Short Stories Resource

August 29, 2017 | Author: Sanjayan PradeepKumar | Category: Isaac Asimov, Gabriel García Márquez, Science Fiction, Apocalyptic And Post Apocalyptic Fiction, Ray Bradbury
Share Embed Donate

Short Description

Download Short Stories Resource...


World Scholar’s Cup










A World Transformed

2 0 1 1


Tania Asnes Daniel Berdichevsky

the World Scholar’s Cup® ®








Literature: Short Stories Changing Worlds, Changing Lives Table of Contents Preface ..............................................................................................................................................3 I. Gabriel García Marquez: “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” ...................................4 Objectives .....................................................................................................................................4 Gabriel García Marquez ................................................................................................................4 “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”: Overview .........................................................5 Content and Meaning...................................................................................................................7 Conclusion....................................................................................................................................8 Objectives .....................................................................................................................................9 Ray Bradbury ................................................................................................................................9 “There Will Come Soft Rains”: Overview ...................................................................................10 Literary Devices ..........................................................................................................................10 Motifs and Themes .....................................................................................................................12 Conclusion..................................................................................................................................13 III. Isaac Asimov: “The Last Question” ...........................................................................................14 Objectives ...................................................................................................................................14 Isaac Asimov ...............................................................................................................................14 “The Last Question”: Overview ..................................................................................................16 Literary Devices ..........................................................................................................................17 Content and Meaning.................................................................................................................18 Conclusion..................................................................................................................................20 IV. Isaac Asimov: “Nightfall” ..........................................................................................................21 Objectives ...................................................................................................................................21 Context.......................................................................................................................................21 “Nightfall”: Overview .................................................................................................................21 Literary Devices ..........................................................................................................................22 Motifs and Themes .....................................................................................................................23 Conclusion..................................................................................................................................25 V. Daniel Keyes: “Flowers for Algernon” ........................................................................................26 Objectives ...................................................................................................................................26 Daniel Keyes ...............................................................................................................................26 “Flowers for Algernon”: Overview...............................................................................................27 Literary Devices ..........................................................................................................................28 Motifs and Themes .....................................................................................................................28 Conclusion..................................................................................................................................30 VI. Robert Charles Wilson: “Julian: A Christmas Story” .................................................................31 Objectives ...................................................................................................................................31 Robert Charles Wilson................................................................................................................31



“Julian: A Christmas Story”: Overview........................................................................................31 Literary Devices ..........................................................................................................................33 Motifs and Themes .....................................................................................................................34 Conclusion..................................................................................................................................35 About the Authors & Editors ..........................................................................................................37 Contributions by Katie Noah Gibson Edited by Tania Asnes and Daniel Berdichevsky Note: If you don’t have the selected stories at your school, you can find them online at these links: The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World There Will Come Soft Rains The Last Question Nightfall Flowers for Algernon Julian: A Christmas Story

Dedicated to the Good Doctor. DemiDec and The World Scholar’s Cup are registered trademarks of the DemiDec Corporation.


Preface When it comes to the world transforming, it doesn’t get more epic than the end of the universe. In “The Last Question” you’ll get there, and beyond. The other stories in this collection will take you from a very surprising 22nd century America—hint: there won’t be flying cars1—to the doomed planet of Lagash. One is very personal, the journal of a young man gifted (and cursed) with a moment of genius; in another, the most important character is already dead. Science fiction allows us to visit worlds transformed in the most literal sense—by new technologies, by aliens (of diverse sizes and colors), by horrible plagues2, by a hundred other things.3 As you read these stories, don’t focus on whether the worlds they describe are possible. A few decades can make stories about the future seem dangerously quaint. Hemingway didn’t have to worry that stories set in the 1920s would someday seem outdated—the 1920s aren’t ever going to change very much4—but stories written about the future are much riskier. At its best, science fiction isn’t about predicting the future, but telling meaningful stories in a world different from our own. Consider what those stories tell you about the worlds Discuss it in which their authors lived—and about what they Many critics dismiss science fiction as not serious saw changing all around them. Ray Bradbury wrote literature. Are they justified? “There Will Come Soft Rains” at a moment when the end of civilization was, for the first time, not only possible, but probable. Robert Charles Wilson is writing in an era when fossil fuel supplies are on the decline and the influence of religion in American politics on the rise; his future United States has had to abandon modern technology and is controlled by a powerful church. Each of these authors is projecting forward into a future he envisions, or sideways into a world that isn’t quite the way things are. Take what you learn as you explore these selections, Research and Discuss it and apply it to longer works too—to the novels, films Examine the types of science fiction and fantasy at and television series that have made science fiction How would you mainstream. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—a classify Harry Potter? How about Twilight and movie in which people could erase memories of bad Avatar? Is Forrest Gump science fiction? How about relationships—is cut from the same cloth as “Flowers the television series Caprica and Pushing Daisies? for Algernon”. Inception, Avatar, Star Trek, Wall-E… the list goes on. Science fiction’s continuing popularity at the theater and on television reminds us that a world transformed is, if nothing else, an interesting world in which to tell a story—with or without flying cars or little green men. 1

In fact, there won’t be cars at all. One interesting plague story: F.M Busby’s The Breeds of Man, in which a fertility plague leaves humans unable to have babies. The cure produces a generation of children who shift monthly between being male and female. Who knows: maybe all this gender-switching inspired Korea’s hit new television series The Secret Garden. 3 So, in different ways, do two other genres, fantasy and magic realism. Dorothy doesn’t leave Oz the way she found it; Al-Rassan isn’t exactly Spain. Ned lives in a world where the touch of his finger can bring the dead back to life, and there are monsters living on Avenue Q, but no one finds them all that strange. 4 Barring time travel. 2


I. Gabriel García Marquez: ‘‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’’ Who needs little green men when you’ve got a mysterious corpse? In “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”, a dead body washing up on the beach is enough to trigger the seemingly accidental transformation of an entire town.5 The dead body takes on such great meaning that it forces the villagers to reexamine their society—and it is altered forever.

Objectives By the time you complete this chapter, you should be able to answer the following questions.  For what literary style is Gabriel García Marquez famous?  What does the title character in “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” represent?  How does Esteban transform the village?

Gabriel García Marquez Although he has not lived there very much since the 1950s, Gabriel García Marquez is considered Colombia’s foremost writer. Born in 1928 in the town of Aracataca, he grew up listening to his grandparents tell fantastical stories.7 He began his writing career as a journalist while at university in the 1940s, and published his first two novels in 1961. In between, he became friends with Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro, and founded the Colombian branch of Castro’s news agency.

Magic Realism: Dumbledore Not Welcome Here Magic realism is a literary movement in which strange things exist in an otherwise normal world----and no one treats them as strange.6 Some people confuse it with science fiction and fantasy because it sometimes has ghosts and other bizarre phenomena-----but it’s not the same thing. The science fiction writer Pat Murphy put it like this: ‘‘In science fiction, if everyone is walking around with a talking monkey on his head, you need an explanation for it. Maybe the monkeys are aliens. In magic realism, everyone acts as if the monkeys have always been there. Like head lice and baseball caps.’’

In 1965, García Marquez began writing the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which remains his single most famous work. Like many of his pieces, it makes use of magical realism, a literary style in which unusual or magical happenings are related to the reader as though they were ordinary. Like Pablo Neruda and many other Latin American writers, García Marquez has produced work that angered his government. As a young man, he was sent on a newspaper assignment to Rome8 after his series of newspaper stories about a Colombian shipwreck exposed the Colombian government’s 5

A question to ask as you read this story: can the world transform by accident? Musical theater is an example of magic realism: characters break out into song, but then (in most musicals) continue on as if nothing strange has happened. If everyone at the World Scholar’s Cup abruptly began singing about alpacas, I feel like someone would call the police. 7 That’s how I grew up, too. For a long time I believed 747s could fly upside-down and that chickens lived in the sea. 8 Poor chap—exiled to Italy. 6


smuggling activities.9 He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 and is considered a towering literary figure not only in Colombia, but all of Latin America.

‘‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’’: Overview Written in 1968, the story first appeared in García Marquez’s 1972 collection Leaf Storm and Other Stories. “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” begins when some children spot the body of a large drowned man washing up on the beach of their tiny, isolated seaside community. As soon as the corpse is brought to the village (after it is wrested away from the children, who are playing with it) it begins changing the world of the villagers. From the sea life found on the body, the people can tell the man was from a foreign land. They are stunned by his size and beauty and his apparent “sincerity”—as if he was better and more noble, in life, than any of them could hope to be. They name him Esteban, after the first Christian martyr—but they feel as if he already had a name and they have merely identified him, “He was Esteban. It was not necessary to repeat it for them to recognize him…there could be only one Esteban in the world, and there he was”. 10 The villagers prepare an elaborate funeral for Esteban. Before they put him back in the sea, they feel guilty that he has no family present, “it pained them to return him to the waters as an orphan”, so they choose the best villagers to serve as his mother, father, and other relatives—until the entire village is assigned some relation to Esteban and therefore one big family: “Through him all the inhabitants of the village became kinsmen.” They feel a great sense of loss as they release Esteban into the sea (without an anchor, so he can come back if he wants). They also become aware—for the first time—of how small, isolated, and ordinary their village is. From then on, they live their lives in the name of Esteban’s memory. In his honor, they plan to paint their houses in bright colors and redesign the doorways to be as wide as he was, so that he will never be forgotten. They will beautify the village so much that, in the future, it will be known by great sea captains and ship’s passengers from around the world as Esteban’s village. Literary Devices Irony García Marquez narrates the story in such a matter-of-fact way that it seems plausible (believable), which encourages us to take it seriously. Remember: this is a feature of magic realism. The strange is treated as normal. But there is also a strong undertone of irony to “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”—a sense that story’s events are also a bit absurd. If a mythological creature—say, a mermaid—had washed up on shore, the people’s admiration might be more understandable—yet Esteban is not a mermaid, nor an alien, nor even a famous person. He is an anonymous dead man. Only the children take him at face value and do what they would do with any other washed-up object: play with it. Everyone else treats him as extraordinary.


Thirty years later, his report Clandestine in Chile, about an exiled filmmaker’s secret return to his home, earned him the wrath of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. 10 Though, for a time, some stubborn young women insist he should be named Lautaro, after the great 16th-century leader of the Mapuche tribe in modern-day Chile. The founder of the World Scholar’s Cup is part Mapuche.


The irony of an unidentified corpse becoming something like a god draws our attention to the story’s main themes: mankind’s deep desire to believe in something greater, and our impressive capacity for faith. Humans are so eager to believe in and to make sense of things that they can find meaning in a nameless corpse. Symbolism

To the villagers, there is more to the drowned man than meets the eye. They feel a deep connection with and admiration for him—as if they have been waiting for him all their lives. Esteban is a symbol of the god or gods of any religion. The people consider him flawless, and redesign their whole village to keep his memory alive, just as religious people build shrines to gods and saints. Like a god’s greatness, Esteban’s greatness is beyond human comprehension. García Marquez writes, “even though [the women] were looking at him there was no room for him in their imagination.” Also like a god, he fills the people’s lives with meaning, giving them a sense of purpose—of their place in the world. Their village becomes Esteban’s village, and they become Esteban’s people. In the same way a shared religion allows strangers to connect and understand each other, the people’s admiration for Esteban unites them. It makes the entire population of the village a family: “Through him all the inhabitants of the village became kinsmen.” Esteban can be seen as a symbol for any compelling belief with the power to transform people’s lives. Allusion

García Marquez uses a religious allusion to drive home the point that the drowned man is like a god or saint. The name Esteban is the Spanish form of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, killed (according to the Book of Acts in the Bible) for his belief that Jesus was the Son of God. Stephen is a saint in several religious traditions, including the Catholic Church, which was the official state religion of Colombia until 1991, and remains the main religious institution in all of Latin America. The author contrasts Esteban to Sir Walter Raleigh, a great 16 th-century English explorer who would have been very exotic to the villagers with his white man’s accent, a parrot on his shoulder, and a gun in his hand. The villagers admire Esteban even more than they would this famous, exotic explorer. When the villagers are carrying Esteban to the cliffs for his funeral, their weeping is so loud it can even (people claim) be heard by sailors at sea. It is rumored one sailor “had himself tied to the mainmast, remembering ancient fables about sirens”. The allusion is to Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus ties himself to his ship’s mast so he can resist the song of the sirens, beautiful female creatures that lure sailors to their deaths. By linking the story of Esteban to a famous myth, García Marquez gives “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” the feeling and weight of a fable. The allusions to St. Stephen, Raleigh, and Odysseus also heighten the irony of the story, by standing in bold contrast to the anonymous drowned man. The man is not a saint, great foreign explorer, or epic hero. He is merely an unknown dead person—yet the villagers worship him. Setting

Though the story is not set in a definite time, allusions hint at the 16th or 17th century, possibly on the coast of Chile. In addition to Raleigh, Gabriel García mentions the 16th-century Mapuche chief Lautaro, a leader of Native Americans who defended the territories of present-day Chile from the Spanish.11 At the story’s end, the narrator envisions the captain of a modern ocean liner using an


The Mapuche were pretty good at that sort of resistance. They had previously held back the Incans.


astrolabe, a navigation tool that fell out of use in the 18th century. The village is set at the edge of a desert; the only significant South American desert is the Chilean Atacama. The 16th century was a time of great transformation in Latin America, when European explorers like Raleigh clashed with native people like Lautaro and forever changed the face of two continents. The 17th century continued his process, as Spanish colonies came to dominate much of the Americas. García Marquez’s references to that time period underscore the theme of transformation in the story. It is also possible, especially given the story’s magic realism, that the setting is actually more modern, even 20th century—a backwater village lost in time and in no particular place.

Content and Meaning “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” is sometimes subtitled “A Tale for Children”, because it is meant as a parable, a short, instructive story that illustrates a lesson. Parables often have simple morals such as “it is wrong to lie” or “you shouldn’t be selfish”, but “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” expresses more complicated truths about our world. Truth is Subjective The saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” Debate it! plays with the idea that beauty is subjective rather Resolved: That the story’s message would be just than objective. Even if I think something is beautiful, about the same had a beautiful foreign vase washed you might find it ugly. “The Handsomest Drowned ashore instead of Esteban. Man in the World” suggests that truth, too, is subjective. Truth, you could say, is in the mind of the believer. By most counts, the existence of gods cannot be proved or disproved, and neither can the myth of Esteban. He is dead, so the people are free to decide who he was. They decide he was saintly. For all we know, the drowned man was a criminal, but his true identity is unimportant to the villagers. What matters is their faith in his goodness and sincerity. It unites them and gives them purpose. The women are relieved when it is confirmed that Esteban is unknown—because they like their own version of the truth and do not want it disproved: “Praise the Lord 12,” they sigh, “he’s ours!” Since his identity is unknown, it is theirs to decide.13 By making their village one big shrine to Esteban, the people ensure their version of him will endure: “no one in the future would dare whisper the big boob finally died, too bad…because they were going to…make Esteban’s memory eternal”. At the story’s end, it is suggested Esteban’s story becomes an accepted truth. The narrator envisions the captain of a passing ship identifying it for his passengers. The captain is an authority figure wearing a fancy uniform and “a row of war medals”, and also an educated man, who speaks “fourteen languages” and uses astronomy (the astrolabe and “pole star” or North Star) to guide his ship. Surely he can be trusted, and he confirms the identity of the village as “Esteban’s village”. Meaning Can Transform the World The story suggests people need meaning in their lives as much as plants need water. The villagers live on the edge of a desert, which is a symbol for the lack of meaning in their lives. A desert has almost no source of water, so little life grows there. Similarly, the villagers have no source of meaning, so 12

The villagers might be Christians, referring to God—but they could just as easily mean Esteban when they say “Lord”—for he is sacred to them. 13 If they had found out he was really a garbage man named Bob, they might have had a harder time worshipping him.


their lives are very plain and uninspired. They have little appreciation for beauty: their houses are plain and they do not grow flowers. They live a life of simple survival, without ambition. During Esteban’s funeral procession, the villagers realize how empty their lives have been. “Men and women became aware for the first time of the desolation of their streets, the dryness of their courtyards, the narrowness of their dreams as they faced the splendor and beauty of their drowned man.” Esteban sets a new standard of beauty and greatness for the community. He opens their eyes to the possibility that they and their village could also become beautiful and great. They can no longer be satisfied with how things were: “everything would be different from now on.” The people beautify the village so much it becomes world-famous despite its tiny size. They dig for springs so that they can grow enough rosebushes to cover the courtyards and cliffs. They transform the desert into a garden—just as their village transforms from a nameless speck on the map to “Esteban’s village”, and they from people without a purpose to people driven by a shared belief. Often, the world is transformed by more concrete forces, such as war, inventions, and natural disasters. “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” reminds us that ideas can be just as powerful. Religious beliefs, scientific theories, philosophical ideas, and even works of fiction can change everything.

Conclusion In this section, we have learned:  Gabriel García Marquez is a Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novel and short story writer who is considered a leading writer of magical realism.  “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” is a parable about humankind’s need for meaning and belief, and the ability of ideas to transform the world.  One of the story’s major themes is that truth is subjective. It does not matter if Esteban really was a sincere and noble man as the people believe—or even if he is actually beautiful—because their faith in him, their truth, is what matters.  Esteban is a symbol of the god or gods of any religion, and also of any compelling belief that has the power to transform society.  The transformation in the story is caused by a coincidence—the body washing up on the shore—a reminder that the world changes in unpredictable ways. Before moving on to the next section, ask yourself:  What discoveries in your lifetime have transformed society?  Do people irrationally worship things equivalent to Esteban in the modern world?


II. Ray Bradbury: ‘‘There Will Come Soft Rains’’ You can order a robot vacuum cleaner on Amazon. Why not? We are growing used to ever-greater convenience. Kindles and iPads let us carry thousands of books in a backpack, and cell phones allow us to stream episodes of Glee almost anywhere. In Ray Bradbury’s story “There Will Come Soft Rains”, convenience has reached new heights: the stove makes breakfast on its own, the weather box by the front door tells you if you need an umbrella, and tiny robot mice do all the housekeeping. It’s the ideal lifestyle—so ideal it chugs along even when there isn’t anyone living it.

Objectives By the time you complete this chapter, you should be able to answer the following questions.  What are some typical themes of Ray Bradbury’s works?  What view of technology does he present in “There Will Come Soft Rains”?

Ray Bradbury He never attended college, but Ray Bradbury’s output eclipses that of many writers with multiple degrees. Born in 1920 in a small town in Illinois, he calls himself “a student of life,” and his novels, short stories, poems, essays, and plays all reflect his observations of our world and the people in it. Bradbury’s best-known works are probably Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. His work has been ’’Libraries raised me. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for ten variously classified as fantasy, horror, science fiction, years.’’ and mystery.14 Some of his novels and short stories are -----Ray Bradbury dystopian, or set in a bleak future. He lives in Los Angeles, California, and, although he turned 90 this year, is still writing. “Writing, for me, is akin to breathing,” he has said. “It is hard for me to believe that in one lifetime I have written so many stories. On the other hand, I often wonder what other writers do with their time.”15 Originally published in Collier’s Weekly magazine in 1950, “There Will Come Soft Rains” is also part of The Martian Chronicles, a short story collection. The 28 stories are loosely connected by a storyline involving interactions between the inhabitants of Mars16 and the people of Earth. In the first third of the collection, humans from Earth try to reach Mars and colonize it. They are able to settle on Mars after unwittingly killing many of the Martians with Earth germs. 17 However, most of them return to Earth when it is threatened by a global nuclear war.18 The war eventually wipes out


Like Asimov, he is the kind of writer who annoys bookstore shelvers. This comment comes from the introduction to a volume of 100 of Bradbury’s stories. (He’s written more than 600.) Apparently, story writing is what Bradbury does with his time. He could probably use an automatic house. 16 Not including Marvin. 17 The plague that devastates the Martians is similar to smallpox, which wiped out many Native American populations. 18 I feel like this would be a good time to stay on Mars. Just saying. 15


most of Earth’s population. The last five stories in The Martian Chronicles focus on the aftermath of the nuclear war on Earth. “There Will Come Soft Rains” is the second-to-last story.

‘‘There Will Come Soft Rains’’: Overview The story begins on an ordinary morning in Allendale, California in the United States. The clock is striking seven. Breakfast is ready. But, to readers in 1950 and even to readers today, this morning would seem strange. The clock is a voice-clock, and the breakfast stove is making breakfast automatically. Despite the activity of various gadgets, the scene feels oddly vacant: “The morning house lay empty.” Something is wrong: the owners of the house (the McClellans) are absent, and we do not know why. The automated house continues its mechanical functions through each hour of the day. The kitchen appliances are a busy person’s dream, and the robot mice are very efficient. At ten o’clock in the morning, we are given a chilling answer about why the house is empty: “The house stood alone in a city of rubble and ashes. This was the one house left standing. At night the ruined city gave off a radioactive glow which could be seen for miles.” This is the sole house to survive a nuclear war. At ten-fifteen, we see the side of the house, on which the outlines of the family that used to live there are preserved in paint. The rest of the house is covered in “a thin charcoaled layer”—the paint having burned off in the nuclear explosion. Until now, the house has “kept its peace”, remaining calm, but today it seems worried about the owners’ absence. It lets in the dog, which sniffs frantically for its owners. Shortly after, the dog goes into a hysterical frenzy and dies. The house incinerates its body. With growing dread, we progress through the Debate it! afternoon: the bridge game, martinis, children’s hour, Resolved: That “There Will Come Soft Rains” would bath time, dinnertime, and bedtime. Just after nine, a be more effective as a film. voice reads a poem called “There Will Come Soft th Rain” by 20 -century American poet Sara Teasdale. The message of the poem is that nature continues regardless of man’s fate. It includes the lines: “And no one will know of the war, not one / Will care at last when it is done. / Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree / If mankind perished utterly”. The poem strongly suggests all of humanity has perished in the nuclear war of the story. At ten o’clock at night, a storm causes a tree branch to break a window, knocking over a bottle of cleaning solvent, which sets the house on fire. The house tries to save itself, but cannot. The mechanical voices die out one by one as the fire destroys every room. The house frantically tries to continue its normal routine, reading poetry and making a huge breakfast—but then there is silence. The story ends with “a last voice”, the voice-clock, stating the date over and over again from among the house’s ruins: “Today is August 5, 2026, today is August 5, 2026, today is...”

Literary Devices Post-Apocalyptic Setting

Post-apocalyptic stories, set after the end of civilization, are often used to reflect on the dangers of the present-day world. Particularly since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and


Nagasaki during World War II, post-apocalyptic literature (and film) has tended to warn of the devastation of nuclear war.19 “There Will Come Soft Rains” is set among such devastation—but the more specific setting, the house, strengthens the story’s sense of danger and unease. Viewing a totally destroyed landscape with no houses left standing would be unsettling, but the house creates an intense sense of dread by reminding us what has been destroyed20. The house’s automated functions are a chilling reminder that no actual humans—and few creatures of any kind—remain in Allendale, and perhaps on Earth.

Mini-Directed Research Area

The Day After was a post-apocalyptic film that many believe had an impact on political and public opinion in the United States and possibly beyond. Find out what sort of apocalypse it depicted. Was it the same apocalypse as in a different film, The Day After Tomorrow? If not, why do you think these films described different apocalypses?

Personification The fact that the machines have voices and perform Debate it! human functions is not personification. They are simply programmed that way. Bradbury personifies Resolved: That household appliances have improved the human condition. the house by giving it other human qualities, including emotions. The personification begins in the very first line, when the voice-clock sings “time to get up…as if it were afraid that nobody would.” Later, the robotic mice are said to be “angry” and the house extremely worried: it “had shut up its windows and drawn shades in an oldmaidenly preoccupation with self-protection…” The house seems to have become an almost conscious being. It quivers with nervousness, sensing its owners are dead. Bradbury compares the house to a human body when he writes that food leftovers are washed “down a metal throat.” The mice are said to have “eyes” even though they are machines, and the house has an “attic brain”. The incinerator seems to “sigh”. When the house is destroyed, it is said to die, and is compared to a human body, with a “skeleton”, “skin”, and “veins and capillaries”. It fights for its survival like a living thing, becoming like a hysterical person—in a state of “maniac confusion”. Bradbury also personifies the fire as “clever” and “angry”. Its actions are human: it “fed on” the paintings and “lay in beds, stood in windows”. Personification creates a sense of irony. Nearly all the doing, thinking, and feeling in the story (except for the dog’s actions) is attributed to inanimate objects. The scenes that occur in the story are like a mockery of life, for life being ‘lived’ by machines and fire is not really life at all. Symbolism and Metaphor: The house is a symbol of human civilization. It is advanced and efficient, just as we consider our modern civilization to be. The McClellan family symbolizes humanity’s almost total dependence on technology. As we watch the house function, we come to understand that the McClellans no longer have to do anything for themselves—not even cook breakfast, entertain the children, or light a cigar.


The idea of an apocalypse has been around much longer. There’s always been someone who thought the world was going to end. 20 The phrase “the last one standing” usually refers to the winner of a contest, but the last house standing in the story is the opposite: a symbol of mankind’s defeat.


Bradbury uses a metaphor to suggest that pride was the cause of mankind’s downfall21: “The house was an altar with ten thousand attendants, big, small, servicing, attending, in choirs. But the gods had gone away…” Humans have gone beyond using technology to improve their lives. They have taken convenience too far, to the point where they act almost as gods, with endless mechanical servants. The McClellans do not even have to look at the clock, or read the weather report. The metaphor is ironic, because gods usually live forever. The McClellans, not so much.

Motifs and Themes Consequences of Nuclear Warfare

Like “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”, Bradbury’s story is a parable. It was written at the start of the Cold War, a long period of tension between Communist countries, most notably the Soviet Union, and Western powers, including the United States. Both sides engaged in a nuclear arms race, building up massive arsenals of nuclear weapons. The fear of nuclear war was felt in many parts of the world. People built fallout shelters to protect them during a nuclear attack, and schoolchildren were led through fallout drills, in which they practiced hiding under their desks.22 “There Will Come Soft Rains” encourages Americans of the 1950s not to turn a blind eye to the possibility of nuclear annihilation. The people of the United States were enjoying relative prosperity after World War II, having suffered less as a nation than countries in Europe and Asia. In a sense, the United States was like the house in the story—the last country left standing after war devastated much of the world. The story warns Americans not to forget about the dangers of war. The story’s title also provides an ironic contrast to the final scene, in which the house is reduced to “rubble and steam”. The Downside of Technology

The story takes a critical look at the value of mechanical things. They are useful in serving humans, but have no intrinsic value—no worth independent of their function23. The breakfast stove and robot mice are useless without humans there to enjoy breakfast or a clean floor. Despite how advanced the technology of the house is, it is completely helpless against the fire. Even the fancy sprinkler system fails, because the nuclear explosion has cut off the water supply to the house. Next to the frightening reality of nuclear destruction, the animated nursery, automated poetryreading, and foldout bridge tables seem frivolous—having no real purpose other than amusement24. “There Will Come Soft Rains” was written in the post-World War II era, a period of prosperity in the United States. Suburban life25 with household appliances such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners was becoming an ideal for many families. The story takes the ideal of convenience to an extreme, envisioning a suburbia in which the whole house is an automated appliance. Families no longer have to perform even the most basic household chores.


In Greek tragedy, the characteristic that leads to the hero’s downfall (and, usually, death) is called his tragic flaw. Many Greek heroes, such as Phaethon and Icarus have the tragic flaw of hubris, excessive pride or confidence in one’s abilities. 22 Despite the fact that a desk would provide very little protection against a nuclear explosion. 23 That is, unless you own a solid gold, diamond-encrusted iPhone. 24 You will want to hide this story from your parents when you are trying to convince them that you “need” an Xbox. 25 Suburbs are areas outside the centers of major cities, where people tend to live in houses, not apartment buildings. The American suburban ideal in the 1950s was a “house with a white-picket fence”.


The destroyed town of Allendale contrasts disturbingly with the convenient technology of the house: “The house stood alone in a city of rubble and ashes.” Technology, in the form of nuclear weapons, has destroyed Allendale. The juxtaposition26 of the house and city causes us to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of technology. It is a source of convenience, but also an agent of destruction. The Endurance of Nature Bradbury uses Teasdale’s poem to make a point about the relationship between nature and mankind. The poem muses on the fact that nature is indifferent to mankind—it does not need people’s help in order to survive, and lacks the capacity to care if we thrive or even survive. Teasdale predicts that nature will persist even if humanity destroys itself completely 27. Spring will still arrive, with “soft rains and the smell of the ground”, and the plants and animals will go about their lives. We humans often consider ourselves superior to nature—but the poem suggests that we are not so great. In the event of annihilation, life would go on without us. In “There Will Come Soft Rains”, the fire destroys the last traces of humanity. Nature triumphs over the manmade. We are left with a scene of complete devastation. In this context, the story’s title can be interpreted two ways. It is a message of hope, suggesting spring will come again and life will someday, somehow, grow out of the radioactive rubble. It is also ironic, for the charred, smoking landscape is the opposite of spring, the time of freshness, flowers, birds, and new growth. In either case, Bradbury suggests that nature is superior to technology. Fire defeats the house, and nature will continue to exist even in the absence of mankind28.

Conclusion In this section, we have learned that:  Ray Bradbury is a prolific American author of the 20th and early 21st centuries.  “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950) pictures a town in the wake of nuclear devastation. We witness the final motions and the destruction of the last automated house left standing.  The main literary devices used in the story are a post-apocalyptic setting, personification, symbolism, and metaphor.  The story was written after World War II, at the beginning of the Cold War. The story warns an American audience not to take its prosperity for granted. Relatively unharmed by the war, it is like the last house left standing in the story—and could be destroyed.  “There Will Come Soft Rains” warns that technological advances are not just sources of convenience, but agents of destruction.  Like Sara Teasdale’s poem, the story suggests nature will outlast mankind. Before moving on to the next section, ask yourself:  Are modern families becoming like the McClellans?  Is it a tragedy that the house is destroyed? 26

To juxtapose is to place very different objects or ideas next to each other. She wrote the poem shortly after the end of World War I. Known then as the “Great War,” it was the largest and bloodiest in modern times, and many people believed there would never be another to equal or surpass it. 28 The aftermath of the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine suggests this may be true. Many people died; survivors had to abandon the area. In their absence, wildlife—even horses and bears!—has reappeared and thrived. 27


III. Isaac Asimov: ‘‘The Last Question’’ What will happen at the end of time? This is the question Isaac Asimov asks and answers in “The Last Question.” Over the course of ten trillion years, the universe and humanity transform until they are beyond recognition. Earth ceases to exist, the Sun dies out, and people’s minds float through space, separate from their bodies. When all the stars have died out and almost nothing exists anymore—not even time—a single question still holds the potent power of change.29

Objectives By the time you complete this chapter, you should be able to answer the following questions.  What is Isaac Asimov famous for writing?  In “The Last Question,” what transformations do the universe and human race experience?  What is the purpose of biblical allusion in the story?

Isaac Asimov “This is by far my favorite story of all those I have written,” Isaac Asimov has said of “The Last Question”—no small claim, since Asimov wrote and published over 500 books, even more than Ray Bradbury.30 On June 1, 1956, Bob Lownes, editor of Science Fiction Quarterly, asked Asimov if he could submit a story for publication. Three days later, Asimov sent him, the finished manuscript of “The Last Question”, which he called, in his autobiography, “the science fiction story to end all science fiction stories.”31 The story’s impact was deeply felt and inspired creative responses among readers. Soon after its release, a preacher discussed “The Last Question” in a sermon. In 1972, a fan turned the story into a planetarium show that Asimov attended. He said the show helped him better understand his own story a full 16 years after writing it. “The Last Question” is one of Asimov’s most science-focused stories, dealing with time, chaos, and technology. It proved memorable for readers, though, according to Asimov, many forgot who had written it.32


Or the power of a reboot, at any rate. Everyone knows a reboot fixes anything. Most were not science fiction, however—in fact, most were not fiction at all. They ranged from histories to collections of “lecherous” limericks. 31 It failed. There are still science fiction stories. 32 In fact, Asimov once had a phone call from a man who began, “Dr. Asimov, there’s a story I think you wrote, whose title I can’t remember,” and Asimov told him the title, thereby convincing the man he could read minds. 30


Born Isaak Ozimov in Petrovichi, Russia, in 1919 or 1920, Isaac Asimov immigrated to the United States with his family at age three. Although Russian-born, he never learned Russian, since his parents spoke Yiddish33 and English with him. He learned to read at age five, and, within a year or two, was reading early science fiction magazines.34 By age eleven, Asimov was writing his own stories, and, by nineteen, he had begun publishing them. He would continue to publish stories, novels, and nonfiction works until the end of his life in 1992. Asimov attended high school in New York, graduating in 1935, and earned three degrees in chemistry—a bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D.—over the next 13 years. He worked as a chemist at the Philadelphia Navy Yard during World War II, and then served for nine months in the United States Army before returning to science and writing. He joined the faculty of Boston University in 1949. However, he was a professor for less than a decade, becoming a full-time writer in 1958.

Is Multivac a Vacuum Cleaner? Today, it may seem strange that Asimov named all his computers this-vac and that-vac, but the very first computers were made with thousands of vacuum tubes. As a result, one such real-world computer, which gave Asimov the idea for Multivac, was named UNIVAC. Computers based on vacuum tubes required tremendous space and were very slow. Asimov, like many writers projecting into the future, imagined computers becoming even larger and more powerful, but failed to grasp how radically they would change. You might be surprised to learn that, as late as the 1980s and 1990s, science fiction writers created entire future histories without anything remotely like the Internet-----or cell phones.

Asimov is known today as a Grand Master of science fiction.35 His Foundation and Robot series novels are considered modern classics of the genre; both series are examples of a type of science fiction called future history. Future histories create elaborately detailed histories of the future, in which an author then sets multiple stories. Asimov also penned many non-fiction works, as well as Mini-Directed Research Area some straight mystery novels, but is best remembered for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series rests on the his science fiction. When considering science fiction, it is imaginary science of psychohistory. Find out important to remember that the genre of science fiction what this science is, and discuss with your team is difficult to define, as it is very broad and varied. On whether you think it might be possible someday. the fringes it overlaps with other genres, such as fantasy Then, be ready to debate motions related to and magic realism. Asimov’s science fiction is known as psychohistory at a tournament. “hard science fiction”—not because it is difficult, but because it is based on actual science (“hard” science) as it was understood at the time. Asimov sometimes referred to his work as “social science fiction” because it often explored the impact of science and technology on human societies. Most critics agree that Asimov’s work was more notable for its powerful ideas than for containing deeply-imagined characters or poetic language.36 Asimov’s death in 1992 is suggestive of how social values can transform in a single decade. The cause of his death—a disease called AIDS, which he caught through a contaminated blood transfusion— was so controversial at the time that his family decided to hide it from the world. Ten years later, society had become more accepting, and his wife revealed the truth behind his decline.37


Yiddish is a language once spoken by many people of Jewish descent—in large part a mixture of German and Hebrew. Isaac’s father disapproved of the magazines, but Isaac won him over by arguing that, since their titles included the word “science”, they had to be educational. 35 Yes, it’s an official title, though it runs the risk of inflation as a new Grand Master is elected every year. 36 Ironically, arguably his most famous and well-realized character isn’t even human: the robot, R. Daneel Olivaw. 37 Asimov once wrote he hoped to die typing, his (sizable) nose stuck between the keys of his typewriter. It wasn’t to be. 34


‘‘The Last Question’’: Overview “The Last Question” covers ten trillion years of history by giving us glimpses into seven different moments.38 In each of seven scenes, beginning in 206139 and extending far into the future, humans ask highly intelligent supercomputers40 for the answer to the same question: “How can the net amount of entropy in the universe be massively decreased?” Entropy is the gradual progression of the universe towards chaos41 and heat-death, and the characters want to know if it can ever be reversed. In 2061, the computers are known as Multivac though they are later called Microvac, the Galactic AC, the Universal AC, the “Cosmic AC, and, finally, just AC. They are vital to human life, controlling nearly everything, from power sources to starships, and are far more intelligent than people can ever hope to be. The human characters are in awe of the computers, and ask them the questions that they themselves cannot answer.42 The “last question” begins as a bet between two half-drunken men, Adell and Lupov. Mankind has recently harnessed the energy of the sun, and the men are arguing over whether the sun is really an unlimited energy source, or if it will someday run out of energy. Lupov says the sun and other stars will inevitably burn out. The universe is doomed to go dark; Entropy is inevitable. Adell counters that man might be able to reverse entropy and keep the universe going indefinitely. The men ask Multivac to resolve their argument. The computer is so overwhelmed by the question of whether entropy can be reversed that it falls silent. It eventually responds: “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”43 This answer is repeated in each of the scenes, except Discuss it the final scene. In scenes four through six, the words Historically, most science fiction writers have been “AS YET” are added to emphasize the fact that men. One early female science fiction writer, Alice mankind has been asking the question for ages, and Sheldon, even pretended to be a man, using the yet the answer still cannot be found. Each group of name James Tiptree, Jr., in order to fit in. Why do you characters asks its supercomputer the same question think men have dominated science fiction—and, to a and receives the same answer. In the wide time span slightly lesser degree, fantasy? of the story, mankind learns to derive all the energy it needs from the sun, humans have colonized planets in other galaxies, achieved immortality, and Earth’s Sun has become a white dwarf, meaning that it has exhausted its energy. By the fifth scene, people’s minds have melded with Mini-Directed Research Area AC, the largest universal computer ever to exist, while their bodies are cared for by robots, “automatons”. In What is the difference between soft and hard science fiction? Which of the works studied this year would the sixth scene, almost nothing exists. The seventh you consider to be soft? Start here: and final scene occurs past the end of time, in hyperspace, a term Asimov uses to mean a state in which the laws of science that we know on Earth no longer apply. Time, space, and speed are all radically different than we know them to be—as in a time warp between different universes. The


I once wrote a short story titled “Seven Ways to Live Forever.” It took me forever to write. Don’t ask if you can read it. 2061 must have seemed much farther away in 1956, when Asimov wrote this story, than it does now. 40 In the last scene, a computer with human consciousness both asks and answers the question. 41 When a block of ice melts into water, its entropy increases. In the solid form of ice, the molecules are tightly arranged, whereas in the liquid form of water, they are more loosely arranged. When water evaporates water vapor, in which the molecules are even more loosely arranged, entropy increases again. 42 This footnote is not #42 by accident. 43 At least it didn’t give them the Blue Screen of Death. 39


only reason AC still exists is because it has not yet answered the question. Finally, it figures out the answer. It speaks into the void: “LET THERE BE LIGHT!”44—and light appears.45

Literary Devices Form “The Last Question” is told in a series of vignettes, short scenes featuring different characters in different times and places. The scenes flash before us like scenes in a TV show, with no transition between one and the next. Common elements—human characters, computers, and the “last question”— connect the scenes. Using the vignette form, Asimov is able to, as he described it, “tell several trillion years of human history in the space of a short story.” The abrupt jumps from scene to scene give us a sense of the giant leaps in time we are making. The vignettes grow shorter46 and more intense as the story goes on. The first scenes occur at a leisurely pace, especially the first one, in which the characters are drinking. Adell and Lupov experience a bit of anxiety about the future of humanity, but they forget all about it the next morning. By the fourth scene, tension is high between man and computer over the subject of the question. Man wonders whether the question is solvable. The last two and shortest vignettes are composed mainly of short narrative sentences rather than dialogue, since mankind has died out and fused with the AC. The surging drama of the last scenes makes the story’s conclusion especially strong. The tension of the final vignettes turns quickly into a haunting sense of awe at the last lines. Writing Style As in most of his writing, both fiction and non-fiction, ’’Colored glass mosaics have been known sense Asimov’s style in “The Last Question” is clear and ancient times. Creating clear plate glass that concise, with little space devoted to long descriptive doesn't distort one's view of the world is much passages or to the inner minds of his characters. In harder. Even though it's less beautiful and less response to critics who see this style as a lack of style, ‘poetic,’ it's much harder to make.’’ Asimov wrote in a 1980 essay that what he wanted was -----Isaac Asimov, on his choice to write clearly for readers to forget they were reading and feel directly instead of poetically engaged in his stories. To write clearly, he suggested, was more difficult in some ways than to write un-clearly. Readers of Asimov’s work should keep in mind that he was not encoding secret messages in it, but trying to be transparent. Biblical Allusion The last lines of “The Last Question” allude to the Discuss it beginning of the Book of Genesis, the first volume of Is it easier to write clearly or beautifully? the Bible, when God creates the world. Then God creates light. In the King James translation of the Bible, the record of this event is translated from Hebrew as, “And God said let there be light, and there was light.” The creation of a new universe reverses entropy, because it creates order where, previously, nothing existed. A few lines earlier, the phrase “And it came to pass” appears. This phrase is often used in the Bible to introduce significant events.


If only it would turn off the Caps Lock and stop yelling at us. It’s too bad this does not work in real life, “light” being substituted with “a perfect finished copy of my homework.” 46 I’ve always been amused by the phrase “grow shorter”. 45


Names The characters in each scene gradually become less distinct from one another until all of humanity is combined with the AC. Eventually, humans cease to exist. Asimov uses the characters’ names to tell us that man is losing his individuality. We progress from Adell and Lupov, two distinct men, to the similarly named Jerrodd, Jerrodine, and Jerrodettes to characters whose names are a combination of letters and numbers—like machines.47 The names continue to become progressively less humansounding as we meet characters whose bodies have been made immortal, while their minds exist on some other plane. Their names, Zee Prime and Dee Sub Wun, are spelled in letters, yet sound like numbers. Next, all the people on Earth come to share one mind, or one consciousness, and are called, simply, “Man.” Asimov tells us, “Man, mentally, was one.” In the last scene, humanity no longer exists and therefore no longer has a name. Even the computers’ names shorten over time, giving us a sense that existence—of any kind—is fading away.48

Content and Meaning “The Last Question” often leaves readers with strong feelings, ranging from awe to despair, because it deals with such grand ideas. Asimov’s stories are often multilayered, considering scientific concepts on the surface, but, on a deeper level, asking questions about the human condition. The Search for Meaning In every age within the ten trillion years of the story, mankind asks the same question: Can the universe be prevented from deteriorating into chaos? Many of the characters seem sure that entropy cannot be prevented.49 Jerrodd states, “It will all stop someday…Even the stars run down, you know”, and VJ-23X claims, “We both know entropy can’t be reversed. You can’t turn smoke and ash back into a tree.” However, in each age, the characters still hold enough doubt to ask their supercomputer the question, and, in each age, that supercomputer cannot provide an answer. By repeating the question over so many trillions of years, Asimov demonstrates mankind’s unending quest to know what is unknown, find meaning, or make sense of the universe. The people asking the question are concerned with the practical matter of how the human race will continue to survive, but, perhaps more so, they are troubled by the idea that certain truths can never be known50. The question is scientific, yet it is not really asked out of scientific interest. As such, like the questions, “Does God exist?” or “What is the purpose of mankind?” it does not have a scientific answer. The answer, like the concept of an all-powerful creator god, requires a leap of faith. It stands in contrast to all the scientific progress made over the millions of years in the story. Instead of a formula or theorem, it is a line from the Bible. Asimov answers “the last question” in a way different readers might interpret very differently. Those who adamantly believe in God may think the answer means: Yes, entropy can be reversed, but only by a miracle of God. Readers who, like Asimov, are atheists51, or believe it is impossible to know whether God exists52, may find the answer vague. To them, the answer may seem to be: Yes, entropy can be reversed, but in a way beyond human understanding.


Nowadays, they’d probably be called iJohn and iJohn 4G. Existence is ceasing to exist. Commence headache. 49 If you’d studied chemistry, you’d be sure too: the inevitable increase of entropy is the second law of thermodynamics. 50 Appropriately to the ten-trillion-year story, an unknown truth is sometimes called “a question for the ages.” 51 An atheist is someone who does not believe in the existence of God. 52 Asimov is quoted as having stated: "Emotionally I am an atheist. I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time." 48


Since Asimov was an atheist, it is important to consider the story from the second perspective. “The Last Question” demonstrates that curiosity and the search for meaning are central to human existence. It also stresses we must never stop being curious and trying to make progress—for even after all life, matter, and even time and space seem to exist, human curiosity allows the universe to be reborn: “All other questions had been answered, and until this last question was answered also, AC might not release his consciousness.” In the story, a mere question outlasts everything else, and makes the impossible possible. Had mankind never asked the question, AC would never have solved it and entropy would not have been reversed. The story’s last moments can be seen as a metaphor for the process of scientific inquiry and discovery. The statement “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” represents the desire for progress. It is the desire mankind has had since at least 2061, when Adell and Lupov first asked the question, and arguably since man began erecting civilization out of the wilderness. The light at story’s end is a symbol of knowledge and progress. Entropy is reversed and order emerges in the universe again. Here the story suggests that, ultimately, progress is the only solution to chaos. In the age when the stars are dying out, Cosmic AC tells Man: "NO PROBLEM IS INSOLUBLE IN ALL CONCEIVABLE CIRCUMSTANCES." This statement is like the thesis of the story—that even the most difficult problem can be solved if enough inquiries are made and data collected. Though Asimov was not a religious man, he believed in the power of human ingenuity to enable progress and transform the universe. One could say he believed in the Almighty Question. Technology: Good or Bad Influence? The relationship between humans and computers in “The Last Question” is complex and open to interpretation. On the one hand, we might feel uncomfortable at the extent of mankind’s reliance on computers. Even in 2061, humans can no longer fully comprehend computers, which have become incredibly complex: “the general plan of relays and circuits [had] long since grown past the point where any single human could possibly have a firm grasp of the whole.” Because computers are beyond human understanding, humans seem to greatly admire them. Asimov calls Adell and Lupov “faithful attendants” of Multivac, implying that they tend to it the way servants serve a king. At the same time, in the second scene, the Microvac seems like a servant to the family of Jerrodds, responsible for shuttling them to their destination and answering any questions they might have. However, they, like Adell and Lupov, as well as the humans in all the other scenes, would be helpless without the computers. The survival of human society is based on Multivac and its descendants, which provide energy and transportation to the human race. Gradually, humanity as we know it disappears. People’s minds are separated from their bodies, which are tended by robots. Humans can no longer comprehend any part of the supercomputer, at this point, the Cosmic AC: “The question of its size and Nature no longer had meaning to any terms that Man could comprehend.” At the end, bodies (like everything) cease to exist, and all human consciousness is absorbed into AC. “The Last Question” portrays humanity becoming so dependent on technology for survival that humanity transforms itself out of existence. On the other hand, the generations of Multivac allow humans to survive long after Earth’s demise and the death of the Sun. Multivac brings newfound hope for humanity’s survival when it discovers how to harness solar energy. Microvac transports people to live on new planets. The Galactic AC and Cosmic AC keep humanity going, even when they have long outstripped human understanding. Over time, humans survive by merging with AC—and, in the end, AC makes it possible for the universe to continue existing. AC has taken on the role of a divine being.


Viewing AC in this way allows us to view technology in a positive light. Though an atheist, Asimov gives a computer, a piece of technology built by humans, the importance and abilities of God. From this viewpoint, technology is the greatest power in existence. It can answer unanswerable questions. It is the last and greatest hope of humanity. We do not know what happens after the end of the story, when light appears. If we follow the tale from the Bible, Earth will be created again, and so will humanity—but this is only one possibility. It is unclear whether AC will continue to shape the course of the new universe, or whether a series of random events will. We do not know whether the universe as we know it will form again, or whether a new type of universe will form—perhaps one we cannot even imagine53. The humans in the story ask the question due to their Debate it! fear that humanity will die out. They want the universe to continue because they want to continue. Resolved: That the most important questions in this world can be answered through science. Taking this into account, we can view the story’s ending as the beginning of a new age for humanity. It is possible that a new Earth might form and humans evolve on it all over again.54 Technology not only transforms the universe over the ten trillion years of “The Last Question,” but it even creates something out of nothing.

Conclusion In this section, we have learned that:  Isaac Asimov was a writer of science fiction whose books deal with major themes of time, computers and artificial intelligence, and the effect of technology on humans.  Asimov was an atheist and a scientist, and his views on religion and science helped shape the major topics and themes of his works of fiction.  “The Last Question” is Asimov’s favorite of his own stories.  The ending alludes to the biblical Book of Genesis, in which God creates the Earth.  The question in “The Last Question” represents mankind’s desire for progress. The story emphasizes the importance of progress to the survival of humankind.  The story portrays technology in both a negative and positive light, depending on one’s interpretation. Humanity becomes dependent on technology for survival, yet technology enables mankind to survive for ten trillion years, solves mankind’s most important and troubling question, and may even bring mankind back into existence. Before moving on to the next section, ask yourself:  How do the universe, and man’s role in it, transform during “The Last Question”?  What do you think happens after the end of the story?  What technological advances have most affected your life? 53

As famous science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, may have said: “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” 54 And then Cylons will destroy the world all over again. Sigh.


IV. Isaac Asimov: ‘‘Nightfall’’ If you are lost, find the North Star. If you are outside on a dark night, admire the constellations. If you see stars for the first time, go insane and burn your city to the ground. Actually, save that for the Lagashians. Unlike us, the inhabitants of Lagash in Asimov’s “Nightfall” have every reason to be terrified of starlight: it spells the end of civilization.

Objectives By the time you complete this chapter, you should be able to answer the following questions.  What does the darkness in “Nightfall” symbolize?  Does science or religion triumph in the story?  How do the “cycles” in the history of Lagash compare to those of Earth’s civilizations?

Context Although “The Last Question” is Asimov’s favorite of his own stories, “Nightfall” is arguably more popular with his fans. Asimov once said, “It frequently ends up on the top of the list—not only of my stories but of anybody’s. Yet I was only twenty-one when I wrote it and was still feeling my way.” Asimov wrote “Nightfall” after a conversation with the editor of Astounding Science-Fiction, John W. Campbell, who was pondering this quote from 19th-century American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!” In other words, we are so used to seeing stars that we take them for granted—but if we saw them only once in a thousand years, we would be so amazed that we would instantly renew our faith in God. Campbell disagreed. He told Asimov he believed people would go insane if they only saw the stars once per millennium. “I want you to write a story about that,” he told Asimov.

‘‘Nightfall’’: Overview “Nightfall” begins with an epigraph56, Emerson’s Debate it! quote—which it proceeds to disprove. Far from being Resolved: That nothing could ever drive all humans excited about the approaching total solar eclipse on insane at once.55 their planet, the Lagashians are beside themselves with terror. The eclipse is an extremely rare event, occurring only once every 2,049 years, and is a 55 56

Except maybe the next Stephanie Meyer novel. An epigraph is a quote that introduces a work of literature.


frightening prospect on a planet that has six suns and experiences eternal daytime. The Lagashians are accustomed to sunlight—which is always so bright that they have never seen the stars. When the eclipse has happened in the past, the Lagashians have been so desperate for light other than starlight that they burned down their homes and buildings, destroying their civilization. The scientists at Saro University who have discovered the approach of the eclipse are trying to ensure that at least some Lagashians survive to carry on civilization. Among other things, they perform trial simulations of darkness and stock a hideout with supplies.58

After Nightfall, More Nightfalls John Campbell first published ‘‘Nightfall’’ in

Astounding Science-Fiction in 1941-----but the story

has been frequently reprinted ever since. In the 1950s, it was broadcast as a radio program. In 1968, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted it the best science fiction short story written before 1965 (when they began voting for annual winners).57 It has been made into a film twice, in 1988 and 2000-----neither film was very good. In 1990, Asimov’s friend Robert Silverberg expanded it into a novel that carried on past the eclipse to show us what happened next.

A journalist named Theremon has been assigned to cover the story of the eclipse, provided he survives it without being killed or going mad. While preparing for the eclipse, the scientists capture a young religious man or “Cultist” named Latimer59, who believes the cause of the event is divine, not scientific. The scientists prepare to document the eclipse on camera, steeling themselves for the terrifying dark—but, in the end, every last Lagashian goes insane.60 “Nightfall” ends with the stars shining down as Theremon succumbs to madness. A “crimson glow…that was not the glow of a sun” begins to rise from the city, implying people are already burning buildings for light. The story’s final words read: “The long night had come again.” Tragically, the scientists fail to record the eclipse, and their research will likely be burned, so Lagashians another 2,049 years in the future will probably face the same fate.

Literary Devices Dialogue

Asimov gives us most of the information we need to Watch it on YouTube understand his characters through dialogue, or conversation. “Nightfall” starts with an encounter Speaking of dialogue, you might enjoy this interview with Asimov. Do you see any connections in his between two characters that leads to a conversation. responses to “Nightfall” or “The Last Question”? This device continues throughout the story. Since the protagonist, Theremon, is a reporter, he gathers most of his facts by interviewing other people—mostly the scientists. Latimer, the Cultist, also shares some of his beliefs in conversation, and eventually starts speaking in gibberish, which is the language of his 57

Yes, there are awards for science fiction stories. I would happily burn down my civilization if I won the Hugo or a Nebula. – Daniel 58 I can’t imagine this would be very comforting to a Lagashian. “Hi. The world is going to end tomorrow—but don’t worry, there’s a small team of scientists working on it.” 59 His name may or may not be a reference to Hugh Latimer, a 16th-century Christian martyr of England who was burned at the stake during the reign of Queen Mary. 60 I wonder: aren’t there any blind Lagashians? You’d think they would be able to deal.


Book of Revelations. Through Theremon’s inquiries, Asimov accomplishes most of the exposition, or delivery of background information, for the story. Metaphor and Symbolism The darkness and light in “Nightfall” are metaphors for humanity’s greatest sources of fear and hope, respectively. Darkness represents the unknown—a lack of knowledge, as well as disorder and madness. Light represents knowledge, order, civilization, and reason.61 The metaphors in the story end up playing out quite literally. As long as Lagash is bathed in light, civilization persists and the scientists can continue seeking knowledge and work towards maintaining order and reason. Candles are extremely holy, like “the most sacred item of a religious ritual”, to the Lagashians, because they protect them from darkness and madness. The moment darkness falls and the candles burn out, fear and insanity take over. The title “Nightfall” and the “long night” of the last line refer not to the eclipse itself, but to the period of destruction that follows. Biblical Allusion The Book of Revelations in “Nightfall” alludes (quite bluntly) to the final book of Christian Bible, the Book of Revelation, which describes the apocalypse. The text Latimer quotes from is not Christian, so it mentions unfamiliar places and religious figures, but its content is similar— describing the end of the world. It has the same type of phrasing as the Bible, such as “And it came to pass”, and Latimer quotes from it in an ancient language, perhaps corresponding to Latin.

Motifs and Themes The Struggle Between Science and Religion The main characters in “Nightfall” are a journalist and a group of scientists. Both jobs require a rational, objective view of the world, based on evidence. Latimer, the young Cultist who invades the lab, has an entirely different worldview based on faith. He believes his soul will be saved when he sees the stars during the eclipse. Through the interactions between Latimer and the scientists, Asimov illustrates the age-old conflict between religion and science. In exchange for data, one of the scientists, Aton, provided the Cultists with scientific proof to support their belief in the eclipse. Latimer considers Aton’s scientific evidence sacrilegious—highly offensive to his beliefs—because if everything can be proved, there is no longer a need for faith. He accuses Aton of falsifying the proof to destroy his religion: “your pretended explanation backed our beliefs, and at the same time removed all necessity for them. You made of the Darkness and the Stars a natural phenomenon, and removed all its real significance.” It turns out there is truth to both Latimer and the scientists’ predictions about the eclipse. The scientists have accurately predicted the occurrence of the eclipse and used historical data to foresee the chaos it will create. Latimer anticipates the same events using a religious text called the Book of


Writers around the world have been using metaphors of darkness and light for hundreds, if not thousands of years. We even use them in conversation. When a person explains a concept, she is said to “shed light on it”, and when a discovery is made, it is said to be “brought to light”. The term Dark Ages is used to describe the stagnation of civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire, while the age of reason of the 18th century is known as the Enlightenment.


Revelations. It describes the eclipse of Beta, darkness, the appearance of the stars, the separation of people’s souls from their bodies, and total chaos and destruction. The Cultists fulfill the other part of the idea expressed in Emerson’s quote. The Cultists go mad like everyone else when they see the stars, but still think they are having a religious experience—they “believe and adore”. They do “preserve” their belief in their religion “for many generations”—which we know because they still know and believe in their ancient Book of Revelations. By calling the stars “indifferent” towards the end of the story, Asimov suggests they are merely stars—not godly as the Cultists believe—but the Cultists still accurately predict the eclipse and destruction of civilization. Asimov was an atheist, so his decision to include religion in the story should not be taken for granted. On Lagash, the eclipse and appearance of the stars are such grand, complex, terrifying events that no one can claim to fully understand them. Asimov seems to suggest that some aspects of the universe are too complex and mysterious for us to comprehend and control. As an atheist, though, he may also be discrediting religion: what the Cultists view as a holy event turns out to be a perfectly predictable scientific phenomenon. Perhaps, a reader might conclude, the same might be true of events described in the Christian Bible and other real-world religious texts.62 Man’s Desire for Control

Latimer’s belief in the Book of Revelations helps to keep him from fearing the eclipse. He believes the eclipse and chaos to come are out of his control, so he does nothing to try to prevent or outsmart them. As one of very few cultists on Lagash, he is an exception to the rule. Rational as they might be, the scientists fear the eclipse because it is out of their control—the same reason one of us might fear an earthquake or tsunami. They cannot prevent it. The best they can do is survive it and pass on knowledge of it to future generations, which might find a solution before the next eclipse. The scientists spend the entire story developing methods to control the effects of darkness. Theremon, who is afraid of the dark despite trying to sound skeptical and brave, fabricates some control and order for himself by reporting on the eclipse and the scientists’ ideas. The characters’ intense desire to control their world—and their failure to do so—suggests that certain aspects of the universe, like natural disasters, are out of our control. Today, we can clone animals, crash atoms together in a particle accelerator, and use robotic Mars Rovers to explore Mars, but we cannot prevent a volcano from erupting63 or darkness from falling. The Cycle of History

In “Nightfall”, archaeological evidence has been discovered of nine cycles of civilization, “all of which have reached heights comparable to our own, and all of which, without exception, were destroyed by fire at the very height of their culture”. Civilization on Lagash has been developing to an advanced state and then succumbing to fire for 9 x 2,049 = 18,441 years. The story of Lagash mirrors the rise and fall of civilizations64 on Earth. Ever since civilization first appeared, great and complex societies have developed and disappeared, or have transformed into new societies. One difference between the histories of Earth and Lagash is that civilizations on Earth are never totally and instantly destroyed.65 They tend to decline over a period of many years. By contrast, history on Lagash is completely reset at regular (2,049-year) intervals. 62

Asimov later wrote a guide to the Bible in which he looked at possible real-world parallels to Biblical events. As many travelers rediscovered last year after the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland grounded thousands of planes. 64 Alpaca fact: the 2008-2009 World Scholar’s Cup theme was The Fall of Empires. 65 Not yet. See “There Will be Soft Rains” for total destruction. See “Julian: A Christmas Story” for gradual decay. 63


The knowledge and artifacts of Earth’s civilization are preserved over time, and each successive society builds on the discoveries of the last. History on Earth can be said to move in cycles, yet it is constantly evolving. Since there are countless civilizations on Earth at a given time, they can interact, share knowledge, and influence each other. Lagash is on its own, seeming to lack contact with other worlds. Its history is truly cyclical, starting totally anew after the apocalypse, with the Lagashians gone mad—so knowledge is lost66—and their buildings destroyed. The end of each of their cycles is less like the fall of an Earth civilization and more like one of Earth’s mass extinctions.67 In “Nightfall,” the scientists have figured out what Debate it! happens at the end of each cycle, an eclipse and Resolved: It is unrealistic that all knowledge in a ensuing destruction, and hope to prevent it—but society could be destroyed the way it is in “Nightfall”. history repeats itself. They might not even be the first scientists to have figured it out—because their work is about to vanish, along with everything else. The transformation of the world cannot be stopped.

Conclusion In this section, we learned that:  “Nightfall” is one of Asimov’s most popular stories, though he wrote it toward the beginning of his career. His mentor and editor, John W. Campbell, encouraged him to write it as a response to a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Asimov provides both exposition and character development through dialogue.  Darkness and light are metaphors in the story, dark representing the unknown, chaos, and madness, and light representing knowledge, order, and reason.  “Nightfall” depicts the struggle between science and religion.  The scientists and Theremon demonstrate man’s desire to control the world. They realize they cannot prevent the eclipse, but believe they can control its effects. In the end they, too, go mad—suggesting that some aspects of the universe are beyond our control.  Every 2,094 years, Lagash completes a cycle of creation and destruction that is like an extreme version of the rise and fall of civilizations on Earth.  The cycle of history in the story is unstoppable—and so, Asimov implies, is the continued transformation of our world. Before moving on to the next section, ask yourself:  If you found yourself on Lagash with the eclipse rapidly approaching and could choose whether to be a scientist or Cultist, which would you choose to be?  How do you think the Cultists were able to remember some of the past?  Would the story be different if Lagash had never known light, and experienced its first sunrise?  Does “Nightfall” ultimately offer a positive or negative view of civilization?

66 67

Except in the mythical beliefs of the Cultists. Oh, triceratops. We hardly knew you.


V. Daniel Keyes: ‘‘Flowers for Algernon’’ Is it possible to go too far in trying to transform the world? In “Flowers for Algernon”, Daniel Keyes uses the story of one white lab mouse and one mentally disabled man to warn us that there are limits to what science can do for mankind and the world. Science is good—but when it goes too far, it can be dangerous and destructive. Where do we draw the line?

Objectives By the time you complete this chapter, you should be able to answer the following questions.  What are the consequences of manipulating intelligence in “Flowers for Algernon”?  What is Algernon’s purpose in the story?  How is the experiment performed on Algernon and Charlie ethically questionable?

Daniel Keyes When Daniel Keyes published the short story “Flowers for Algernon” in 1959, he had no idea it would become his most famous work. It received so much acclaim that Keyes expanded it into a novel of the same name, which he published in 1966. It has been adapted for the stage, screen, and radio, and Cliff Robertson even won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Charlie Gordon in the 1968 film version, Charly. Keyes has published four other novels and three nonfiction books, including the memoir Algernon, Charlie and I: A Writer’s Journey. He has taught creative writing at several American universities while continuing to write, but the story of Charlie and Algernon remains his most famous. Born in 1927 in Brooklyn, a borough of New York City, Keyes was the child of European immigrants, both of whom had little education but knew its value. They wanted their son to be a doctor, and he worked hard to excel in school and please them. Unfortunately, the more Keyes learned, the less he related to his parents. This experience made him realize that education could change people’s relationships with one another—and even drive a wedge between family members.68 Keyes further explored the tension between people’s education and their perspective while a teacher in New York City schools. He taught an English class for students who struggled with the subject. Many were intellectually limited; some had learning disabilities. One day, a students came up to him and said, “I want to be smart”, causing Keyes to wonder what would happen if it were possible to increase human intelligence. The idea for Flowers for Algernon was born. 68

Something a lot of children of first-generation American immigrants have probably experienced—the argument in which a parent says, “Just because you went to such-and-such-a-college doesn’t mean you know better than me.”


‘‘Flowers for Algernon’’: Overview Charlie Gordon is a mentally disabled man who has always worked menial (unskilled) jobs. When the story opens, he is the janitor at a factory. He knows he is not as smart as other people, but he has learned to read, write, and live by himself. He attends a night school for adults, and his teacher, Alice Kinnian, has recommended him for a surgical experiment to increase his intelligence. He will be the first human test subject. The story is written in the form of progress reports in Charlie’s journal—his own narration of what is happening to him during the experiment. Before the operation, Charlie is made to complete a series of laboratory tests, including solving mazes with a mouse named Algernon69. Algernon has undergone the same operation Charlie will, so he is three times smarter than a normal mouse70. Despite observing Algernon’s abilities, Charlie is not convinced the surgery will increase his intelligence—but, after the operation, his IQ does increase at a rapid rate. His newfound intelligence changes his view of the world on various levels. It allows him to better understand human relationships—so he realizes his co-workers at the factory were never really his friends, but liked to have him around so they could make fun of him. Charlie learns other languages, begins reading scientific journals, and grows smarter first than Ms. Kinnian and then than Dr. Nemur and Dr. Strauss, the doctors who performed the experiment. As his intelligence soars, Charlie begins to look down on most people, even the brilliant doctors; he is now smarter than all of them. Gradually, Charlie starts to realize that high intelligence can be as isolating as low intelligence. He has no more friends now than when he was mentally handicapped. One night, eating in a restaurant, Charlie sees a mentally disabled boy, a dishwasher, who breaks some plates and gets teased by the other customers. At first, Charlie laughs at the boy too, but then he realizes: this is the way people used to treat him. Charlie yells at the other diners, “Shut up! Leave him alone! It’s not his fault he can't understand. He can’t help what he is! But for God’s sake, he’s still a human being!” Watching the boy, Charlie sees his own past clearly for the first time. He is angry and ashamed that people who would never treat a lame or a blind man badly “think nothing of abusing a man born with low intelligence.” He is even more ashamed that he joined in their jeering. Suddenly Algernon begins to lose his surgically-induced intelligence, proving that the experiment is flawed, and Charlie panics. He knows he is also likely to lose his intelligence, and begins to conduct his own experiments on the flaw in the experiment, which he calls “The Algernon-Gordon Effect.” Unfortunately, just as he finishes his experiments, his intelligence begins to degenerate, and both he and his doctors are powerless to reverse his decay. Charlie is painfully aware of what is happening to him as his understanding of the world and his writing and reading skills slip away from him. In the midst of Charlie’s slide back to lower intelligence, Algernon dies. Charlie asks for his old janitorial job back, and tries to return to his former life, yet he cannot stand the pity in the eyes of his co-workers, landlady, and Miss Kinnian. He decides to move to a new place where no one knows him. At the story’s end, Charlie asks Miss Kinnian, or whoever is reading his journal, to lay flowers on Algernon’s grave.

69 70

The name Algernon means “with a moustache” or “with whiskers”—an appropriate name for a mouse. John Steinbeck might have titled this story “Of a Mouse and a Man”.


Literary Devices Form

“Flowers for Algernon” is written in epistolary form (as a series of letters or other documents), though Charlie’s progress reports are not addressed to anyone. We experience the story from a firstperson perspective, through Charlie’s eyes, which allows us to feel more of his emotions. The improvement and deterioration of Charlie’s writing skills enhance our understanding of his experience. At first, his spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure are very poor, since his IQ is only 68—well below average. As Charlie’s intelligence increases, his spelling improves and his sentences become longer and more complex. As the “Algernon-Gordon Effect” takes hold, his writing returns to its original, childlike state. Algernon: Foreshadowing and Symbolism Algernon is a complementary character to Charlie, for everything that happens to Charlie has happened to Algernon first, from the tests and operation to the subsequent increase and decrease in intelligence. Keyes uses Algernon to foreshadow what will happen to Charlie—an upsetting prospect for readers who like Charlie, because they realize what is about to happen to him. Charlie’s request that someone lay flowers on Algernon’s grave is an act of friendship and respect, but it is also Charlie’s way of mourning for his own life, altered and perhaps ruined by scientific experimentation. Algernon is also a powerful symbol of the way in which Charlie is viewed by the doctors—and society, by extension. Mice are frequent subjects of scientific tests designed to inform scientists about humans.71 The tests performed on mice are often considered unethical (morally wrong) to perform on humans, because they can cause death or serious harm. Though Charlie is human, scientists view him in the same way they do Algernon—as a test subject rather than a human being. They value him only for his ability to contribute to their research. It is doubtful they will leave flowers on his grave.

Motifs and Themes Intelligence and Success

“Flowers for Algernon” asks us to consider the Watch it on YouTube benefits and dangers of intelligence or the lack of You won’t be tested on it (or the novel) but, if you’d intelligence. In the story, intelligence is like a like a different take on the story, check out the currency that allows people to attain their goals. Drs. opening of the story’s movie adaptation: Nemur and Strauss have built their careers, and earned large sums of money, by using their intelligence to achieve scientific advances. In the experiment on Algernon and Charlie, they attempt to create a super-intelligent human being—a very worthy goal, in their opinion. Miss Kinnian agrees with the doctors that intelligence is crucial to a person’s success in life. She typically cannot increase the intelligence of her students—only help them gain knowledge—but when the opportunity arises, she encourages Charlie to participate, knowing intelligence can improve his life. Charlie believes in the value of intelligence, too, which is why he agrees to participate. All the characters have a basis for their belief in the value of intelligence. Very smart people, like the doctors, can achieve fame and fortune, while mentally disabled people like Charlie must work lowpaying, boring jobs. In the story, people with more intelligence receive more respect than those of 71

People often call tests subjects “guinea pigs”, after a type of rodent commonly used in scientific experiments.


low intelligence. Charlie’s coworkers ridicule him before the experiment, just as the restaurant patrons look down on the mentally disabled boy. When Charlie shouts, “He’s still a human being!” he points out a harsh truth about society: people of low intelligence are treated as less than human. Intelligence and Isolation Keyes experienced the isolating effect of education when he found himself no longer able to relate to his parents—and, by extension, their inability to relate to him. In “Flowers for Algernon”, Keyes focuses on intelligence rather than education, but he still demonstrates how too much or too little knowledge can separate people from one another. When Charlie is mentally disabled, he is isolated Debate it! from his coworkers, not even aware they make fun of Resolved: That Charlie would have been worse off if him. At the height of his brilliance, he becomes a he had kept his increased intelligence. hypocrite, looking down on those dumber than him, including the very doctors who made him smart. After the incident at the restaurant, Charlie realizes being brilliant and being stupid have something in common: both can be very isolating. Horrified to be slipping back into retardation, he writes of the boy in the restaurant: “the blank expression, the silly smile, the people laughing at him. No—please—not that again.”72 Charlie is happy before the experiment. His lack of intelligence does not prevent him from being friends with Miss Kinnian, and it allows him to be ignorant of his coworkers’ cruelty and think they are his friends. Extreme intelligence is a burden on Charlie because it makes him unable to connect with Miss Kinnian and others of lesser intelligence. However, once the experiment has been done, Charlie can never return to his original state of ignorant contentment. Moving to a new place where no one knows his past sounds appealing, but it cannot spare him from the painful awareness of what he has lost and of people’s ridicule 73. The reader may be left thinking that Charlie’s possible death due to the experiment will be merciful, considering the sorrow he is sure to feel for the rest of his life. The Ethics of Medical Experimentation

Charlie’s experience raises questions about the ethics of a world where humans and animals can have their intelligence artificially increased—and warns of unexpected consequences. Was Charlie mentally competent enough to agree to participate in the experiment? Given his limited intelligence, he may not have understood the possible side effects and consequences of the operation.

Discuss it When is it acceptable to perform scientific experiments on people?

Keyes implies that experimenting on people can be dangerous. “Flowers for Algernon” is tragic—but not just because the experiment ultimately fails. Charlie’s life is transformed for the worse after he loses his intelligence, but, even if he had survived and kept it, he would have been very isolated. Using science to alter organisms is sometimes referred to as “playing God”. Whether genetically modifying crops, performing research on stem cells, or experimenting on a human, scientists are stretching the limits of nature. “Flowers for Algernon” can be seen as a cautionary tale about


Like Theremon in “Nightfall”, who knows he is slipping into madness, Charlie is aware of the regression of his intelligence, yet he is powerful to stop it. 73 As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss.


manipulating the natural world. It pinpoints a problem with “playing God”: unlike a perfect deity, humans can fail. When is failure an acceptable risk?

Conclusion In this section, we learned that:  “Flowers for Algernon” is Daniel Keyes’ most famous story, about a mouse and a man who undergo operations to increase their intelligence—with tragic consequences.  The story is written in the form of Charlie’s journal entries. Keyes uses changes in Charlie’s way of writing, including spelling and grammar, to indicate his changing level of intelligence.  Algernon’s fate foreshadows Charlie’s—suggesting Charlie will also grow dumb again and possibly die. Algernon reflects how the doctors treat Charlie, as less than human.  The story suggests that very high intelligence is just as dangerous as very low intelligence, because either extreme causes a person to be isolated from others.  “Flowers for Algernon” can be seen as a cautionary tale about scientifically manipulating nature. When humans “play God”, we run the risk of failure and unintended consequences. Before moving on to the next section, ask yourself:  Does Charlie’s choice to participate in the experiment make what happens to him more acceptable? Would it be worse if he had been experimented on without him agreeing to it?  Today, people who have certain diseases can participate in experimental trials of new treatments. Does their participation in these trials differ from Charlie’s in the experiment?


VI. Robert Charles Wilson: ‘‘Julian: A Christmas Story’’ The year is 2172. The setting is Athabaska, a region in what was once Canada and now part of an expanded United States that boasts sixty stars on its flag. The issue at hand: driving the Dutch Army out of Labrador. Oh, and it’s Christmas. Between reading banned books, trying to avoid being drafted into the army, and protecting his best friend, Adam Hazzard has plenty to think about. Christmas shopping is the least of his worries—but, unbeknownst to Adam, this holiday will bring a totally unexpected new birth.

Objectives By the time you complete this chapter, you should be able to answer the following questions.  How is Wilson’s fictional 22nd-century America different from the United States today?  What makes the characters of “Julian: A Christmas Story” heroic?  Why is the story called “A Christmas Story”?

Robert Charles Wilson Born in California, Robert Charles Wilson has spent most of his life in Canada. He has won nearly every major science fiction award for his work. Wilson’s novels are often fresh new twists on traditional science fiction themes. Perhaps inspired by the magic realists, he often begins a novel with one strange event in an otherwise normal world—but, unlike the magic realists, the characters in his novel realize something strange is going on. For example, in one novel, Darwinia, all of Europe vanishes in the year 1912, replaced by a bizarre new continent populated by bizarre new creatures. In another, Spin, one day all the stars disappear from the sky. Unlike these novels, “Julian” presents a vision of the future not based on a single strange event. Wilson sets the story 166 years into a future that could be our own. In 2009, he expanded “Julian: A Christmas Story” into a novel, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America.

‘‘Julian: A Christmas Story’’: Overview Adam Hazzard, a close friend of Julian’s, narrates Debate it! both the story and the novel. In the 22nd-century United States of America, there is a rigid class system, Resolved: That religion has a rightful place in politics and public policy. consisting of the few high-born, wealthy “aristos,” the “leasing class”, or middle class, and the indentured laborers—very close to slaves. Most people’s standard of living is low. The indentured servants have it the worst; they are bound to their


employers with little hope of breaking free or earning enough ever to support themselves. Members of the leasing class have their freedom, but are far from well off. Adam ranks somewhere between the leasing and Watch it on YouTube indentured class. His mother is a talented seamstress, Watch an interview with Robert Charles Wilson and but his father is an illiterate member of a snakelearn more about his approach to science fiction: handling religious sect. Julian is an aristo, but he and Adam have grown up together because they are both tutored by Sam Godwin, Julian’s mentor, who has been in charge of Julian since his father was hanged for treason. So far, class differences have not affected Adam and Julian’s friendship. Adam knows Julian is “fond of blasphemy”—he even debates science and religion with the clergymen. Sam worries that Julian’s apostasy, his rejection of the official religion, will get him into trouble. The story opens with Adam, Julian, and Sam visiting the Tip, a trading post where Tipmen, or scavengers74, sell artifacts of the old American civilization and offer them to the aristos and their servants. Julian, who is fascinated by old books, selects a textbook full of the scientific theories he loves (dismissed as “heresies” in this new world) and hands Adam another book, A History of Mankind in Space. Like most people of his time, Adam is skeptical that mankind ever visited the moon, but takes the book home anyway. A few weeks later, the military troops come into town to conduct the presidential election. The election is uncontested: Julian’s uncle, Deklan, is the only candidate. Adam and Julian sneak into the assembly hall downtown, where the military is showing a film. Julian suspects the military is going to conscript all eligible young men (force them to enlist). While the armed forces do need new recruits to fight against the Dutch, Julian suspects Deklan is trying to get him conscripted and killed so that he will never become a rival for the presidency. Technically, succession to the presidency is by election, not inheritance, but the Comstocks have ruled the United States for thirty years. Deklan is young and healthy, but jealous and insecure, and he wants to remove Julian “from the game of politics.” Julian decides to run away. The next day, Adam tells Sam about Julian’s escape. Debate it! In the process, he is shocked to discover Sam belongs Resolved: That political leaders should be able to to a non-Christian and thus non-acceptable religion, draft soldiers into their armies. Judaism. Adam and Sam separately decide to follow Julian. Adam finds Julian being held captive by a Reservist (an inactive member of the army who can be called to duty at any time). The friends manage to overpower the Reservist, with help from a nest of snakes. When Julian spots the snakes slithering toward the soldier’s boot, he overcomes his own fear of snakes to inform the soldier of the threat. The snakes are actually harmless—but the frightened Reservist empties his gun trying to shoot them. Adam attacks him, knocking him out so they can tie him up and take him prisoner. The next morning, Sam joins Adam and Julian. (He had heard from Adam where Julian had gone, but had to wait for the right moment to sneak off.) Sam devises a plan for the three of them to head for New York, where they can blend into the city and find friends. They send the Reservist back to town, with a letter to Adam’s mother, telling her not to worry and sending his love. The story ends with the three men riding off “toward the rude (harsh) and squalling (stormy) infant Future”—a future that is unknown but sure to be full of hardship and danger.


Like that pelican in The Little Mermaid.


Literary Devices Dystopian Fiction

“Julian: A Christmas Story” depicts a transformed America: tyranny has replaced democracy, and people live in a rigid class system with little access to science and history. Wilson does not directly tell us the cause of this transformation, but hints at a catastrophe caused by the depletion of the oil supply on which American civilization had depended. Without oil, agriculture, industry, and technological progress have collapsed. Slavery has effectively returned, and scientific thought has been suppressed by the official church. Setting the story in a dystopian future heightens the sense of drama. The story is ultimately hopeful, and hope is all the more powerful set against a hopeless backdrop—just as it is more powerful to imagine a flower blooming in a war zone than it is to imagine one blooming in a field full of flowers.

Mini-Directed Research Topic Dystopian science fiction runs the gamut: continents drowned in water, cities ruled by angry apes, people eating food made from other people… the future isn’t a fun place to visit. One field of science fiction often linked to dystopian futures is cyberpunk. What is cyberpunk?

Wilson’s dystopian vision of America also calls our attention to the current state of American society. Democracy still exists in the United States, but it is not perfect. There are social classes, and people still believe in the “American Dream”—the idea that a working-class person can become rich and powerful through hard work and luck—but it may not be as easy to achieve as it once was. There is also freedom of religion in the United States today, but Christianity is dominant and sometimes becomes mixed up in politics. The story warns readers that values such as democracy, equality, and freedom of religion should not be taken for granted— and neither should natural resources like oil. Footnotes

Wilson uses footnotes throughout the story to clarify certain information or make comments aside from the main action of the story. Since footnotes are usually reserved for scholarly or scientific texts, they give the impression that Adam’s story is a factual, historical account, instead of fiction.75 When we approach the story as a report from the future, rather than an imagined tale, it is easier for us to accept the conditions and events of the story as real and therefore take the story’s message to heart. Narrative Voice

The narrator, Adam, is free of any political motives. He tells the story in an objective way, without passion for social issues, allowing the reader to form his or her own opinions. If Julian narrated the story, he might talk about his society’s political injustices, or the unfairness of its religious policies. Like the footnotes, Adam’s neutral perspective helps make the story seem more factual and objective. The author also makes a conscious choice to have Adam write in a style similar to that of authors in 19th century America. This old-fashioned writing style reflects the regression of society into something based on 19th century technology and beliefs; it helps us get a flavor of the times. Irony

Because Adam has grown up in 22nd-century America, he sees nothing out of the ordinary in the world around him. He explains his society to us with complete seriousness, but the effect is ironic.


DemiDec footnotes are, of course, always entirely factual and historical.


He ends up pointing out aspects of it we instantly recognize are hypocritical—exactly the opposite of what they claim to be76. For example, 22nd-century America claims to enjoy freedom of religion, yet there is a controlling agency that has the power to approve or reject religions. By the same token, the presidential “election” is not an election at all. It is merely a formality, because no one runs against Deklan— presumably because they will be killed if they try. Some of the most important scientific discoveries and advances of our time, like the existence of DNA, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and men walking on the moon, are considered heresies, false beliefs in direct opposition to religion. Most of us would expect a story about the 22 nd century to depict an advanced society, but the world of “Julian: A Christmas Story” has regressed, or moved backwards. The books Adam and Julian take home from the Tip do not have the “Dominion Stamp of Approval.” They are books of what we know as fact—even photographs of the Apollo mission to the moon—but the scholars of 22nd-century America would consider them apostasy, illegitimate because they contradict the state’s established religion.

Motifs and Themes In an interview about the novel Julian Comstock, Wilson said: “I don’t believe science fiction is about prediction.” However, when he began writing a story set 150 years in the future, he tried to imagine what changes would have occurred in North America by then. “How bizarre would contemporary headlines look to Herman Melville77 or Harriet Beecher Stowe78?” he asked. The world is unpredictable, and yet, Wilson says, one thing we can predict is dramatic change. We cannot know what the world will be like in the 22nd century, but we can be sure it will have transformed. Religion

Adam refers to the past as “the secular age.” He disapproves of the “vice and profligacy”—the immorality and wastefulness—of people who lived during “the Age of Oil”. Although part of an unpopular church, he still sees himself and his contemporaries as superior to “the secular ancients.” Christianity is very important in 22nd-century America, but each Christian denomination must be approved by an agency called the Board of Registrars of the Dominion of Jesus Christ on Earth. Adam’s father belongs to a snake-handling sect of Christianity, which is approved, but frowned upon. Non-Christian religions are prohibited. Sam must practice his Judaism in secret. Yet no one seems overly concerned with a personal faith, or even with doing the right thing most of the time; most of the characters are acting either on government orders or for their own survival. Wilson uses this limited form of religious freedom to make a point: such limited freedom is actually no freedom at all. Sam is not free to practice his faith. Julian is called a heretic when he studies science and comes to believe in certain scientific theories. A church so afraid of outside influences, so determined to shut out everyone who does not conform, is not a strong church, nor does it have much effect on people’s personal spirituality. Transformation Is Inevitable

One of the story’s major themes is that things are constantly changing. Early on, Adam says that he does not like the Tip because it seems haunted by ghosts of past eras. The relics of the “secular age” 76

The statement “Do as I say, not as I do” summarizes hypocrisy. A 19th-century American author who wrote, among other works, Moby-Dick. 78 19th-century American author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the most famous anti-slavery novels of all time. 77


make him wonder if he, too, is a ghost, and will someday haunt future generations. Julian confirms that all living things are “forms of DNA,” meaning nothing stays exactly the same over time. In Julian’s theory, evolution happens because DNA tries to “remember” and ends up creating different versions of the same being. “You sound like a Darwinist,” Adam tells Julian, referring to Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. Both Sam and Adam dismiss the idea of DNA as a myth. At the end of the story, much has changed. Adam, Julian, and Sam are on the run, to avoid conscription and also to save Julian’s life. They are running away on Christmas Day, finding themselves in a totally different place from every other Christmas of their lives. Adam also remembers, as he thinks about Christmas, that it used to be a pagan holiday, but has changed into the current celebration, “and was no less dear because of it.” Adam concludes that “time itself” evolves. As events take place, they change the landscape of the world, and human beings also change. “Maybe this logic was true of people, too; maybe I was already becoming an inexact echo of what I had been just days before,” Adam muses. “Maybe the same was true of Julian.” He can actually see Julian changing, becoming less gentle and more commanding. (We know from the beginning of the story that Julian will later be called Julian Conqueror.) Wilson alludes to Yeats’ “The Second Coming” here, as he refers to Julian “slouching toward New York to be born.” Julian may not be reborn as a beast, but he, Adam and Sam will have to transform to fit their changing circumstances. “Julian: A Christmas Story” tells us that we can never be certain of anything—except the fact that change is inevitable. Christmas and Time

Christmas is both the setting for the story and a symbol of the peace that is slipping away, even as Christmas Day itself slips away. At the story’s end, Adam is “poignantly aware of the date,” which to him has always meant time with family, and a soothing ritual that speaks of peace. (He notes that Christmas has never held great religious significance for him.) But in this new world, the rules are changing, and this year, Christmas is a time to ride away, to escape and try to make a new life. So Adam sends a letter to his parents, trying to apologize, explain, and comfort them all at once. Christmas also appears in the title, partly because of Mini-Directed Research Topic the time of year, and partly to suggest Julian will be the one who transforms this society for the better. What are some of the major differences between the short story and the novel Julian Comstock? What, This story of a rigid, rule-filled, class-conscious according to the novel, is Julian’s ultimate fate? society seems hopeless at first, but the reader is left with a sense of hope. Adam, Julian, and Sam are escaping, and they will find a way to change things. Julian, especially, is the great hope for change. That is why this is “A Christmas Story”—a savior is being born. Julian even has two disciples to aid him in changing the world: Adam, his devoted friend, and Sam, his teacher—who, like some of Jesus’s own first disciples, was born a Jew. Ironically, Julian rejects Christianity, or at least the state form of it, in favor of scientific principles and independent thinking. (Christ himself had little patience for the outward rituals of religion, preferring to challenge religious authorities and go about things in his own way.) Julian’s rebirth, as portrayed in the novel Julian Comstock, will bring change to his country and hope to many people.

Conclusion In this section, we have learned that: 

“Julian: A Christmas Story” is a science fiction story set in 22nd century North America.

The story uses irony and a unique future perspective to discuss science, religion, and politics.


Christmas is a symbol for the way things used to be: peaceful and predictable. The subtitle “A Christmas Story” is both relevant and ironic.

Julian, until now a protected young man, will undergo a transformation that will enable him to try to change society. He is the Christ figure in a very unusual Christmas story.

Before closing this guide, ask yourself: 

How unlikely is it that we will ever be forced to give up our modern technologies?

Who is the main character in this story?

Why do you think so many authors choose to write about a dystopian future?


About the Authors & Editors Katie Noah Gibson graduated from Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She then left the hot, dry plains for Oxford, England, where she consumed strong tea with scones, and became fond of all the extra us in British English. These days, she can be found in Boston, learning to survive Northeastern winters and still drinking tea, despite that city’s uneasy history with her favorite beverage. She writes and edits magazine articles, blog posts, nonfiction essays, and anything else that comes along. She also knits garments out of alpaca fur and bakes unhealthy things. Tania Asnes joined the World Scholar’s Cup in the fall of 2007, having graduated summa cum laude from Barnard College in 2005 with a B.A. in English (Creative Writing), a minor in Russian, and 13 performances in the theaters of Columbia University under her belt, including one in which she threw two pies in her face every performance. She is currently pursuing a career in film and television, involving fewer pies but more minutes spent not blinking. Tania is rumored to have worn the alpaca hat in which she is pictured the entire time she worked on this resource. Daniel Berdichevsky discovered science fiction at age 10, when his uncle and grandfather decided it was time to wean him off the Hardy Boys and introduce him to serious literature. They handed him an Isaac Asimov novel. His own literary efforts since then have included authoring a new chapter to the Bible (in which Moses was put on trial) and a short story involving three witches, a speechwriter, and a meat cleaver. His non-literary efforts have included trying to bring down a bakery with his forehead.79 He currently travels the world with his pillow and a hefty stash of teabags and frequent flier miles. He is pictured here with his favorite fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay at the 2010 World Scholar’s Cup World Finals in Shanghai. You can email him at [email protected] or find him on Facebook at


The baker forgave him.

View more...


Copyright ©2017 KUPDF Inc.