Thursday, 8 October 2015

"I Was A Teen-Age Secret Weapon" by Richard Sabia

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

From: Astounding Science Fiction, November 1959

Interestingly enough, this story is not written from the first person perspective, as much as the title makes it sound like we're in for a True Confessions-type of thing. Nope, it's really a fairly straightforward third person story. And as a story, it's not bad. The prose isn't purple, and it's vaguely amusing.

Weirdly, though, I kept thinking that I'd read this story before. And then I remembered that there's an Alfred Bester short story, collected in Star Light, Star Bright, called "Oddy and Id." In that one, a bunch of college professors are trying to harness a student's unconscious luck powers, which is really very similar. A quick google search tells me that the Bester story is the older, published in 1950.

In this story, it's a bit of a reversal - it's not that Wims, the main character, has good luck powers. It's that his defense mechanism is to cause bad luck for anyone thinking even the slightest amount of harm towards him. We first meet him in a research facility, where he never does anything wrong, but catastrophe follows him around. The scientists are nearly apopleptic, and close to murderous.

The main scientist, however, protects him, and even arranges for him to be enlisted. Guess what happens in the army? Of course, lots of mistakes and mishaps, and no one understands when he is given a field promotion and dropped behind enemy lines in China. He's captured by both the Russians and the Chinese, and they try to interrogate him - and in this case, when things start to go wrong, it's a very American perspective on the dangers of the Soviet system - everyone starts to think that everyone else is planning against them, and their military command falls apart into infighting and disarray.

Laughing, the Chinese make off with the prisoner - only to have their own system start to collapse.  Back in the United States, the scientist says smugly that he was the one who figured out what was going on with this bumbling young man, and has single-handedly caused the fall of Communism. The brass don't quite believe him, but there Moscow is in the middle of tearing itself apart.

It's a slight story, amusing, and gives us more insight into Cold War thought about the Soviet Union - in particular, the fault lines that could tear it apart given half a chance. It's a madcap adventure, and entertaining.

The only part that really bothered me is, you guessed it, the female character(s.) It isn't that they're absent - that isn't normally something that bothers me, although I do like to point it out, just to keep thinking about what stories could and couldn't be imagined in earlier ages of science fiction. No, it's more troubling. We don't even get to meet the one female character - she's a secretary at the research lab in the first section of the story.

What's bothersome is that she's literally there as a punchline to a sexual assault joke - the joke being that they thought the orangutan who escaped was female and found out he was male - when he attacked her and chased her around. At this point, absence would be better than having a woman mentioned in the story as part of a funny about an amorous orangutan.

As for the other visibilities I like to keep an eye on - no characters of colour, as far as are mentioned. No one who isn't straight.

Someone was commenting on one of these posts recently, saying that it wasn't fair that I was pointing such absences out, and that that was somehow censorship. I disagree, respectfully. My reviews are, and always have been, very subjective. I think pointing out which stories are told and which ones are not even thought of is perfectly legitimate as a discussion topic. I fail to see how that equals censorship. (But telling me I can't write reviews with that stuff included would be, wouldn't it? I mean, I'm commenting on the stories that are told. You were telling me I couldn't write reviews that pointed out the lack of women.)

At any rate, it's going to continue to be a part of these Throwback Thursday posts.

1 comment:

  1. I agree, asking you not to comment on those kinds of things are censorship. After all, this is the definition:
    Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication or other information which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other groups or institutions.
    You aren't suppressing the authors' speech. You are, however, pointing out what isn't there. Others asking you to not do that? Censorship.