First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 1956.
This is a classic high-period SF dystopia: a world where peace and contentment reigns but at the cost of some vital element of humanity. It would seem that too much luxury is bad for people, it drains them of vim. It’s better to be a bit unhappy and entirely human, we’re repeatedly told, than be entirely happy but a little bit inhuman.
You might recall that The Island of Unreason by Edmond Hamilton, published in 1933, has a similar premise. Brave New World is probably the classic in the field, but also consider H G Well’s eloi. Then there’s Logan’s Run (book and movie) and the miserable bureaucratic world of Brazil. You can see the same anxiety in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and all those other crypto-communist mind-control alien stories.
Here we are presented with a stultified world of tennis club suburban luxury haunted by the one living human unlucky enough to have been born with the most horrifying human failing of all: he is a creative.
The narrator at first appears to be some kind of wandering psycho. In the opening paragraphs he rather unpleasantly forces his way into the home of a bland coupleand goes on a destructive spree. Here’s a rather long quote to give you an idea:
I looked her over and told her a few uncomplimentary things about herself. She trembled, but didn’t answer. On impulse, I leaned over and dialled the auto-chef to hot cheese sauce. I cut the safety out of circuit and put the quantity dial all the way up. I dialled soup tureen and then punch bowl.
The stuff began to come out in about a minute, steaming hot. I took the tureens and splashed them up and down the wall on either side of her. Then, when the first punch bowl came out, I used the empty bowls as scoops. I clotted the carpet with the stuff; I made streamers of it all along the walls, and dumped puddles into what furniture I could reach. Where it cooled it would harden, and where it hardened it would cling.
I wanted to splash it across her body, but it would’ve hurt and we couldn’t have that.
The last sentence is a reference to some kind of cut-out switch installed in his brain that sends him into a seizure if he threatens to actually hurt anyone. This prevents the action ever quite escalating to Clockwork Orange levels.
Clearly our narrator is a nasty piece of work, but as we learn more about him and his world we begin understand the source of all his violence. In this world, unhappiness has been bred out of humanity and the world is a kind of country-club paradise of light sports and dully enjoyable routine. But the narrator is some kind of genetic freak, driven to violence and murder.
For some reason, this eugenic society is unable to imprison – let alone execute – this dangerous element. Instead, he’s officially ostracised and the citizens of the world are told not to interact with him in any way. In addition, he’s had his brain fixed so he can’t commit violence, as noted above and his body chemistry altered so he emits a terrible odour that sends any other human running.
Driven mad by loneliness and frustrated violent rages, he turns to the only avenue left to him: sculpture. He travels the world committing random acts of vandalistic violence, and making carvings that he installs in secret places, to be found by other creative souls if they exist. For you see in this future there are no artists: everybody’s too content to create anything driven by passion.
The story’s main thesis is inspired by the narrator finding a cache of dusty old art books in a store room in Denver.
The thing I chiefly wanted to know was, why had it stopped? There was no answer in so many words in any of the books. But reading the histories of those times before the Interregnum, I found one thing that might explain it. Whenever there was a long period of peace and plenty anywhere in the ancient world, art grew poor: decoration, genre painting, imitations of imitations. As for the great artists, they all belonged to violent periods – Praxiteles, da Vinci, Rembrandt van Rijn, Renoir, Picasso…
Do we really believe this? As anyone who’s played Sid Meier’s Civilization knows, a society has to be pretty rich before it can an afford to support a full-time artist. To generate wealth, you need a stable economy. A stable economy requires peace, and so I’m led to think that the psychopath’s logic might be a little flawed.
In fact, classical Athens was a relatively stable and peaceful place among the city states, thanks (according to popular theory) to its democratic political structure. 16th century Florence was similarly a rich and stable city, as was late 19th and early 20th century Paris, compared to the tumultuous previous century.
I think one can just about dismiss this as the character speaking, not the writer. In particular, I think there’s something more to the narrator’s ostracism than just punishment. The story portrays the artist as almost a kind of monster. It’s a creature lurking on the fringes of humanity, that spreads alarm where ever it goes.
This could represent the creative person’s place in society, but I also like to think it says something about the creative mind. The creative person may or may not be a wild one themselves, but roaming around inside the well-ordered country of their head is something frightening, repulsive and entirely out of control. It harbours nothing but hostility for us and we rightly live in fear of it, but without it, we wouldn’t quite be human.
Themes: the creative imagination, dystopia of conformity, outsider.