Search This Blog

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Analysis of "Goldfish Bowl" by Robert A. Heinlein

This first appeared in Astounding, reprinted by the following editors: Groff Conklin, Damon Knight,  Leon E. Stover, Harry Harrison, Bonnie L. Heintz, Frank Herbert, Donald A. Joos, Jane Agorn McGee, Ric Alexander.

Two scientists investigate a pair of water columns on the Pacific Ocean--one climbs up, the other down.  One scientist's an icthyologist and carries a pair goldfish with him.  His heart is failing, so everyone refuses to allow him to travel up the column to see where it leads. His companion makes the journey but fails to return, so they allow the geezer to follow him up.

They indirectly encounter unsuspected higher intelligence where they least expected it.  They are trapped in the typical alien nowhere-land--a small, enclosed space where the characters have to hatch their way to escape.  They see themselves like goldfish, trapped in a bowl.  Unfortunately, the only way out is death.  To spread knowledge, the last living scientist carves on his own flesh, "Beware. Creation took eight days," to let those below know that other creatures exist.  They find him but fail to understand the message.

The extended metaphor comparing humans to fish felt fresh:  Both physically in the shape of their prison and their treatment and intellectually in that the humans are trapped like pets without any communication to their alien owners, aside from a feeble attempt to attack their owner.

The theme is foreshadowed in the old man's name ("Graves") and his inability to see the water pillars with a spyglass. Only with two eyes--binoculars--can Graves make out the pillars.  Also, the men cannot communicate when the loud speakers yell, "Range one.  Man and cast loose"--doubly meaningful in terms communication, limited range, and humanity being set adrift.

When Bill's body is discovered by Portuguese fisherman, they are no more able to understand the message than native speakers of English.  Since the message comes from Genesis, a religious interpretation may be allowed although it may not be an entirely positive one.

Relationship to other stories:
 Other writers such as Frederik Pohl, Nancy Kress, among others have tackled this challenging SF scenario.  What if you're intellectually nothing to your alien captors without any means to communicate?

This also connects to the two prior stories in the collection, The Menace from Earth--"The Menace from Earth" and "Sky Lift"--stories of ascending sacrifices.  What happens if your sacrifice is meaningless, though? Your life and life's work has been for naught.  While depressing, it is meant to be a thorough and honest look at sacrifice, rather than a rosy one.  Humbling, too:  There may be aspects of the universe humanity may not be able to comprehend.

No comments:

Post a Comment