Late again, but still in time to wish our birthday twins a happy birthday in the beyond. (They were both born on the same day, have feathers on their covers, and bring us idealistic tales in which one divinely-tinged creature’s suffering makes pleasure possible for others.) Plus, there’s a special birthday demento–er, memento at the end of this post.
Edmond Hamilton (1904-10-21/1977-02-01)
“Exile” (Super Science Stories, May 1943)
This brief tale is almost impossible to review because of its twist ending and its structure, which is simply the after-dinner conversation of four science fiction writers turning immediately to the fantastic tale of one of them, after another mentions the notion of being glad he never ended up in any of the worlds of his imagination. The details in this, such as the comment on knowledge versus belief or how the discussion of the two worlds is simultaneously simple, yet remarkably detailed and coherent, are effective and the tension between idealism and realism, the nature of fiction and reality, is actually quite powerful. Reading this story is akin to taking a step in a puddle and suddenly finding yourself fully underwater.
(For a Halloween bonus, I’ve also previously mentioned another piece by Edmond Hamilton in an old review of Weird Tales.)
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-10-21/2018-01-22)
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (New Dimensions 3, 1973)
Every time I read this story, I’m surprised at how it initially seems annoying as the narrator intrusively hypothesizes what the nature of the utopia in the story might be and then I’m surprised again at how powerful it becomes as the price for this utopia and the conflict within each person who does or does not accept the bargain is shown. If one person’s torment could produce utopia for all others, what then? In a way, the tale is a reductio ad absurdum in that a more realistic scenario might be “If we were Utilitarians who sought to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number, this implies that some number will not receive the greatest good. And what then?” But, by concentrating it to its utmost, perhaps it is a reduction to a core reality? And either way, what would you do? (And the cynic or masochist or Christian (a motley crew?) could note one of the options the story doesn’t address, which brings up the Dostoevsky Le Guin says she’s forgotten: If one had the opportunity to endure misery for the sake of providing a utopia for the human race, shouldn’t they do it? And if it could be voluntary, shouldn’t the human race honor that choice?)
Either way, this concretized thought experiment is obviously deficient in many of the usual storytelling virtues (which is not unusual in SF but for which SF is usually condemned while this story is praised) but it is a powerful and thought-provoking piece.
(Incidentally, I’d recommend reading this in its original collection, as the author’s note before the story is also excellent. I’ve never forgotten “‘Where do you get your ideas from, Ms Le Guin?’ From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?”)
Bela Lugosi (1882-10-20/1956-08-16)
“Bela Lugosi’s Dead” (Bauhaus, 1979)