Birthday Reviews: Schenck, Shirley, Szilard

There seems to be something serendipitously similar to these selections.

Hilbert Schenck (1926-02-12–2013-12-02)

“The Morphology of the Kirkham Wreck” (F&SF, September 1978)

On the dark and stormy night of January 19, 1892, the schooner H.P. Kirkham runs aground on a shoal and will shortly break up, taking the lives of the sailors aboard her if Keeper Walter Chase can’t lead his crew in their surfboat to the rescue and a safe return, defying the storm and massive waves and… entities from another “time-using” continuum which Chase enters as his will leads him to break the shackles of his “energy-using” continuum and cause modifications to all of existence in his efforts to save the crews. The beings are conservative sorts and Chase is having the effect of creating radical change.

The mainstream parts of this tale are very exciting and effective. The “speculative” (fantasy) parts, which move in and out of foreground focus like someone turning the knobs on binoculars, have a sort of conceptual appeal but also teeter at the abyss of pretentiousness. Still, it’s a lively and thought-provoking tale.

John Shirley (1953-02-10)

“The Incorporated” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July 1985)

Jim Kessler is wandering around, feeling like something is missing. It turns out that he had an idea that would be dangerous to his wife’s corporation, so she turned him in and they erased it from his mind. This is set after a terrorist attack which destroyed the economy and most people view the corporations in which they live, move, and have their being as their family and even their god. Kessler talks to a lawyer about getting his memory or at least his idea back but the lawyer is also tampered with. Later, when he realizes she’s contacted the corporation again and it’s going to happen to him again, he leaves her. When he goes to a “techniki” (hacker) friend and the wife tracks (or is led to) him there, the story ends with a bang.

I’ve read this story several times over several years and it (alas) always rings true. It may speak of Japanese business models and of “cassettes and compact discs” but the terrorist attacks, the corporate control and the media manipulation (which Kessler had invented a way to circumvent) all speak to today. It’s very effective at depicting a mixture of the ordinary (people just trying to get by) and of things that shouldn’t be ordinary (tyranny and mind control). This is far more effective than most more monochrome dystopias and it’s not just frighteningly plausible but actually frighteningly accurate. It’s less science fiction and more a rendering of reality which strips away the comforting “Hey, at least the trains are running on time” normalization of authoritarianism. The ending (which is sort of a double-jointed bit of action and a suspended denouement) is perhaps not as effective as the establishment of the milieu and the characters’ conflicts, but it’s sufficient. [1] Among the many arresting lines (for either stylistic or conceptual reasons or both) there are dark lines such as “She said lose my job the way Kessler would have said, lose my life” and those wonderful cognitive dissonance lines such as after the lawyer has explained how Kessler’s memory was edited and how that toothpaste isn’t going back in the tube when Kessler says, “Okay, so maybe it can’t be put back in by direct feed-in to the memory. But it could be relearned through ordinary induction. Reading.” So I strongly recommend you ordinarily induct this story.

Leo Szilard (1898-02-11–1964-05-30)

“The Mark Gable Foundation” (The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories, 1961)

[Reprinted from my review of The Expert Dreamers.]

This opens with the narrator perfecting his suspended animation technique and committing to travel 300 years into the future. He says, “I thought my views and sentiments were sufficiently advanced, and that I had no reason to fear I should be too much behind the times in a world that advanced a few hundred years beyond the present.” He changes his tune when he is awakened a mere 90 years into his journey to find a world in which having teeth is no longer socially acceptable but making a living as a sperm donor is. This 1961 story turns out to be a satire largely pointed at the moves in the late 1940s to establish a National Science Foundation. Its thesis is that making scientists become grant-chasing bureaucrats will lead to the stultification of science through safe and fashionable pursuits (and, as much as I support coherent public commitments to science, I have to admit the validity of his critiques). That aside, this would also make a timely read for today’s sufficiently advanced and morally perfect humans.


[1] It is also, fittingly enough, “incorporated” into Shirley’s superb Eclipse (volume one of the Eclipse/A Song Called Youth trilogy) which makes its ending more of a middle.