Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Story of the Whole World - #43

STORY: “Fermi and Frost” by Frederik Pohl – Winner of the 1986 Hugo Award.

BASICALLY: What the whole world long feared has finally come to pass--the USSR has launched a full nuclear offensive against the US. Amid the massive casualties and ensuing nuclear winter, one American man and the boy he happens to rescue are lucky enough to escape to Iceland. There, protected from the very worst of the global extinction by geothermal warmth and a society accustomed to long bouts of cold, they try to hang on to human civilization amidst the tragedy.

One thing is clear: Frederik Pohl knows what he’s doing. I, who am young and green (in writerly, if not necessarily chronological, terms), might have been tempted to begin this story post-collapse, unfolding my characters’ story in a devastated post-apocalyptic world. Then I guess I would’ve worked backstory into their conversation or something.
But what Pohl does is so much better. He begins the moment before everything changed. He begins with the recognizable:
On Timothy Clary’s ninth birthday he got no cake.
The reason for this is explained in a roundabout fashion. Timothy’s in the TWA terminal of New York’s JFK Airport, apparently alone, with nothing but some stale pastries to eat all day, and we learn that he’s wet his pants because
Getting to the toilets over the packed refugee bodies was just about impossible. There were twenty-eight hundred people in a space designed for a fraction that many, and all of them with the same idea. Get away!
This all happens in the space of a paragraph. Notice how quickly Pohl widens the scope of the narration. The story’s “camera” is focused tightly on this little boy, but it almost immediately pans out and lets us see that the story isn’t about just the little boy, but about many people—an entire nation, at least. And what’s wrong with them? The camera keeps pulling out for a wider and wider shot, until we learn,
Because there had been no launch order yet, or none that the public had heard about anyway, there might still be time for escape. A little time. Time enough for the TWA terminal, and every other airport terminal everywhere, to jam up with terrified lemmings. There was no doubt that the missiles were poised to fly. The attempted Cuban coup had escalated wildly, and one nuclear sub had attacked another with a nuclear charge. That, everyone agreed, was the signal. The next event would be the final one.
Why is beginning in this way such a masterful maneuver on Pohl’s part? I think it has to do with creating stakes. By beginning his story just before all of human civilization nearly comes to a grinding halt, Pohl grounds his story in a horrible event that feels all too plausible. The particular plight of a little boy, poor Timothy Clary, is what draws us into the story, but it’s immediately apparent that what happens to him is incidental in comparison to what seems imminent for the whole earth. 

However, if Pohl had begun after the devastation, the story could be read as pure fantasy. Whether you’re looking at Jonathan Lethem’s AMNESIA MOON or the movie MAD MAX, the dystopian and/or post-apocalyptic landscape is a trope frequently employed to have a little fun, asking important questions like, What if society completely broke down and there were no laws, but we still had cars? Such stories can be highly enjoyable, but Pohl clearly wanted to go in a different direction. “Fermi and Frost” asks a different kind of What if…? question, one that has real relevance in a world still plagued by a nuclear threat (even if an “attempted Cuban coup” is unlikely to be the triggering event anymore). This is science fiction firmly attached to knowable and known reality.

Pohl takes some interesting risks in his narration. The camera-panning-out style of narration I mentioned above could easily lapse into telling rather than showing, or it could come to seem distanced from the story it’s telling. But Pohl appears to avoid these difficulties by returning again and again to his particular characters and the realistic actions they’re taking. One moment, we’re getting omniscient narration, like this:
If the terror had passed and the frantic negotiations had succeeded, Timothy might have found his parents again in time to grow up and marry and give them grandchildren. If one side or the other had been able to preempt, and destroy the other, and save itself, Timothy forty years later might have been a graying, cynical colonel in the American military government of Leningrad. (Or body servant to a Russian one in Detroit.)
But the next moment, we’re seeing the overcrowded airport through the eyes of Dr. Harry Malibert, SETI researcher. The great scientist gets tasked with helping a sick little boy who’s wet himself, bringing the story right back to individual humans in a unique situation. It’s a brave maneuver, to let the narration swing out so far from the characters, but Pohl manages to be quite smooth about it. Ultimately, I’d say that Pohl’s combination of micro character-focused events with macro omniscient narration is what allows him to tell a fundamentally didactic moral (i.e., that nuclear weapons are a real threat) in a way that feels like a genuine piece of honest storytelling. 

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As you can see from the picture on today’s write-up, LIBRARY MONTH continues! (Not that I checked Cleo out from the library--but you can see the library barcode just behind her ear.)  In fact, I’ve recently gone spelunking amidst the stacks of a new-to-me library branch and have selected some collections that appear highly promising. I know I’ve been neglecting my bloggerly duties of late, as well as my many dedicated fans (sorry, Mom!), but I have a Nefarious Plan for catching back up. Mainly, it involves totally cheating. Am I clever or what? Stay tuned!