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Monday, January 26, 2015

"In Our Block" by R. A. Lafferty

First appeared in Frederick Pohl’s If. Nominated for the Nebula and reprinted in a Year’s Best and genre retrospectives by Donald A. Wollheim, Terry Carr, Robert R. Potter, and Martin H. Greenberg (picked by Neil Gaiman as his favorite fantasy story).
Summary: 
Two gentlemen wander a little known block visiting shanties that weren’t there not long ago. One small shack has trucks enter and leave despite being much smaller than the trucks. One, a stenographer recalls an entire conversation and can type it up in seconds... with her tongue. Another offers to restore hair to any color (though one assumes that any creature could do such a thing one his own. Another cold beer, despite having nothing around.

Discussion:
This seems like a typical if clever little SF story of its day, where aliens have visited Earth and are trying to fit in and improve our lot, yet be evasive about being aliens.

But the title gives a few pauses.

1. “Our”
The story opens:
“There were a lot of funny people in that block.”
So if it’s their block as well, they are one of the funny people, one of the aliens or folk with strange powers (whether supernatural or science beyond our understanding, is unclear).

The stenographer confirms this although its ostensibly a joke that only makes sense after you examine the last word in the title:
"Hi, cousin!"

2. “Block”
Relevant definitions include a) a residential area bordered by streets on four sides, b) something that impedes flow, and c) slang for head.

A is clear. B is relevant as there is a slight memory and understanding problem going on here. It's not just the impossible or improbable are occurring, but people's understanding of it is muddled:
"This is the first steel tape I ever made. Just got the idea when I saw you measuring my shack with that old beat-up one."
If that's true, how did this guy offer one up for sale without knowing what it was?

Likewise, the stenographer says:
"No sense mix up two things at one time.... The ungrammar of the letter is your own, sir." 
She is the one with problematic grammar. Or is she?

The character are blocked mentally from their own reality and identity. Jim Boomer's identifies himself as of the Shawnee tribe headquartered in Oklahoma but his last name indicates a group of settlers who came to farm Oklahoma territory. It's paradox that's solvable if extended out of the past, into the future--where Shawnee and Boomer children intermarry. This becomes a more distinct possibility as the stenographer "cousin" names herself of the Innominee tribe. This derives from the Latin innominatus meaning "nameless."

Note how easily the protagonists succumb to the "alien" reasoning by the end. We assume that the protagonists do not buy the stenographer's explanation of the shack that allows larger trucks to pass through as being able to "cut prices."
"Like the girl says, he cuts prices," Boomer said. 
Boomer closes with this opening idea of funny people being in the block.

What do we make of this lost identity and reality for these characters? Possibilities:

  1. In the future we lose ourselves. 
  2. Aliens take on our identities and forget themselves.
  3. Maybe identity places arbitrary and unnecessary logic limits on the imagination and, therefore, one's ability.
  4. Or life is nonsense when examined closely.
A fifth possibility: That all is illusion, but this seems unlikely as the story events would lose relevance.

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