Blog Mascot

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Childe Cycle: Pefectly Adjusted

"Perfectly Adjusted" is a short story that Sandra Miesel calls the "Satyr Play" of the Childe Cycle.   She refers to the custom among ancient Greek playwrights of accompanying a trilogy of dramatic plays with a burlesque comedy, often featuring satyrs, as an ancient form of comedy relief.  Often the satyr play would be thematically related to the tragedies.  While "Perfectly Adjusted" was originally published in 1955, well before any of the Cycle books, they do seem to share some ideas.  It's a kind of story which was common during the 50s: a traveler, arriving at a planet he's never seen before, finds that the inhabitants act in ways that seem inexplicably odd.  Moreover, their actions interfere with his goals and perhaps even threaten him.  He needs to determine what lies behind their behavior.  Having done so, he can find a solution to his problem, either by discovering an advantageous side of their oddness or by using his new insight to change them.  Sheckley must have written a dozen of these stories, and others came from Kuttner, Silverberg, Vance, and so on.  (Asimov's "Homo Sol" is the reverse case, where an alien finds that humans are strangely unlike the other galactic intelligences.)  These stories range between straightforward problem stories and broad farce.  In general, they subscribe to the clichés in which a planet is less diverse than the real New York City, and spaceships are roughly as sophisticated and damage to them as easily repaired as a used Buick. 

In "Perfectly Adjusted", the hero finds a world with two societies: one a violent and dictatorial police state all of whose members dress in black, and the other a gentler group of psionic adepts who dress in bright colors.  They occupy the same city, yet neither seems aware of the other; for each, seeing people of the other sort is a pernicious (if common) hallucination.  (Note that this idea isn't original with Dickson; it goes back at least to "Ulan Dhor Ends a Dream", one of Vance's early Dying Earth stories.)  The hero alternates between almost being killed by the dictator and being mentally controlled by the chief adept.   In his spare time, he tries to help a pretty adept he's befriended.  She has been excommunicated for her persistent hallucinations and is only slowly persuaded that the hero isn't a hallucination too.  Having figured out that each society has a mental block against seeing dressed people in the other's color, the hero invents a machine that will disintegrate all the clothing in the city.   The result is that everyone can now see everyone else, half of whom they'd never heard of before (and all of them naked); escaping in the confusion, the (also naked) hero makes it back to his ship.  He and the pretty girl take off, fighting over the single spare suit of his clothing they've got left. 

I trust it's clear from the description that this story is about as broad as farce gets.  Still, it has some points of interest.  The two societies were originally different factions in the city; each assumes that it had conquered the other, which proceeded to die out.  The police state, which also runs a murderous space station that almost shot up the hero as he first approached the planet, exhibits the worst features of the military.  The adepts, convinced that their only accomplishment, their psi powers, make them homo superior, are like idiot savant parodies of the Exotics.  Both share a fanatical faith in their own virtue and the inferiority (technically, nonexistence) of any competing culture.  And what's necessary to end this division of humanity is a man who can see both sides and help them blend back together.  Given when this story was written, it's probably foolish to make too much of the similarities between it and the Cycle, but they are amusing. 

No comments:

Post a Comment