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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby

First appeared in Frederik Pohl's Star Science Fiction. Reprinted in major retrospectives by Frederik Pohl, Edmund Crispin, Alfred Hitchcock, Brian W. Aldiss, Laurence M. Janifer, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Thomas E. Sanders, Robert Silverberg, Leslie A. Fiedler, Leonard Wolf, Malcolm Edwards, Kingsley Amis, Stuart Gendall, Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh, Richard Matheson, Alberto Manguel, Sebastian Wolfe, Gary Goshgarian, Peter Haining, Syd Bentlif, Joan Kahn, Jean Marie Stine, Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer. It was twice filmed--once as part of the Twilight Zone series and again for the 1983 movie.

In a small town, people unwillingly come to Anthony's house. Anthony is a young lad who can make things happen by thinking about them. A rat bites his tail off. A man on a bicycle wants to bike away quickly, but Anthony reads the thought and sends the man rocketing away only because Anthony was in a good mood. Around Anthony, everyone mumbles and thinks simple multiplication tables so that he cannot read their thoughts. They talk about how good everything is, lest Anthony improve things for the worse.

Analysis with Spoilers:
Can there be a spoiler with this? The tale is less a story than a slice of life (albeit, a rather extraordinary one), but there is no plot, per se. Just events. In fact, the tale doesn't seem to have received much notice until Frederik Pohl reprinted it seven years later, followed the next year by Alfred Hitchcock's reprinting.

There is no one character perspective, either. It hops from mind to mind. Or is Anthony's mind the true observer? If so, Anthony often makes no commentary on or takes no action against the minds that think negatively toward him.

Anthony goes out into the cornfield to improve the lives of the insects and animals that live out there, which he seems able to do with their simple minds and thoughts. But when he returns, he puts on his own television show. The town is cut off from civilization (or maybe the rest of civilization is destroyed since their world ends a little ways off). Anthony's TB show is little more than abstract figures, but when Dan Hollis drinks too much and gets upset he doesn't have a record player to hear an album he received for his birthday, Anthony picks up on the thought and buries Dan (alive?) in the cornfield.

That's the climax. The denouement wraps up with everyone thinking in response what a good life it is. Close on irony.

The tale can be read at least four different ways:
  1. Our society over-caters to youth who control how society is run.
  2. If there is a god, he is capricious at best, unknowingly cruel at worst.
  3. If there is a god, he serves animals well since they are simple creatures whose lives he can improve. Humans are so complex in their wants, that it is impossible to improve their lives without making it into a living hell.
  4. This is the snapshot of a child's mind: how it interprets its influence on the world. The world even stops at the point of his journeys. He sees himself as the deserved center of attention.
The story also influenced Star Trek (he wrote four episodes though not the ones this story likely influenced). See "Charlie X" and "The Squire of Gothos".

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