Thursday, February 14, 2019

"Test to Destruction" (1967)

Keith Laumer's long, action-packed, and confusing story features an alien technology that can tune into and manipulate a person's interior thoughts. Our hero, Mallory, is some kind of revolutionary who is run to ground by human agents in the first part of the story. His captors immediately begin torturing him for information. At that point, a passing alien spaceship picks up the activity as their probes detect the strength of Mallory's resistance, which impresses them. The torture device appears to be human in origin. "It creates conditions within the subject's neural system conducive to total recall, and at the same time amplifies the subvocalizations that accompany all highly cerebral activity. The subject is also rendered amenable to verbal cuing," explains the human torture master. The short version is that it induces vivid nightmares with a traumatizing personal edge. So we go through a few nightmares—not bad, they're pretty horrible. Meanwhile the aliens hovering overhead are fascinated by Mallory's resistance. They've never seen anything like it. It's not entirely clear, but appears they actually begin to step in with their own technology to amplify the torture. They want to understand the limits of this strange new phenomenon via "test to destruction"—i.e., increase intensity by degrees and make a note of when and how the mental resistance finally yields. It's all cold and clinical, as the point seems to be that science is an unfeeling thing. That might be fair enough when you consider things like the cold clinical approach taken for animal testing. People say things like "I'd rather save people with cancer than animals in cages." I probably would too, for that matter, but think how it would sound coming from the aliens. So we get a hit of double-bleak in this story: first, as humans, we are still busy with rancorous infighting and torture. And second, the first encounter with intellectually sophisticated aliens from outer space—a momentous occasion in any civilization's history, one would think—turns out to be as hapless subjects in the noble pursuit of higher knowledge. That is some biting bitter cynicism so kudos to Laumer on that score. I also appreciated that for once religion is left out of it. In his introduction to the story, series editor Harlan Ellison praises Laumer for managing his heavy concept within the frame of "the time-honored form of the chase-action-adventure." I'm much less impressed with that side—paradoxically perhaps, the more action, as here, the more boring it tends to be for me—but I like the mordant existential view quite a bit.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

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