Late yet again, but still right on the day (in some time zones) for McConnell and in time in all time zones for Brown.
Fredric Brown (1906-10-29/1972-03-11)
- “Imagine” (F&SF, May 1955)
- “Recessional” (Dude, March 1960)
- “Nightmare in Yellow” (Dude, May 1961)
- “Earthmen Bearing Gifts” (Galaxy, June 1960)
- “Jaycee” (Nightmares and Geezenstacks, 1961)
- “Answer” (Angels and Spaceships, 1954)
- “Rebound” (Nightmares and Geezenstacks, 1961)
- “Abominable” (Dude, March 1960)
- “Not Yet the End” (Captain Future, Winter 1941)
- “Experiment” (Galaxy, February 1954)
- “The Short Happy Lives of Eustace Weaver (I, II, and III)” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1961)
- “Reconciliation” (Angels and Spaceships, 1954)
- “Pattern” (Angels and Spaceships, 1954)
- “The End” (Nightmares and Geezenstacks, 1961)
Fredric Brown has written excellent long stories, on up to novel length, but there are probably few people who have written more, better, shorter stories. That is to say, he wrote a lot of excellent short-shorts. Even when they’re not perfect, there’s usually something either interesting, funny, or thought-provoking to them that makes them worthwhile and, it seems, the darker they get, the better.
“Imagine” is an unusually sunny piece which argues that reality, looked at properly, is at least as amazing as fantasy or science fiction. “Not Yet the End” shows the perils of sampling errors when aliens come to Earth looking for slaves, while “Earthmen Bearing Gifts” shows how Martians overestimating humanity (or underestimating our capacity for erroneous estimations) can lead to disastrous consequences. Some tackle theological issues: “Answer” turns Asimov’s “The Last Question” on its head with a bitter twist while “Jaycee” shows, with blasphemous verve, an unforeseen side-effect of compensating for a deficiency of males in the population. Conversely, “Abominable” adjusts a legend’s implicit sexism in a comical mode that might offend chauvinists and feminists alike. To borrow from the great Murray Leinster’s title Twists in Time, several of Brown’s short-shorts involve time travel with twists, especially when the travelers push things too far. “Experiment” is perhaps the most audacious of these but, at the same time, not entirely satisfying, and “The End” is clever and comical piece but sort of a one-shot. “The Short Happy Lives of Eustace Weaver” (originally published as “Of Time and Eustace Weaver”) is a more detailed and character-based tale of a ne’er-do-well trying to get something for nothing which is quite ingenious until the traditional ending.
Above all those, four stick out (and one goes with a couple of them in varying ways).
“Pattern” may be one of the more perfect twist short-shorts with its two calm protagonists contemplating the imaginatively conceived aliens who seem to go about their business on the earth while the majority of humans panic. The quiet economy of the set-up and twist is superb. And “Recessional” may be the most striking in this batch of stories as the subjective view of a chess game takes on cosmic proportions in a few words on a universe beyond good and evil.
“Nightmare in Yellow” has no speculative element but to omit such a masterpiece of a dark and twisted twist because of that would be a… crime. The only flaw, as in some of the best puns, is a slightly manufactured premise but this tale of an embezzler’s plan to take the money, run, and knock off his wife as a bonus, is brilliant. “Reconciliation,” a lesser (but still rewarding) tale, relates to this in showing a reverse relationship in which the hate is open and the ending is changed as more pressing matters intervene. And it makes me think of how trapped people can become in seeing relatively small things as greater than they are and missing the bigger picture. Which brings in “Rebound,” the tale of a petty and ridiculous man who happens to figure out how to wield inordinate power and plans to become a huge dictator until (as I fervently hope really happens) his solipsistic viciousness “rebounds.”
James McConnell (1925-10-26/1990-04-09)
“Learning Theory” (If, December 1957)
The following is adapted from my review of Great Science Fiction by Scientists.
Some stories involve entities coming to wrong conclusions based on insufficient evidence. One of the best of these is the excellent “Learning Theory” by James (V.) McConnell. It focuses on confirmation bias and turns the table on a psychologist by having him get abducted by aliens and put through his paces in accordance with their pet theories, so to speak. Very clever and with a sound critique of a scientific problem.