Why would a grown man write a short story for an adult science fiction magazine about toy people on a boy’s model railroad layout becoming alive and having their own thoughts? It’s one thing for Disney to create the Toy Story series for children that adults enjoy, but it’s really another thing to ask grownups to let’s pretend about toys having conscious minds. Or is it? Wasn’t The Twilight Zone in 1961 doing the same thing in its classic episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” about conscience toys hoping to escape an existential fate? And let’s not forget The Nutcracker or Babes in Toyland. The idea of toys having a secret life has been around a long time. Well, at least as long as kids have been playing let’s pretend, but why has the same theme survived for grownups in stories, novels, plays, operas, and ballets?
Chad Oliver, was an anthropologist who wrote “Transformer” for the November, 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, a periodical that prided itself on having sophisticated adult readers. (Online copy here.) I read “Transformer” last night in The Great SF Stories 16 (1954) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg that was published in 1987. The story was reprinted again for Sci Fiction in 2005 (archived to read online). You can also listen an audio version at Radio Echos online. Finally, you can buy the Kindle edition of Far From This Earth: The Collection Short Stories of Chad Oliver Volume Two for $1.99 to get it and many other Chad Oliver short stories.
Chad Oliver is another dead science fiction writer whose work is slowly fading away. He barely gets a write-up in Wikipedia. A fair number of his books are still in print for the Kindle and most are only a $1.99. My only previous experience reading Oliver was his Mists of Dawn (1952) as a kid back in the middle 1960s, a title from the wonderful Winston Science Fiction series for young adults. I reread Mists of Dawn recently when I was fondly remembering those books.
“Transformer” is a strange little story. Isaac Asimov and Marty Greenberg didn’t want to use it for their anthology of science fiction stories because they didn’t consider it science fiction, but the story got to both of them so much that they had to include it. In my younger days I would have dismissed this story as fantasy because of my prejudice against fantasy fiction, but in my old age I’m more accepting of up front make believing. (That reminds me of a Bob Dylan line, “I’m younger than that now.”)
In “Transformer” an old woman is talking to a person named Clyde, but right at the beginning she also addresses us readers while talking to Clyde:
You might stick around for a minute and listen, you see—things might get interesting. One more thing we might as well clear up while we're at it. I can hear you thinking, with that sophisticated mind of yours: "Who's she supposed to be telling the story to? That's the trouble with all these first-person narratives." Well, Clyde, that's a dumb question, if you ask me. Do you worry about where the music comes from when Pinza sings in a lifeboat? I feel sorry for you, I really do. I'll tell you the secret: the music comes from a studio orchestra that's hidden in the worm can just to the left of the Nazi spy. You follow me? The plain, unvarnished truth is that I get restless when the town's turned off for a long time. I can't sleep. I'm talking to myself. I'm bored stiff, and so would you be if you had to live here for your whole life. But I know you're there, Clyde, or this wouldn't be getting through to you. Don't worry about it, though. This is strictly for kicks.
This is Chad Oliver way of saying he knows we’re adults and gives us a wink-wink. Knowing he’s an anthropologist makes me wonder if this story has some kind of subtext about primitive minds, but I don’t think so. I think Oliver is choosing to be an adult and saying, “Let’s pretend.” However, his story of ELM POINT, a crummy toy town on a cheap model train layout in Willy Roberts’ attic is neither fun nor playful, it’s more like an Edgar Allan Poe nightmare.
Here’s the thing, we adults, we grown-ups, we mature intellectual beings, play let’s pretend all the time. Just before I read “Transformer” I finished up watching Bridgerton on Netflix, an 8-part miniseries where adult viewers pretend Jane Austen wrote a story with sex and nudity. Our make believe train set town is a film recreation of Regency England, a favorite fantasyland for romance aficionados. That recreation is no more accurate to reality than Willy’s train layout on an old piece of plywood. But we still have fun, don’t we?
In other words, most adults never stop playing let’s pretend either. We just stop needing the toys to jump start our fantasies. That reminds of a Philip K. Dick novel, The Three Stigmatas of Palmer Eldritch, where colonists on Mars shift their let’s pretend from using Perky Pat dolls and layouts to enhance their hallucinations on the drug Can-D, to then use the new drug Chew-Z that doesn’t require toys to shape the hallucinations. I must reconsider what Dick’s novel is saying in regards to what I’ve learned from this Chad Oliver’s story.
Chad Oliver is asking us about our fantasy life being transformed.
Willy Roberts surveyed his model railroad without pleasure. He could remember the time when it had given him a real hoot, but after all he was thirteen years old now. He felt slightly ashamed that he should want to mess with it at all, but it was better than getting kicked around in football by all the big guys in the neighborhood. And Sally had said she was going to the show with Dave Toney, damn her.
I remember getting two train sets for Christmas in 1959, when I was eight. I loved those toy trains, but they were quickly forgotten by the time I was nine. It’s hard to believe Willy is still playing with his at thirteen, but then I watch YouTube videos about guys my age spending fortunes on their elaborate model train layouts.
At what age are we supposed to give up playing let’s pretend? How many people ever do?
I’ll let you read most of “Transformer” for yourself if you want to. This 1954 story reminds me so much of when I was a kid in the 1950s. But Chad Oliver also reminds us that there’s a troublesome side to reality that always intrudes on our pretending. ELM POINT if fake, and poorly made. It has rubber trees and cellophane rivers. Our narrator tells us:
It isn't much of a life, to my way of thinking. You do the best you can, and get up whenever some dumb kid hits a button, and then you get tossed in the wastebasket. It seems sort of pointless.
And later on says:
I don't want you to get the idea that I'm just a sour old woman, Clyde, a kind of juvenile delinquent with arthritis. I'm not, really. You know, a long time ago, when Willy was younger, even ELM POINT wasn't so bad. ... I'll tell you, though—it's funny. Sometimes, a long time ago, I'd go and sit down by that silly cellophane river and I'd almost get to where I liked it here.
Our narrator and the other denizens of ELM POINT decide to rebel against the tyranny of Willy Roberts, but things don’t go according to plan. After the failed coup Willy decides to sell off his train, layout, and toy citizens. Our narrator ends up in the house of another boy for his train set, but things aren’t as good.
That's right. ELM POINT looks like Utopia from where I'm sitting. Mark Borden, the one that bought me, can't afford a real model railroad set-up, and his house doesn't even have an attic. So about once a week he takes us all out of his dirty closet, sets up his lousy circle of track, and starts up his wheezing four-car freight train. It isn't even a scale model. Big deal.
Things are relative in both reality and our make believe worlds. We hope for better times, and sometimes remember the bad times weren’t that bad after all. We all play let’s pretend when we watch TV or read novels or even just kick back in our La-Z-Boys and fantasize. Could Chad Oliver be asking us to compare our lives to living in a badly constructed model railroad layout?
I’m also reading a nonfiction book, Evil Geniuses by Kurt Andersen that’s about how our political economy was shaped by the fantasies of rich Milton Friedman worshipping libertarians over the last fifty years. I’m also reading The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, a science fiction fantasy about the politics of the future after climate change starts killing people by the millions. Both books are deadly serious and ask us to stop playing let’s pretend and do something. But we don’t, do we? Why is playing let’s pretend so overwhelmingly alluring to us?
Am I reading too much into “Transformer?” Did you find something else? The story is haunting even though it’s a simply little fun tale for F&SF. More and more, I’m spending my let’s pretend time by reading old issues of F&SF. What does it say when I knowingly choose a cheap model railroad layout over reality?
Maybe the anthropologist in Chad Oliver is saying something in his story. Maybe it’s a neat little message in a bottle thrown on the ocean of fantasies.
James Wallace Harris, 1/5/21