, we get some experienced and hard edged-perceptions as the god-like Doctors become mortal, the untouchable woman becomes attractive, the businessman is saved ten thousand dollars a year which he repays with twenty-five dollars, and perhaps every reader is made complicit through punctuation (however gently we laugh). The main experience he conveys is that of being expelled from the Purgatory of Eden into both heaven and hell in deeply emotional terms without ever descending into mawkishness. Perhaps the saddest thing about the story is that it points out that humans can be unhappy across the spectrum of intelligence, though the specific scene of the belated visit to class tears me up every time. I don’t seek the sentimental in fiction and it doesn’t usually work very well on me but this story touches me as I’m pretty sure it’s touched most everyone who has read it. If you haven’t, go do so! If you have, it’s probably time to read it again! [1]

Joan Slonczewski (1956-08-14)

“Tuberculosis Bacteria Join UN” (Nature, June 29, 2000)

First and foremost, this is clever short-short with the fascinating idea of “building computational macromolecules into the genomes of pathogens known for their ability to infiltrate the human system” to get around the problem of nanobot failures when they are introduced into the human body for medical purposes. In short, you end up with cyborg AI bacteria. This is delivered in the form of a press release declaring that this nation of beings has been admitted to the UN. Secondarily, today’s self-righteous might find something in it to consider.

John Varley (1947-08-09)

“Retrograde Summer” (F&SF, February 1975)

A Mercurian meets his loonie (that’s Lunarian!) clone/sibling, shows her the ropes, and finally learns the dark secret of his family. The exposition of the setting is as smooth as a magician’s trick and that setting, with people in amazing space suits swim/sliding in/on mercury on Mercury and then being trapped in a cave-in from the frequent Mercurian tremors is enthralling and unforgettable. Incidentally, this was talking about “gender-fluidity” before most of the people who say they have nothing to learn or gain from old, evil SF were born and it points out that one person’s moral righteousness is another’s moral perversion and that these categories are also fluid.


[1] I often think of this as one of the best stories of all-time and will often say, “Well, Story X is good, but it’s no “Flowers for Algernon.” Lately, I’d been wondering if I was looking at the story through rose-colored glasses and it wasn’t as good as all that. So it was definitely time for me to re-read, to remind myself that it is as good as all that. My only criticism is that, while I wouldn’t really change a word of what’s written in the progress reports, I would have them occur over a slightly longer span of time. It still needs to happen in a compressed time frame but, even with a science-fictional operation, a lot of the top of the arc happens awfully fast.

4 thoughts on “Birthday Reviews: Davis, Keyes, Slonczewski, Varley

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