One of the side-effects of reading through all the annual best-science-fiction-of-the-year anthologies is discovering new writers. Well, new to me. I believe all the writers I’ve encountered so far from 1939-1952 are now dead. Often this spurs me to research these forgotten SF authors, which tends to lead to learning more about the history of the genre.
I keep stumbling over little forgotten classics of short science fiction. Today I read “What Have I Done?” by Mark Clifton in The Great SF Stories 14 (1952) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. This oft reprinted story first appeared in the May 1952 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It May of 2020, it will be reprinted in What Have I Done? – The Stories of Mark Clifton. You can read the title story by itself here.
Clifton died in 1963, so his career in science fiction was just over a decade. In 1955, he did win a Hugo for best novel that he co-wrote with Frank Riley, They’d Rather Be Right. It is probably the least known, often the most disliked of all the Hugo winning novels, and somewhat controversial – see Miles Schneiderman’s “They’d Rather Be Right: Getting it Wrong.” Evidently, some fans felt the novel won because of a pro-Scientologist vote.
“What Have I Done?” is the only story by Mark Clifton I remember reading, although I once bought a copy of Eight Keys to Eden but didn’t get into it. I now feel I need to try it again. Since it’s available at LibriVox I’ll give it a listen.
“What Have I Done?” is a fine little story that tickled my sense of science fiction, interesting enough to write about, and to make me want to read more Mark Clifton. For such an unknown writer Clifton did get eight works into our citation database. Clifton’s claim to fame was the psychological insight into characters he got from being a personnel manager. Clifton claimed to have interviewed over 200,000 people. (I find that hard to believe – let’s say a 20-year career, meaning 10,000 people per year, divided by a work-year containing 250 days, means 40 people a day. That’s too many to handle.)
I also have a problem writing about these old stories. To explain why I find them worthy of recommending means revealing spoilers. Odds are, most readers reading this essay won’t track a story down unless I make them sound uber-enticing, but to do that I have to give away details.
The basic setup in “What Have I Done?” involves an unnamed psychologist for an employment office interviewing a man whom he quickly decides is not human. Notice how Clifton’s biography works into the story. When his fictional alter-ego confronts the guy the alien asks:
"Where did I fail in my test?" he asked. His lips formed a smile which was not a smile—a carefully painted-on-canvas sort of smile. Well, I'd had my answer. I'd explored something unique, all right. Sitting there before me, I had no way of determining whether he was benign or evil. No way of knowing his motive. No way of judging—anything. When it takes a lifetime of learning how to judge even our own kind, what standards have we for judging an entity from another star system? At that moment I would like to have been one.. of those space-opera heroes who, in similar circumstances, laugh casually and say, "What ho! So you're from Arcturus. Well, well. It's a small universe after all, isn't it?" And then with linked arms they head for the nearest bar, bosom pals. I had the almost hysterical thought, but carefully suppressed, that I didn't know if this fellow would like beer or not. I will not go through the intermuscular and visceral reactions I experienced. I kept my seat and maintained a polite expression. Even with humans, I know when to walk carefully. "I couldn't feel anything about you," I answered his question. "I couldn't feel anything but blankness." He looked blank. His eyes were nice blue marble again. I liked them better that way. There should be a million questions to be asked, but I must have been bothered by the feeling that I held a loaded bomb in my hands. And not knowing what might set it off, or how, or when. I could think of only the most trivial. "How long have you been on Earth?" I asked. Sort of a when did you get back in town, Joe, kind of triviality. "For several of your weeks," he was answering. "But this is my first time out among humans." "Where have you been in the meantime?" I asked. "Training." His answers were getting short and his muscles began to fidget again. "And where do you train?" I kept boring in. As an answer he stood up and held out his hand, all quite correctly. "I must go now," he said. "Naturally you can cancel my application for employment. Obviously we have more to learn." I raised an eyebrow. "And I'm supposed to just pass over the whole thing? A thing like this?" He smiled again. The contrived smile which was a symbol to indicate courtesy. "I believe your custom on this planet is to turn your problems over to your police. You might try that." I could not tell whether it was ironic or logic. At that moment I could think of nothing else to say. He walked out of my door while I stood beside my desk and watched him go. Well, what was I supposed to do? Follow him? I followed him.
This isn’t a major idea for a science fiction story, not in 1952, but it gets better. For one thing, the psychologist reads science fiction. That has a recursive feel that delights me. Second, it’s important to remember that 1952 was during the early days of the flying saucer craze. If people believe aliens were hot-rodding around the skies, why not wonder if they were applying for jobs. Plus, this is Clifton’s first science fiction story, and he sold it to the legendary John W. Campbell. Campbell loved to discover new writers, but he also wanted to shape them to follow his personal philosophy. Campbell was a species-ist. He believed his writers should not show aliens being superior to humans. And Clifton’s aliens were way superior to us. How can Clifton pull off an ending that pleased Campbell? He does, but the icing on the cake is how Clifton ultimately outwits Campbell too (I think). Explaining the ending will be up to you. Are humans really superior?
This might be far-fetched, but I wonder if “What Have I Done?” also applies to Clifton letting himself be coopted by Campbell. Or is that some bullshit I’m giving out to get you to read the story?