What Have I Done by Mark CliftonOne 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?





8 thoughts on ““What Have I Done?” by Mark Clifton

  1. I’ve read about Mark Clifton. The oft-repeated view is that he had a misanthropic view of the human race, and that his stories were generally bleak and pessimistic, especially for the period in which they appeared.

    And yes, I’ve read this story. Clifton faced a unique dilemma—how to show the ability of humans to outwit aliens (thus pleasing Campbell), while at the same time showing his dislike of humanity (because that is apparently how he rolled).

    He pulled it off!


  2. I bought a hardback collection of his fiction some years ago (edited by Barry Malzberg, a big fan) but never really got onto it. You might want to find the intro, or I can send it to you.
    I’m not sure I buy this thing about Campbell always wanting humans to win against aliens (but am not well enough read in the period to make a definitive judgement). I’ll note, though, that Philip Dick’s “The Imposter” appeared in 1953. This was described to me as “Who Goes Here?” but where the alien wins.

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      1. It is not the case that Campbell would not publish stories in which humans failed to come out on top or otherwise compared badly to nonhumans. While Campbell was certainly a human chauvinist, he would set aside his prejudices for a story he liked enough, usually by a regular contributor. Here’s a list. I’m sure it can be extended.

        Ross Rocklynne, Quietus (1940): humanity has destroyed itself and there is only one breeding pair left; bird-like aliens drop in and, misunderstanding the situation, kill the male. (But they’re sorry about it.)

        Heinlein, By His Bootstraps (1941): our time traveler winds up in an era in which humans are reduced to slavery, or maybe pet-hood, by aliens, for thousands of years. When he sees one of the aliens himself, the experience drives him temporarily insane. There’s no indication humans defeat them—apparently they just leave.

        Heinlein, “They” (1941): a human—maybe the last human—is the victim or beneficiary of a scheme by all-powerful, obviously non-human beings to maintain a fake world around him.

        Heinlein, Methuselah’s Children (1941): the wandering Howard families head for the stars and find two inhabited planets. The first is the planet of the Jockaira, who are smart and advanced enough, but they turn out to be the pets of some characters that even Lazarus Long calls “gods,” who pack the humans back into their spaceship and deliver them to a planet some light-years distant. On that second planet they encounter cute furry guys who have group minds and also mess around genetically with human babies. The humans flee, returning home utterly defeated. (Alexei Panshin points out in THE WORLD BEYOND THE HILL that an expression of bravado at the end was added by Heinlein for the book version, not the version Campbell published.)

        C.L. Moore, Judgment Night (1943): humans think they are at the top of the heap, but things are really run by some lemur-like creatures, who by the end of the novel are sufficiently fed up with humanity’s follies that they are about ready to put somebody else in the top spot.

        Kuttner/Moore, The Children’s Hour (1944): guy’s girlfriend turns out to be one of the young of a species of godlike aliens, and when he gets troublesome about it they just wipe his memory.

        Eric Frank Russell, Hobbyist (1947): guy is spacewrecked on a planet dominated by a mysterious being who appears to be creating life, and it scares hell out of him, and he flees as soon as he can manage it.

        H.B. Fyfe, Protected Species (1951): humans get to Alpha Centauri, discover ruins, wonder whose they are. An alien steps out from behind a rock and says “They are not ours. They are yours.” They’ve been watching over us the whole time. (Campbell liked this one and “Hobbyist” enough to put them both in THE ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION ANTHOLOGY.)

        Clifford Simak, Courtesy (1951): humans have a base on a planet with “primitive” inhabitants, start dying of a disease for which their medication is past its shelf life; the indigenes don’t share their cure with the humans because the humans have treated the indigenes so shabbily, except for one guy who was sort of polite to them. The humans are clearly portrayed as morally inferior to the aliens in this unusually bitter story.

        Simak, Neighbor (1954): alien lands, sets up shop, doesn’t want to be bothered, so there’s a county or so rendered completely incommunicado, and nobody can do anything about it.

        Simak, Immigrant (1954): humanity is a very junior member of the fellowship of sentients, and humans selected to go to the aliens’ planet don’t even understand how much they are condescended to.

        A. Bertram Chandler (as George Whitley), Familiar Pattern (1959): aliens land in the Pacific, things look OK for a while, but their religion starts to gain human adherents, there’s a violent reaction from humans, and the aliens proceed to kick ass. The Polynesian character tells the white Australians at the end: “Now it’s your turn.”


        1. I’ve read some of those. “Quietus” is a particular favorite of mine. I’ll need to study them all. In the 1940s there were a number of stories where aliens scared the crap out of humans like in Methuselah’s Children. Both Heinlein and Campbell seem to change their mind about aliens as we moved into the 1950s.

          I’m only going by anecdotes that writers have written about working with Campbell. But like you said, I don’t think Campbell would have turned down a good story.


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