It’s A Good Life by Jerome Bixby

goodlifeBilly Mumy as Anthony in The Twilight Zone.

This is another story that was made into a classic episode of the Twilight Zone, which is famous enough to have been parodied on The Simpsons. It’s a classic ‘what if?’ story: what if a six year old kid was omnipotent? The horrible consequences are played out like a horror story: we share the characters’ dread as they wait for the moment that someone makes Anthony cross and gets buried in the cornfield.

Ostensibly it’s about the beastliness of small children: imagine all that power in the hands of a capricious and bad-tempered brat. His tantrums become murderous rages powered by his his ability to change the world to his whims.

That’s true of the first half of this story, where we get a glimpse into Anthony’s tumultuous mind. But the second half of the story, which carries the terrifying emotional weight of it all is a Cold War story and Anthony is the Soviet Union.

The men and women who are trapped in Peaksville, Ohio with Anthony are living in a nightmare version of the totalitarian state. They are constantly under surveillance – he sees everything they do, he hears their every thought. He can eliminate them at a whim. They’re entirely cut off from the rest of the world as Anthony has shifted the town entirely out of reality somehow. His power is arbitrary and it’s difficult to survive, and their world is as mean and poor as a Russian gulag.

On the other hand, maybe we’re just used to seeing communism in these stories. We learn early on that Anthony is a cruel and capricious ruler.

‘Land alive, William,’ Aunt Amy said, ‘you don’t have to mumble like that. Anthony wouldn’t hurt you. My goodness, Anthony likes you!’ She raised her voice and called to Anthony, who had tired of the rat and was making it eat itself. ‘Don’t you dear? Don’t you like Mr Soames?’

Anthony looked across the lawn at the grocery man – a bright wet, purple gaze. After a second Anthony returned hi attention to the rat. It had already devoured its tail or chewed it off – for Anthony had made it bite faster than it could swallow, and little pink and red furry pieces lay around it on the green grass. Now the rat was having trouble reaching its hindquarters.

The good people of Peaksville live in fear of what he’ll do next. He’s a mad ruler, the insane dictator, or the government itself gone insane. It could be an image of American power itself, a young nation suddenly gifted lots of power.

This is one of those stories where the power of the imagery allows numerous different interpretations or ways in. In its purest form its a tale despair. It doesn’t suffer from overexposure in same way as some other stories we’ve encountered on this journey, because it doesn’t have a big thrillery plot. No one tries to change the world or get rid of Anthony – we hear how they’ve tried all that and it didn’t work and so now they just try and get by day to day. This is the story of one of those days and it’s this ultimate hopelessness gives the story its final nasty kick.

Themes: dystopia, tolitarianism, sick kids.

 

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Golden Age of Science Fiction
2 comments on “It’s A Good Life by Jerome Bixby
  1. Tom says:

    I recall reading this around the age of 10 or so in an anthology from the local library.
    It has a lot of nice details that have stuck in my mind ever since. Not just the horrible boy stuff, but things like how the townsfolk have to dump excess hay into the nothingness beyond the town limits every so often.

  2. Patrick says:

    Hi Tom,

    Yes, I think the best stories here rely not on their SF ideas but on old fashioned good writing. I think great writing comes from picking the right detail. That’s at the heart of characterisation, too. There’s not a lot new to say in the world, and most of our most urgent questions don’t even have any answers, but illuminating the old problems in new ways is where real revelation and maybe a gram of truth can be bought.

    It’s been an illuminating year studying these stories in depth, I have to say.

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