When writers sit down to write a short story they have several goals to accomplish. The first is to finish the first draft. Many would-be writers can do this much, but it involves many subgoals, like creating a hook, developing a plot, fleshing out characters, coming up with a satisfying ending, as well as technical goals of grammar, spelling, readability, and factuality. The next step is to produce a polished draft. This is much harder because you want to give the story voice, style, and art. Then there’s the big hurdle of selling the story. To do that requires many sub-goals too. You have to find the right market that’s open and you have to impress the editors that the story is worth buying. Even if your story gets into print you still have many goals left depending on your ambition. A check might be all you want, or you might dream of writing a story that gets an award or anthologized. That means your goals while writing the story increase. And some writers have the goal of being remembered. They hope their stories will bring them a tiny sliver of immortality. To achieve that goal means thinking differently when starting the story.
In my review of the best short science fiction stories of 1959 I came across one story that hasn’t been well remembered but I thought was pretty darn good. It was “Whatever Counts” by Frederik Pohl in the June 1959 issue of Galaxy. (You can read it online if you follow the link.) My guess is Pohl’s primary goal was a paycheck, but I believe there’s internal evidence to suggest he was aiming much higher. However, I’m not sure how hard he worked at these higher goals. Back then science fiction writers had to crank out a steady stream of stories to pay the bills. I doubt Pohl was thinking much about winning a Hugo award or getting Judith Merril to anthologize his story. However, I feel “Whatever Counts” has several ideas that Pohl wanted to explore and spread. The question is, were those ideas innovative enough to still think about them sixty years later?
If your writing goal is just to get published then you can’t expect to achieve any of the higher goals. Most SF magazines are filled with stories that work, but few stand out. Average stories often make readers feel like they are wasting their reading time. I’ve talked to a lot of people about reading the SF magazines, and most feel lucky if they find one standout story in an issue.
Why do we still remember “All You Zombies—” and “Flowers for Algernon” from 1959 but not “Whatever Counts?” Both of those stories were made into movies, and they have been anthologized frequently over the years. Pohl did include “Whatever Counts” in his collection Abominable Earthman in 1963, but even that’s been forgotten. But then Pohl never had any classic collections like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles or Robert A. Heinlein’s The Green Hills of Earth. “Whatever Counts” wasn’t even included in The Best of Frederik Pohl. So why am I writing about it now?
Evidently, Gideon Marcus and I are among “Whatever Counts” few fans. We both felt it was an exceptional story for the June 1959 Galaxy. Why didn’t it achieve any of the greater successes for an SF short story? Can I make a case that it should be remembered? I’ve been thinking about that, and I have an analogy as to why we remember short stories. We remember those personal memories that were peak experiences. My theory is the best short fiction has to work like our peak experiences to be memorable.
I can recall just three memories from the first grade. I was still five when I started the first grade, and wouldn’t turn six for three months. One memory is walking to school for the first time on my own. I guess being new and scary made it memorable. I also remember being embarrassed when the teacher asked us if we knew our alphabet and I didn’t. Another memory-etching experience. And the last memory was of walking home one day and finding the doors locked. I couldn’t get in, and no one was home to let me in. I calmly went to sleep on the front porch but evidently, I was traumatized enough to record that memory.
In other words, we remember intense emotional experiences. Both “Flowers for Algernon” and “All You Zombies—” are emotionally charged. While “Whatever Counts” did have several moving scenes that I thought were vivid the story isn’t memorable. “Whatever Counts” opens with colonists in a spaceship floating in freefall trying to get a baby to burp. The baby is choking because it can’t easily spit up in weightlessness. The adults swing it to give it some gravity. This made me wonder if Fred Pohl’s wife had just had a child. But I also wondered if Pohl asked himself: Can babies survive space travel? “Whatever Counts” has a very realistic take on space travel for 1959. It was written before readers were familiar with seeing astronauts floating in freefall. While I read the story I realized Pohl did quite a lot of thinking about the real issues of space travel and first contact. The story is more than its plot.
In “Whatever Counts” fifty-eight humans arrive at a planet with an extinct civilization. They plan to start a colony in an abandoned alien city, but before they can set up base, they are captured by other aliens visiting the planet. The humans knew about the other aliens but didn’t expect them on this planet. They called them Gormen. There are enough ideas in this novelette to fill out a whole novel.
The story, once it gets down to business after an interesting setup unrelated to the plot, is about the mission psychologist, Howard Brabant, apparently aiding the enemy. The crew slowly comes to hate Brabant even though Brabant explains he’s trying to figure out how the Gormen think. Pohl is trying to get across the idea that humans are hindered by their conscious mind, something that is much talked about today, but not in 1959. Just read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
Exploring how other intelligent creatures could think differently than humans is the main course of this story, and I believe Pohl did it well enough to make “Whatever Counts” worth reading today. However, he appears to digress in different directions, including one apparently gratuitous sex scene that was illustrated by Wally Wood. But even here, I’m guessing Pohl was trying to say something serious. Science fiction had a reputation of putting scantily clad women attacked by bug-eyed monsters on covers of its magazines. I think Pohl wanted to explore this meme realistically. And Pohl didn’t know in 1959 that soon UFO nuts would worry about little gray big-eyed aliens wanting to give humans medical exams.
The “sex scene” is an unsettling situation for the characters, where the Gormen grab a female colonist and undress her in front of the other humans. Readers will find this scene distasteful wondering if Pohl is being gratuitous. To the human crew, they felt it was a sexual assault. But the psychologist knows it not. He knows the Gormen think of us as animals. (That made me wonder if animals think vets and researchers are sexually assaulting them at times.) One of the emotional impacts of the story is being helpless in the hands of a superior being. The Gormen treat humans like we do animals in a laboratory.
In a way, this relates to when Charlie Gordan in “Flowers for Algernon” realized he wasn’t smart and his “friends” were making him the butt of their jokes. Charlie realizes there are beings smarter than he, but later on when he becomes smarter than his “friends.” That’s two unique perspectives. As readers we see Charlie being dumber than us, but also smarter. Pohl is trying to convey how the Gormen are smarter than us.
I believe most people remember “Flowers for Algernon” because Charlies loses the intelligence he gained from the experiment. We fear that for ourselves. It hits us as highly tragic. But we don’t remember how Charlie felt being dumb among the smart people. That’s what Pohl was trying to do in “Whatever Counts.” We always assume that were just as good as any alien species, and will always find a way to beat them in a conflict. Pohl supports this belief, but for a while in his story, he was showing a way the Gormen were superior to us. The science fictional insight was Gormen didn’t know we had a subconscious mind that could think as fast as they did. That was an interesting insight for Pohl to have in 1959. Pohl should get more credit for his theory in a sixty-year-old science fiction story.
We have to give Pohl other credit for this story too. In a time when most science fiction writers had their characters cruising around the galaxy traveling faster-than-light from planet to planet taking as much travel time as we jet from city to city on Earth, Pohl had his colonist traveling at half the speed of light taking seven years to get to their destination. Most SF writers back then ignored weightlessness, but Pohl dealt with it. He also included women, smart women, but he didn’t have the foresight to give them equality of jobs. They weren’t crew, but passengers.
We remember “All You Zombies—” because every character is the same person. Heinlein used time travel to cleverly explain how it could happen. We remember “Flowers for Algernon” because a low IQ person gets transformed into a high IQ person. In each story, the gimmick is well plotted out as a series of emotional experiences of the main character. Ultimately, we remember the Heinlein story for its plotting dazzle, but we remember the Keyes story because it made us cry. Pohl leaves us with a few ideas to contemplate but his plot is patchy, and the emotional experiences aren’t focused. Most readers will remember Charlie Gordon, but not Howard Brabant.
How could Pohl have improved his story? First, he goes through three digressions before getting down to the main plot, including one on how people smoke in space. Second, he hides Brabant’s intention from the other characters and readers. This does make Brabant feel like he’s a toady for the Gormen, and I’m not sure readers like that. Being revealed as a hero at the last moment isn’t that redeeming for Brabant.
The setup of “Whatever Counts” is similar to the 1955 noir classic The Desperate Hours where a family is imprisoned in their home by three escaped convicts. The humans were imprisoned by the Gormen. The story should have begun right away by letting us readers know the plot is about escaping. Whether or not we think Brabant is a traitor is another issue. It worked well with the William Holden character in the 1953 film Stalag 17, but having such a dual plot is harder to finesse.
I wonder if Pohl started out thinking “Whatever Counts” could be a novel because of his various digressions. I got to spend a few hours with Pohl back in the 1970s, and I wish I had known then what I know now so I could have asked him. I checked Pohl’s memoir, The Way the Future Was but couldn’t find anything on this story, although Pohl said he got paid 4 cents a word from Galaxy in the 1950s. Those digressions meant more dollars in his paycheck.
Even though I really like “Whatever Counts” I think it’s seriously flawed and Pohl only had the goal of paying the bills in writing it. Which is a shame, because it could have been so much better. I think this story shows that ideas are great in science fiction stories, but storytelling counts even more in the long run. “Whatever Counts” had enough compelling enough ideas to make it the standout story of the June 1959 issue of Galaxy, but the structure of the story kept it from being memorable over time. Judith Merril didn’t even give “Whatever Counts” an honorable mention that year in her best-of-the-year anthology in 1960, and it’s never been anthologized in a retrospective anthology.
Thinking about this story has made me think about the writing of short stories in general. It’s depressing to read so many blah stories in the new issues of my favorite SF magazines. I now see the reason why. The goal of getting into print is aiming too low. Pohl was also an editor and agent, so he knew story construction. My guess is he knew “Whatever Counts” to be good enough to stand out as a better story in a magazine, and not much more. The check on acceptance outweighed anything he might have gotten in the future.
That’s too bad. Looking at Pohl’s long list of publications shows that most of them aren’t remembered today. If he had written far fewer with more ambitious things would have been different. Gateway, his 1977 novel is well remembered. I think I need to go study it. Oddly, its main character was named Broadhead, which is somewhat like Brabant.
James Wallace Harris, May 10, 2019