Thursday, July 19, 2018

"Flies" (1967)

Former Harlan Ellison roommate Robert Silverberg bats second in the Dangerous Visions lineup, as Ellison perhaps seems to be paying back favors a bit. On the other hand, Silverberg would go on to write at least one great novel, Dying Inside. His story for this collection, like Lester del Rey's, pits mankind against superior beings, but this time it doesn't go as well. Silverberg's are called "the golden ones." They have found a severely wounded Cassiday drifting in space after a spaceship accident. They take what's left of him and regenerate him to full health, with some modifications, and then send him home to Earth. The golden ones want to know more about our species, specifically our emotions (I don't believe Gene Roddenberry has anything particular to do with this story, though in some ways it sounds like him). They set up monitoring technology and reprogram Cassiday's brain slightly. Can you guess which emotions the golden ones are interested in? That's right, grief and despair. There's no way this ends well, and indeed, for better or worse, it all comes down to Silverberg's ability to conceive cruel and sadistic scenarios. He manages it pretty well three separate times, and four if you count the ending. In his afterword Silverberg says he was thinking of vampires and their ability to control others, as their immortal lives go along with breaks for feeding. But we don't really see the golden ones feeding on Cassiday and the people in Cassiday's life as much as playing with them out of a genuine if cold curiosity. It's not so different from what humans do to animals and one another. You'd like to think the more technologically advanced civilization would know better, but we don't, so why should they, amirite? The story is mostly an exercise in sadistic fantasy, but it can be justified by rabbits and cosmetics, so all right: Dangerous. In fairness, the experience of reading it is harrowing enough to make it dangerous—it can certainly be unpleasant—so give Silverberg that too. It's nicely put together, with a tidy hatful of literary tricks and a source in Shakespeare's King Lear. "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport." Bravo. But the story also leaves a bitter aftertaste.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

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