“Disappearing Act,” Alfred Bester, 1953

“Disappearing Act,” Alfred Bester, 1953 – America is caught up in the rhetoric of General Carpenter, who appears to be waging a war to save Culture:  “We must dig in against the hordes of barbarism,” he intones to potential donors.  “Our Dream…is at one with the gentle Greeks of Athens…It is a dream of the Better Things in Life. Of Music and Art and Poetry and Culture. Money is only a weapon to be used in the fight for the dream. Ambition is only a ladder to climb to this dream. Ability is only a tool to shape this dream.” How to win this war?  “Give me a thousand engineers…We must become a nation of experts,” he assures them.  General Carpenter receives his funding and sets about increasing the nation’s “expertise.”

Meanwhile, Ward T at St. Albans contains comatose patients who, it is discovered, mysteriously disappear from time to time.  The General investigates (military applications? he wonders).  The patients’ ramblings of past events and figures suggests a connection with history, and the General calls for the appropriate expert.  His aides find the last historian, Scrim, in prison.  Scrim confirms that the patients are projecting themselves backward in time to live out fantasies as historical personages (e.g., Cleopatra).  Scrim decides that only a poet can get to the bottom of such imaginative adventures. “A poet is half doing it anyway…[T]he poet is the only man who can interpret between those shock cases and your experts.”  The General sends for a poet but the nation has become one of experts, and there are no poets left.

Comments: Themes of dreaming; other realities; history; the American Dream; war; art; culture; shell shock; escapism; scientific ethics; military, scientific, and bureaucratic efficiency and experts.  Read in Connoisseur’s Science Fiction.

From : “”Disappearing Act” may be Bester’s ultimate ambivalent look at the linked themes of creativity, time, and escape. It is of course primarily a marvelous satire of the military mind. Asked why he was enjoying the safety of England while brave young men were risking their lives to defend civilization, Lytton Strachey replied that he was the civilization those brave young men were defending. This story is a gloss on that quote, but it says much more. Its protagonists have disappeared into histories of their own imagining, but we do not know whether this escape is something practical (they survive without food) or just another means of self-removal…”

Author: Wikipedia: “Alfred Bester (December 18, 1913 – September 30, 1987) was an American science fiction author, TV and radio scriptwriter, magazine editor and scripter for comic strips and comic books. Though successful in all these fields, he is probably best remembered today for his work as a science fiction author, and as the winner of the first Hugo Award in 1953 for his novel The Demolished Man.”


About jennre

Lifelong sf fan, first-time blogger
This entry was posted in 1946-1959, american culture, artists/creativity, bureaucracy/corporations, dreams/hypnosis, favorites, mechanization, nationalism, politics/politicians/elections, reality/VR/surreal, satire, scientific ethics, spectatorship/voyeurism, the scientist, time/history/causality, war/soldiers. Bookmark the permalink.

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