Ever wonder why a particular story hooks you?
Just finished “Yesterday House” by Fritz Leiber. Follow the link if you want to read it before I give away spoilers. It has been included in a few anthologies, but not many. I read it in The Great SF Stories 14 (1952) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. For some reason, I’m enjoying these old science fiction stories more and more. Maybe it’s practice. After reading the best SF stories from 1939-1951, I’ve trained myself to consume short stories with more skill. Or, maybe science fiction is evolving, becoming more sophisticated.
“Yesterday House” is not a great story but it did grab me. Why? I read over three hundred science fiction short stories last year. Why do only some light my fire?
By the way, 1952 had a particularly good crop of great science fiction short stories.
“Yesterday House” begins with Jack Barr, a graduate student studying marine biology taking a small sailboat off the New England coast heading for a little island. This triggered three memories in me. One, of rowing a small boat to a tiny island in Biscayne Bay near Miami by myself. But more deeply by a memory of reading The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson when I was living in Charleston, Mississippi in 1966. Her description of New England tidewater life enchanted me so that I’ve always been attracted to any TV show, movie, article, or story about New England shore life. And third, wanting to become a marine biologist for a short while when I was in high school.
Does resonating with a story make a story more enchanting for the reader? I can remember being instantly captivated with The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman which was uniquely unlike anything I’ve experienced. Are reading sparks thrown when we encounter extremes, either identifying deeply or discovering total novelty.
After Jack lands, he starts tramping around the island. This triggered memories of all the times I’ve been out in the woods, walking across fields, visiting islands, or just exploring. At first, Jack hopes he’s the first person to step on this island. I remember when I was little, boating with my dad, we’d stop on these microscopic islands and I’d wonder if I was the first on them too. However, Jack comes to an eight-foot fence topped with barbed wire. Jack does something I was usually too chicken to do by myself when I encountered private fields with No Trespassing signs. He climbs a tree, crosses a branch, and jumps down into the forbidden field. I have often gone where I wasn’t supposed to go, especially if I was part of a group with braver boys, and I remember what a creepy feeling it produced knowing I could get caught.
But Jack wasn’t afraid. I remember all the times I had been nearly caught or caught being places I wasn’t supposed to be. Especially that feeling of electricity shooting down my dick. As I read on I worried for Jack.
Soon, Jack came across a Cape Cod house with an antenna wire stretched across the top of the roof. That sparked another memory, of a kidhood buddy who was into tuning distant radio stations to collect QSL cards. He had a horizontal wire across his roof. I had thought about getting my dad to help me put one on our roof so I could pursue that hobby too.
The house also had a gravel driveway and a car parked out front. I wondered why a small island would have a car and how it got there. This reminded me of reading Hardy Boys books, with their small everyday mysteries. As Jack watched, an old woman leaves the house, gets in the car and drives away. Then a young woman comes outside. Beautiful girls always spice up a story. But I’m surprised that Jack just goes over and introduces himself. Doesn’t he know he’s not supposed to be there? Can’t he imagine how much he will scare the poor young woman?
Here’s where the story gets iffy for me. Things happen too fast. Jack starts chatting with the girl, and she quickly becomes friendly. Jack soon learns the girl’s name is Mary Alice Pope and is seventeen, but everything she says is old sounding. She talks about silent movie stars, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Charles Lindbergh. Miss Pope tells Jack she has never met a man before, and she was born in 1916 (which happens to be the year my mother was born).
Jack realizes something very weird is going on. He tells her it’s 1951 (the year I was born), She argues it’s 1933 and has an old yellowed newspaper to prove it. She even has a radio playing that is reporting on the round the world flight of Wiley Post. Jack tells her the paper is obviously old because it’s yellow. Mary Alice says all newspapers are yellow. Jack tries to argue that she is being deceived, but the young woman tells him to go, that it would be bad for her if she’s caught with him. He leaves and sails back to the mainland.
Jack gets back to the house of Martin Kesserich, a renowned marine biology professor Jack is studying with that summer. He tells about his adventure with Mrs. Kesserich. She is the one who told him not to sail to the farthest island. She then explains Mary Alice Pope was a young woman that Martin was to marry in 1933 and shows Jack a picture. It’s the same girl.
Here’s where the story moves really too fast, and everything becomes too convenient. However, Fritz Leiber has created an amazing science fiction explanation for 1951. Professor Kesserich clones Mary Alice Pope, and uses his young woman lab assistant for a host mother, and then he marries her. So Mrs. Kesserich is Mary Alice’s birth mother, but not her biological mother. This is well before the concept of cloning, but what Leiber imagines is cloning. The Professor retrieves an egg from the dead Mary Alice Pope and quickens it in such a way that it’s a DNA duplicate of the young dead woman.
Asimov claimed this story was the first example of cloning in science fiction. This is why “Yesterday House” is included in The Best Science Fiction Firsts, an anthology of science fiction stories about the first uses of various concepts. However, there are earlier examples of parthenogenesis in science fiction. Hadn’t Asimov read Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman? Written in 1915, first published as a book in 1979. Of course, in that story, each pregnant woman experiences spontaneous parthenogenesis of her own egg, not really the same as cloning.
But Fritz Leiber understood the concept of cloning better than most people today. A clone will not be the same person. Professor Kesserich raised Mary Alice Pope 2.0 in isolation on the island and attempted to program her with the same education and pop culture Mary Alice Pope 1.0 experienced.
Leiber provides us with two sparkly science fictional concepts. Obviously, Leiber doesn’t know the future science of cloning, but he imagines the possibility. But even more fun is trying to imagine how to make a duplicate personality. Growing up, we used to often argue about nature v. nurture. Leiber makes a really good stab at an answer.
Of course, by now, Jack is in love with Mary Alice and wants to rescue her from her weird fate. The last scenes of the story are Professor Kesserich coming to collect his bride and Jack trying to convince her to run away with him. I won’t give away everything, but I will say I liked the ending because it ran counter to the emotions of the story.
Summing up, I have to wonder if great stories are those that we have reasons to resonate with personally, and/or stories that wow us with ideas that are either pet topics we already love, or with novel ideas that totally surprise us.
And thinking about other recent stories that I love, I wonder if we also admire stories that have a bit of “Cold Equations” in them. By that, I’m referring to the Tom Godwin 1954 story about having to space a teenage girl to save a rescue mission. Aren’t we thrilled by characters who have to make hard choices, or as readers, be put into a situation where we have to make a hard emotional choice about the story?
James Wallace Harris, 2/8/20