In each Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta I read three short stories by a classic science fiction author I’ve never read before in order to get a feel for their style.
Jerome Bixby will be familiar to fans of Star Trek The Original Series as the scriptwriter (or co-writer) of the episodes "Mirror, Mirror", "Day of the Dove", "Requiem for Methuselah", and "By Any Other Name", all of which are quite good by the standards of the series. Fans of the original Twilight Zone will recognize our first story which was made into the supremely scary “It’s a Good Life” in 1961, and served as one of the segments in the 1983 anthology film Twilight Zone: The Movie. Bixby was a prolific editor of science fiction magazines in the early 1950s, having edited Planet Stories, Jungle Stories, and Action Stories almost simultaneously. He co-created the concept of the 1966 science fiction film Fantastic Voyage, a childhood favorite of mine. He also wrote the screenplay for the excellent 2007 low-budget science fiction film The Man from Earth, which was produced long after his death. Ironically, The Man from Earth stars Star Trek: Enterprise actor John Billingsley, bringing the Star Trek connection right back around. But enough of his resume, let’s see how he writes.
It’s a Good Life
Originally published in Star Science Fiction Stories No. 2 (1953)
Read in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One 1929-1964
I’m a huge fan of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and I’ve followed its many reboots closely. What I think few people realize is that Serling’s “secret sauce” consisted of two simple facts about him. First, he respected science fiction and fantasy as a legitimate literary art form. Second, and more elusively for modern filmmakers, he respected a story that worked on the page before it worked on the stage. Many of the best and most iconic Twilight Zone episodes started life up to a decade prior in the science fiction magazines, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, “Time Enough at Last”, “Shadow Play”, and too many more to list here. Serling had respect for bringing what was written on the page to the screen with as little compromise as possible. There’s a story that Charles Beaumont told of when he was adapting his short story Perchance to Dream into the episode of the same name. Beaumont had written of a twisted and deformed carnival, and asked Serling if he should change the setting for production. Serling directed him to “write it as you imagined it.” Beaumont was blown away when he arrived on set for filming and saw the nightmarish buildings that set that episode apart from so many others.
This story is appropriate for our discussion of It’s a Good Life because if you’ve seen that episode then there are no surprises in the prose. Serling adapted Bixby’s story almost verbatim, with just a few extra lines and nuances that help translate it to the screen without in any way compromising what Bixby had laid out on the page. As such I found reading the story just a little boring because I’ve seen the episode so many times, but that reflects more favorably on Bixby than anything else; all the brilliance and creepiness of that iconic television episode is due to Bixby’s original story.
Originally published in Space by the Tale (1964)
Read in 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories
If possible, I love to read a flash fiction piece for the Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta, because I think “short short stories” are an underappreciated art form. To convey a complete story in roughly one thousand words is very hard to do, and I find it’s a great judge of a writer’s ability. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to review a 1,000 word short story without giving it away, so apologies because I’m about to spoil this one.
Trace uses the simple setup of a man who gets lost when trying to take a shortcut. He finds himself on the wooded roads on a hill where every path he takes seems to only go further up the hill, even when he turns around to retrace his movements. Eventually his car blows a tire and while on foot he finds the most idyllic clearing with a perfect little house. Approaching, he meets the home’s smiling occupant. Everything is beautifully perfect; the food, the weather, the scenery, the host. The conversation turns philosophical, and the host pontificates that nobody is fully good or even fully evil, that even evil people must occasionally commit acts of decency and kindness. And without it ever being said, we are clearly led to believe that this man, this gracious host, is the Devil himself, taking a brief vacation from the burden of his works. The man has a truly pleasant conversation with the Devil, and when the tow truck arrives to repair his car we are confident that he will be on his way without trouble. There is nothing sinister here, no veiled threat, simply the idea that even evil people must have some bits of good in them, and vice versa. It’s a great little story, and I was awed by the writing skill that seeded the impression in my mind that the host was the Devil without it ever really being said. This is a story to study to determine how that impression was created.
The Holes Around Mars
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1954
Read in Where Do We Go From Here?
This is a classic 1950s “men arrive on another planet in a rocket ship” science fiction story. There is a cute setup revolving around puns, and the final line is definitely a pun, but there is a good deal more to the story than that. The first men on Mars discover a curious series of holes (actually tunnels) about four inches in diameter carved through the martian landscape. These perfectly aligned tunnels are cut through mountains, dunes, and even plants. The bulk of the story revolves around the mystery of how and why these tunnels exist. It’s a fun story, and I won’t give it away, especially since you can read it for yourself on the Internet Archive’s copy of the January 1954 Galaxy, but I will say that the explanation stretches the concept of science fiction so far as to be pure fantasy. Still, I enjoyed this one, though you have to place it firmly in the vintage category. I was about to say that this story couldn’t appear today, but I have read entries in the “men (and women) arrive on another planet in a rocket ship” in recent issues of Analog, so it goes to show you that the classic ideas are still around and people still get mileage from them.
Jerome Bixby was definitely a skilled author and screenwriter, though it’s not hard to see why he’s not more famous today. Unlike his more well known contemporaries, his stories seem to lack staying power. If it weren’t for the Twilight Zone adaptation of It’s a Good Life I’m not sure the story would really stand out in my mind. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a classic, but I’m not sure that by itself it would stay in the collective consciousness seventy years later. That being said, I’m interested to read more prose by Bixby, and see what other clever ideas his mind created.
In my readings of science fiction I’ve come across a persistent concept that was very popular in the twentieth century, and that is the future evolution of psychology into a “hard” science. I’ve already said something that is bound to offend lots of people, so let’s take a step back and lower the pitchforks.
The commonly accepted definition of a “hard” science is that it strives to understand the fundamental mechanical workings of the Universe. Some examples are physics, chemistry, geology, and even biology. “Soft” sciences use the scientific method to try to understand more intangible human aspects of the world, such as in psychology, sociology, and some aspects of anthropology. (“Biological anthropology” is much more of a “hard” science.) A more practical definition (and one that will serve us in the present discussion) is that “hard” sciences can make predictions based on established physical laws. For instance, if you stand in your kitchen and drop an apple, physic predicts that the apple will not only fall but that it will do so at a constant acceleration of 9.81 meters per second per second. That is true because you are standing on Earth, which has a known gravitational field per Isaac Newton’s equations (or if you want to get fancy you can use Einstein’s Relativity). Fields like psychology are quite a bit different. Though psychology aims to use statistical methods (i.e. mathematics), it does not truly offer predictions. That is not to say that psychologists can’t make predictions; indeed when people design experiments they often expect it to show a certain result (that’s the hypothesis part of the scientific method). It is more that psychologists tend not to make predictions because their predictions are less grounded in “known laws” than physicists’ predictions are. Of course, once upon a time the field that we would now call physics wasn’t good at making predictions either. That’s because those “known laws” weren’t yet known. Indeed, psychology is at the stage where scientists are trying to uncover “laws of psychology.” Do such laws even exist? Are humans governed solely by complex behavioral laws? The truth is that we don’t know yet, same as physicists didn’t know two thousand years ago how the Sun produced energy. (Basically all the theories back then were indistinguishable from magic because the key physical mechanism of the Sun’s energy production – atomic fusion – was a complete mystery.) Maybe there are laws that govern human behavior, laws that can be written down mathematically the same way we can describe the motion of planets orbiting a star. It’s not hard to understand why such scientific speculation is ripe for sci-fi pickings.
The most prominent science fiction example of psychology as a “hard” science is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which is built upon the fictional concept of psychohistory. The laws of psychohistory state that large enough groups of humans behave in ways that can be predicted by fundamental behavioral laws. How large is “large enough”? Tens of billions. Meaning that Earth today could not be predicted by psychohistory, but the human population of the fully colonized Milky Way galaxy in the time of the Foundation books counts humans in the hundreds of billions, meaning that the motions of the Galactic Empire can be predicted with definable precision. And what future does Harry Seldon, the inventor of psychohistory, predict for the galaxy? The complete collapse of the Galactic Empire followed by a 30,000 year brutal dark age. Only by establishing the Foundation can they shorten the dark age to merely 1,000 years. That is the basic premise of the Foundation series, and it is entirely predicated on the idea that psychology can evolve into a “hard” science.
Foundation isn’t alone though, and I’ve encountered numerous examples of this concept in science fiction. Another prominent example is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Though not a central idea, Starship Troopers explores the concept that psychology (or perhaps more appropriately, sociology) has evolved into a mathematical science. Here it is possible to mathematically prove that certain systems of government are better than others, finding mathematical optimizations. Though not a central concept, this imbues the militarist government of Earth with a moral certainty. “Our government is the best government and I can prove it to you with calculus.” (Tangentially, if you’ve only ever seen the 1997 film then the book is not what you think it is. The book is essentially a philosophical treatise in monologue about militarism, war, obligation, responsibility, and maturity, with two action sequences as bookends. As such, it’s classic Heinlein and worth a read.)
To leave you with one final example. The television series Lie to Me exploits the idea of biological-based psychology. In the show, behavioral psychologist Cal Lightman (played by Tim Roth) has invented the science of microexpressions to read emotional responses, which he uses to consult with police departments to solve crimes. (Yes, Lie to Me is yet another 1990’s science-based crime drama.) Interestingly, the character of Lightman is based on a real psychologist, professor Paul Ekman, who has actually created the field that Lightman has in the show. Ekman has consulted extensively with the TSA to develop techniques to screen airline passengers, and if the idea of teaching TSA agents to read tiny muscle spasms in people’s faces to infer suspicious behavior sounds dubious that’s because it very much is. We should be skeptical any time a real world discovery sounds like science fiction, but when governments embrace science fiction sounding psychology to identify “threats” we should all run the other way. Perhaps that’s the moral we should take from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as well: “Our government is the best government and I can prove it to you with calculus. If the math doesn’t work out then you did the math wrong.”
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.