Thursday, August 09, 2018

"The Malley System" (1967)

Harlan Ellison might seem a bit judgmental in his introduction to Miriam Allen deFord's story in the Dangerous Visions anthology, going on about how old she was to contribute, but I must say a birthdate in 1888 seems remarkable to me too. Though not without its flaws, the story is the best one yet in this collection. I'm going to help you here—or you may consider this a spoiler alert. I thought the structure was a bit clumsy. The first half is disconnected scenes of confusing violence. In the second half they are explained. For me, this meant going back to read the first half again, and then it made much more sense (it's sort of the problem of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury). So I'm going to tell you now. Stand by. The "Malley System" is a form of punishment or rehabilitation for convicted violent felons—murderers, rapists, child molesters, etc. With brain mapping and other technologies sufficiently advanced it's possible to systematically make someone vividly re-experience their crimes again in memory. DeFord explores some of the ramifications in terms of the effects. The treatment is administered daily, and there is a pattern to the responses. The story has a good concept, but I think the best part, once understood, are those scenes from the first half. They are horrific and unnerving. This is sharp, vivid, thoroughly imagined writing. DeFord also wrote crime journalism and other nonfiction, and it shows. Her fantasies are clinical and precise. It's hard to miss a certain amount of rage back of it. In fact, I've almost retreated all the way to Ellison's dumbstruck wonder that material like this could come from a little old lady (Ellison refers to her as a "lady," but I am doing so only ironically—really). If it helps, and it helps me a little, she also wrote for left-wing magazines in the 1920s. That helps me understand where her rage might have been coming from in 1967 as a 79-year-old. Certainly the totalitarian state, with Lachin Malley as its representative—perhaps a figure in the vein of Stanley Milgram—is coolly deconstructed and plausibly responsible. It's chilling, and it's the first story in this collection to live up to the title.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

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