Author of the Issue: Richard Matheson
Consider, for instance, the idea of a normal man who, because he has been exposed to a peculiar combination of radiation and chemicals, slowly, gradually begins to grow smaller. Too slight an idea for a science-fiction novel? Not the way Matheson handles it. Like all really talented writers of fantasy and science-fiction, Matheson emphasizes the human element, the impact of the frightening, the unknown, upon man's mind. ow does a man feel, what does he think about, how does he relate to those around him when little by little he diminishes in size, and no doctor, no scientist, is able to reverse the process?
The Shrinking Man, which was later made into a movie, can be considered on two levels, and this is typical of all good science-fiction. First, as an adventure-suspense story, the novel keeps the reader turning pages as the hero grows smaller and smaller. There is a horrifying scene in which he is living in a doll house, the only comfortable place his wife can find for him, and he is attached by the family cat. He must pit his human brain and his will to survive against the predatory animal instincts of his former pet.
Again, when he has grown smaller still and has taken refuge in the basement of his home, he is attacked by a spider, and once more it is a duel between a man and the blind force of nature. He defeats the spider and then awaits his death, believing that when he grows small enough he will cease to exist, but he discovers that there are dimensions besides our own in the universe, that the spirit of man is indestructible.
|Illustration by Bruce Hall|
In his short story, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," Matheson again takes a familiar, if fantastic idea and develops it into a study in terror and suspense. Everyone has read about gremlins, the little men who were supposed to have plagued the Allied pilots when they went aloft in World War II. A humorous idea? Not the way Matheson develops it in this short story. Wilson, the hero of the story has just taken off in a commercial airliner, when he glances out the window to see a creature—presumably a gremlin—walking along the wing. He knows he is not insane, but the problem is that no one else aboard, none of the other passengers, the pilot or the stewardess is able to see the nightmare figure who is trying to wreck the plane. Once again, it is a situation of man's intelligence and courage against the forces of the unknown.
Although all good science-fiction must be entertaining, the really skilled writers in this genre do far more than entertain their readers. Because of the absence of limitations in this type of fiction, the ability to move unhampered through time and space, to write of the future as if it were already here, and of possible civilizations on other planets, the science-fiction writer has a unique opportunity to hold a mirror up to our own culture. He can put a spotlight on certain aspects of our civilization, and can show the dangers we may face in the future, if certain trends in the present are permitted to continue.
One problem that has always concerned the science-fiction writer, from the time of H. G. Wells to the present, is the danger that if things continue as they have been going, the machines may take over civilization. Men may lose all initiative, all their inherent will to survive, and become slaves to the very machines they created. In his story, "When the Waker Sleeps," Matheson has presented such a society, with one great difference. The machines that used to do all the work have ceased to function, but at the same time, the human race has lost its drive, its desire to keep the civilization going.
The doctors and scientists have therefore had to create a dream world for these people, to make them believe, through the use of drugs and suggestion that they were engaged in glamorous adventures, when they were really performing the mundane chores that were necessary to keep the race from extinction. The story is told from the point of view of one of the doctors, who wonders why he should work to keep the human race going at all.
"Why visit them every month, fill their veins with hypnotic drugs and sit back and watch them, one by one, go bursting into their dream worlds to escape boredom? Must he endlessly send his suggestions into their loosened brainwaves, fly them to planets and moons, crowd all forms of love and grand adventure into their mock-heroic dreams?"
Is this a far-fetched idea, a too-grim picture of man's future? When we consider that a great number of Americans today spend most of their leisure time, which they have gained as a result of the perfection of complex machines, in watching TV, going to movies and viewing spectator sports, we must admit that Matheson's fears about our future are not so far-out after all.
With few exceptions, most science-fiction writers are opposed to prejudice in any form whatsoever; it is logical that men who write of Martians and Venusians tend to think of the human race as being united in its goals and desires, not split into factions by petty differences. The theme of prejudice is handled in many ways, depending on the author.
In "Full Circle," Matheson makes the Martians the victims of prejudice on the part of the people of Earth. Since few Earthmen have ever spoken to a Martian as an equal, their view of the Martian race is distorted and contemptuous. Then a young reporter is sent out on a routine assignment, to review a puppet show of sorts, in which the Martians are used as puppets to entertain the children of Earth. After the performance the reporter goes backstage and finds himself drawn into a serious coversation with one of the Martian actors.
"Larg (the Martian) seemed a brother then. Not an Earth-brother or Mars-brother. I mean a brother—a person possessing that nonracial, universal trait which is separate from feature or environment. That sense of being which may exist in the savage and not in the priest.
"Or in the Martian and not in the Earthman. A dignity, a self-respect, a soul."
Of course it is an allegory, but so skillfully and imaginatively handled that there is no sense of objectionable "preaching" on the part of the author. This is the acid test of all good science-fiction, and Matheson passes it with flying colors. He combines a deep concern for the future of the human race with the ability to tell an exciting and suspenseful story.
P.S. Shortly after I sat down to write this up, I found a reprint of the article in the March 1970 issue of Jaguar (which I assume is another M. F. Enterprises publication), with a different illustration designed to fit into the already formatted text-wrap!