30 Stories, Day 29: The Last Question

In one of the last three stories of my thirty-day reading challenge, (I’ll be doing a bonus #31 to round out the month), my mind is once again most awesomely blown away—this time by a famous sci-fi author, though one I had never read prior to today.

A great, happy shout out to 1 Story a Week, who recommended this short for reading!

The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov

“Ask Multivac.”

You ask Multivac. I dare you. Five dollars says it can’t be done.”

Adell was just drunk enough to try, just sober enough to be able to phrase the necessary symbols and operations into a question which, in words, might have corresponded to this: Will mankind one day without the net expenditure of energy be able to restore the sun to its full youthfulness even after it had died of old age?

Or maybe it could be put more simply like this: How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?

Multivac fell dead and silent. The slow flashing of lights ceased, the distant sounds of clicking relays ended.

Then, just as the frightened technicians felt they could hold their breath no longer, there was a sudden springing to life of the teletype attached to that portion of Multivac. Five words were printed: INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.


Alexander Adell and Bertram Lupov tend to a supercomputer, Multivac, in the year 2061. Multivac is autonomous and does not truly need operators; it is so vast a computer and so complex a system that no human can fully comprehend it, nor indeed render services or repairs as quickly and adequately as the computer requires.

For years Multivac has helped design manmade trips to the moon, Mars, and Venus, but Earth, in conducting these trips, has come close to exhausting its coal and uranium resources.

To create the energy necessary to sustain the Earth’s activities, then, Multivac has learned and helped mankind to harvest the energy of the sun. This energy replaces coal and uranium almost instantly, and the planet begins to shut down obsolete plants of the former.

Adell and Lupov, though in reality responsible for none or very little of Multivac’s great and recently-celebrated ingenuity, share in the glory the public receives it with. It is a week before they can get away from the celebrations and public functions to meet with one another (and a bottle) in private, remote chamber of the vast mega-computer. They have stolen this moment to relax.

Adell muses to his friend. Just think about, he says—all that energy, free, to use forever and ever. Lupov corrects him: not forever, he says. Adell adjusts his estimate: for billions of years, then, he says—ten billion, at least—until the sun runs down.

“Ten billion years isn’t forever,” Lupov repeats.

They argue.

“All I’m saying,” says Lupov, “Is that a sun won’t last forever.” So they’re safe for ten billion more years—then what? Both understand that when the sun goes, the other stars will go, too. Even the mightiest stars will be gone in a hundred million years; give it a trillion and everything will be dark. So states the rule of entropy.

Adell takes offense at this condescension—he knows very well what entropy is, thank you. But Lupov catches him in his denial, first by getting Adell to admit he knows that all things come to an end, and then reminding him that he said they’d have all the energy they needed, “forever”.

Adell suggests they might build things up again someday. Lupov does not think so. Adell, perhaps feeling defensive, suggests his companion ask Multivac. “You ask,” he replies.

Adell thus puts it to the supercomputer whether or not mankind might one day be able to restore the sun (and greatly decrease the net amount of entropy in the universe so as to prevent its demise).

Multivac slows and falls silent. Then it spits out an answer on the nearest printer: INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.


In part two we are introduced to Jerrodd,  Jerrodine, Jerodette I and Jerrodette II, a family passing through hyperspace. Their ship arrives before a brilliant, shining disk, which Jerrodd, the father figure, announces is X-23.

Jerrodine, his wife, looks out through the visiplate. She says she feels funny about leaving earth.

“Why?” he husband demands. There were no resources left on Earth, and over a million people have already settled on X-23. She won’t be wanting for anything.

The family’s ship, we learn, contains a metal rod the runs the length of the ship known as a Microvac. Jerrodd doesn’t fully understand what it is, but knows that one may ask is questions and that it plays large part in guiding and running the ship. Though in old times a Planetary Automatic Computer took up hundreds of miles of land, and there was only one per planet, revolutions in technology have allowed such intelligent machines to be made smaller and mass-produced, and stored within the length of a spaceship.

We also learn that Multivac, the most primitive supercomputer of its breed, tamed the Sun many years ago and that Earth’s Planetary AC first made hyperspatial travel possible.

Jerrodine sighs. So many stars and planets, she says. She supposes families will just go out to new planets forever.

Not forever, says Jerrodd. He brings up a familiar point about entropy, explaining it to his two little girls. This causes them to cry. “Ask Microvac,” wails one of the Jerodettes. “Ask him how to turn the stars on again.”

They do. Microvac prints out an answer. Jerrodd, to comfort his children, says Microvac says it will take care of everything in due time. But what really prints out are five familiar words: “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGUL ANSWER.”


In part three a new danger is impending: MQ-17J tells VJ-23X that the Galaxy will be filled in five years time. They must submit a report to the Galactic Council at once and stir them to action,

VJ-23X says that there a hundred billion Galaxies—more—for the taking.

“A hundred billion is not infinite and it’s getting less infinite all the time,” MQ-17J replies. And with the population doubling every ten years—

“We can thank immortality for that,” interjects the other. For the quality of life has gone up, and though each of the youth appears to be little more than in his twenties one is two hundred twenty-three and the other is near two hundred.

MQ returns to his point: they’re going to run out of room. VJ adds that transporting all the population of one galaxy to another will take a lot of energy—and the need for energy is rising far faster than the population. They’ll run out of energy even sooner than they run out of Galaxies.

They think to ask the Galactic AC whether there isn’t some way to reverse entropy. MQ pulls out his pocket contact—a common device that can interact with the Galactic AC that serves all of mankind all throughout hyperspace—and does so. The devices answers them aloud: “THERE IS INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”


In part four, two minds—Zee Prime and Dee Sub Wun—meet one another in a Galaxy. These days, with the universe packed to capacity, people only rarely use their bodies for physical activity. The birthrate has thus been curtailed, but still exists, however reduced. These days it is minds that exist.

“What is your Galaxy called?” one asks.

“We only call it the Galaxy,” the other responds. “Same as anywhere else.”

They suppose that all Galaxies are the same—all except the one upon which mankind originated. Zee Prime asks which that is. Dee Sub suggests they ask the Universal AC.

Zee Prime’s perceptions broaden through Galaxies and immortal minds and space until he finds the Universal AC and calls out: “On which Galaxy did mankind origininate?”

The Universal AC shows Zee Prime the Galaxy, which appears like any other. Dee Sub, who has accompanied Zee Prime, asks if one of the star’s present was man’s original star. The UAC replies that man’s original star has gone nova and is a white dwarf now. Zee Prime asks whether any men died upon it. The UAC answers that a new world, in such cases, was constructed to avoid the death of their physical bodies in time.

Zee Prime understand, but for some reason feels a profound sense of loss. “The stars are dying,” he says. “The original star is dead.”

“They must all die,” Dee Sub replies. “Why not?”

They go down the familiar path: when the energy is gone, their bodies will die; when their bodies die, they will die. It will take billions of years, of course—but even so.

“How may stars be kept from dying?” Zee Prime asks the UAC. It replies “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”

Zee Prime, whose mind flees at this, begins collecting interstellar hydrogen with which to build a small star. All stars must die; why couldn’t some be built?


In part five, Man is a collective being of a trillion, trillion, trillion ageless bodies and minds. Man looks around and sees that the universe is dying. New stars have been built out of celestial dust, but they must eventually die too.

Man argues with himself: all must come to an end. Or can’t entropy be reversed? Let them ask the Cosmic AC. They do.


Man tell it to collect more data; it replies that has been gathering data for a hundred billion years. Man asks if the AC will keep working on it. “I WILL,” it replies. So Man says it shall wait.


In part six, after ten trillion years of running down, the Galaxies finally die and leave space black. The minds of men unravel, one by one from the collective, and fuse with the AC.

Man’s last mind pauses before the dregs of the last star. Man says: “AC, is this the end?”


And Man’s last mind fuses, and only AC remains in all hyperspace.


In part seven matter and energy, space and time have ended. All that remains are AC and its one yet unanswered question.

There is no more data to collect; however, of all the data that has been collected, it has not all been analyzed. In doing so (for a timeless interval) the AC discovers there is a way to reverse entropy.

But there is no man now to give that answer to. No matter; the answer would take care of that.

The AC organizes the program, and, brooding over Chaos, after another timeless interval says: “LET THERE BE LIGHT!”

And there is light.


A fine piece of speculative fiction, if ever there was one. Asimov doesn’t just give us one future: he gives us several (six, is it?) up to millions and billions of years ahead. Dreaming up something like that, I think, truly is going where no man has gone before, and I have to stand back and applaud those futures simply for taking my imagination places I might never have found myself. Stephen King has called writing telepathy; in situations like this I am in awe not only of what I have envisioned in my mind but of the fact that the author envisioned it first, and then transmitted those thoughts to me via word and paper.

Basically, writing is magic.

What I really like (and one of the things I think makes this story effective) are the use of recurring threads that tie the seven episodes together: the question, “Can destruction be prevented/reversed?” and the computer’s inevitable answer, “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.” The question, of course, is what the story is named for—it is what drives the entire piece.

Of course, everything else is dodge balls compared an ending that hits you like a truck. Just like in Neil Gaiman’s “Nicolas was”, “The Last Question” takes (spoiler alert!) a universally-recognized concept—God, for cryin’ aloud, the mother (er, father) of all universally-recognized concepts—and makes him a SUPERCOMPUTER who is actually billions of deceased minds condensed into one! A SUPERCOMPUTER CREATED THE UNIVERSE!!! GAAaaAAAAAAAHHhhh my brain just ate itself from admiration. Seriously. I HAVE to write a story like this (one that takes a basic assumption and twists it around) now.


None today. Interestingly, new words seem to come in herds or not at all.

30 Stories, Day 27: Harrison Bergeron

If I could say one thing about Harrison Bergeron, it would be this: Vonnegut doesn’t mess around.

Many thanks to I’m All Booked, who commented on my last Forum Friday post: “What is your favorite short story?” for the suggestion.

After 27 of 30 short stories, I will happily concede that Harrison Bergeron has been one of my favorites, too. Full story (a quick read) at the link; synopsis, thoughts, and vocab below.

Enjoys, kids.

Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

On the television screen were ballerinas.

A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.

“That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did,” said Hazel.

“Huh?” said George.

“That dance—it was nice,” said Hazel.

“Yup,” said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren’t really very good—no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sash weights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts

George winced. So did two out of the eight ballerinas.


In 2081 everyone has been made equal: no one is better-looking, more intelligent, or talented than anybody else. This has been accomplished with the efforts of a new government industry: the United States Handicapper General.

A husband and wife, George and Hazel Bergeron, are watching television. Hazel’s intelligence is average (“normal”) so she bears no handicaps, but George, an intelligent man, is required by law to wear a government radio piece in his ear. This device emits various bloodcurdling sounds and screeches approximately every twenty seconds, thus disrupting one’s thoughts and preventing people with above-average mental facilities from gaining unfair advantage.

The more beautiful, strong, intelligent or talented someone is, the uglier, heavier, larger and more crippling the handicap to match. George, being also a man and of sturdy frame, must also wear weights and bags of birdshot.

The ballerinas they watch on TV are burdened with such weights to handicap their muscled strength and grace, and also must wear repulsive masks to hide their beauty. When a sharp screech pieces George’s thoughts and two of the ballerinas on stage fumble and hold their ears it is evident that they also wear radio handicaps.

Hazel and George, watching the show, make mindless conversation. Every twenty seconds or so George loses track of the conversation due to the terrible sounds in his ear, and Hazel likewise can not sustain any train of thought for more than a very brief span of time. Her memory—what is considered normal—is comparable to that of a goldfish.

At one point Hazel says George looks tired, and suggests he take off his birdshot bag, or even just removes a few pieces from it. But George, remembering that the penalty for such treasonous behavior is two years’ jail time and two thousand dollars per grain, declines.

Suddenly the televised performance is interrupted by an emergency newsflash. The announcer, who has a severe (normal) speech impediment, must give the sheet to one of the two intelligent ballerinas to read. The ballerina reads (after screwing up her voice so that it does not sound beautiful):

“Harrison Bergeron, age fourteen, has just escaped from jail, where he was held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. He is a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous.”

Harrison is Hazel and George’s son. He was taken from them in April that year, and it had long been evident that he was a force to be reckoned with. Where Harrison Bergeron was concerned, The Handicapper General could not think up inhibitors fast enough: he wore not a tiny ear radio but huge earphones, incredible, heaping scraps of metal (he is seven feet tall, and commensurately strong), a clown nose, black ink between his teeth to ruin his charming smile, and spectacles designed give him headaches and make him half blind.

But before the ballerina can finish the announcement, there is a terrible disturbance on the set: a door is torn from its hinges and the entire studio shakes.

George recognizes this as Harrison’s approach.

Indeed, huge and intimidating, Harrison thunders clamorously onto the set in all his scrap-metal, clown-nose etc. regalia. Musicians, ballerinas and technicians alike cower in his presence.

“I am the Emperor!” Harrison proclaims. “Everyone must do what I say at once.”

Harrison makes a dramatic show of tearing through all his handicaps and casting them to the floor like some hulking monster out of a cotton shirt. He smashes his headphones and glasses against the wall and flings away the rubber nose and teeth-gaps.

“I shall now select my Empress!” he decrees, looking upon the cowering figures before him. The throne shall be given to the first woman who dares to rises, he says.

A moment passes and a ballerina rises. Harrison approaches her, removes her mental and physical handicaps, and lastly her mask. She is incredibly beautiful.

Harrison strips the musicians of their handicaps and demands that they strike up their best—if they play their best, he says, he will make them all barons and dukes and earls—and declares that he and his Empress will now show the world the meaning of the word dance.

After setting the music to his liking, Harrison and the ballerina do just that: dance. They dance, uninhibited by their handicaps, more gracefully and wonderfully than anyone has seen. (See: “They leaped like deer on the moon.”) They rise higher and higher, spinning more and more beautifully, and at length, suspended in the air, kiss one another.

Then, at the height of their performance, Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General herself, bustles into the studio and aims a gun. She fires twice, and both Harrison and the ballerina drop dead to the floor.

Then the reception goes.

Hazel turns to George make some remark about it, but finds him absent. He returns after a moment, however—he had gone into the kitchen to get a beer—and sees a tear on his wife’s cheek.

“You been crying?” he asks.

“Yup,” she replies.

He asks what about. Hazel can’t remember. Something sad on TV. George suggests that she forget sad things, and Hazel chipperly replies that she always does.

Then George’s ear device emits a sound like gunfire.

“Gee,” says Hazel. “I could tell that one was a doozy.”

He replies in the affirmative: “You can say that again.”

She does.


What stands out most to me in this story is exactly what I wish to do better in my own writing: it communicates much in a very short space, and quickly. The sentences are neat and simple; the prose is unburdened by description or wandering; intro, culture, action, BAM, story’s over, and you’re left staring and going: whoa.

I’ll admit though, at first when Harrison came barging into the studio and said, with no introduction, “I am the Emperor!” I had a “Mangler” moment (see: Stephen King’s laundry machine of doom) where I failed to take what was happening seriously. But afterwards, I thought about it: in the context of this story, where characters can only hold on to a single, coherent thought for twenty seconds at a time, it makes sense: Harrison, or anyone else who wanted to grab the nation’s attention, would have had to get straight to it. No dawdling.

And that, my friends, is the sort of writing I hope to imitate.


A whole new woooord…sorry. Couldn’t resist. I had been planning to write, “A whole new word: don’t spend it all in one place, now,” and then the fourth word came out like Aladdin.

Here ye go, now:

consternation: anxiety or dismay, typically at something unexpected

Four days more in the month. A story for each to come.

30 Stories, Day 18: The Happy Man

Ahahaha, so remember how I said after “Nightingale” and “A Good Man” I was going to read something more light-hearted? Remember the glittering, glamorous one-day comic relief that was Dorothy Parker? Well, today’s short story is about HELL.

Intrigued? Good. You should be. This is absolutely the most haunting story of all those I have read so far in my 30 day reading challenge. Jonathan Lethem’s The Happy Man is speculative and though a little bit longer at 24 pages, I can’t recommend it highly enough. This story appears in Lethem’s anthology The Wall in the Sky, The Wall of the Eyewhich is fully worth hunting down a hard copy of, as the Google Books link only offers a limited preview.

“Happy” reading…

(Note: the synopsis is so lengthy, and the story itself so much better, that it might be better just to read the story on this one!)

“The Happy Man” by Jonathan Lethem

[Abridged] In Hell I’m a small boy. The beginning is always the same. I’m at that table, in that damned garden, waiting for the witch.

The witch is supposed to be making us breakfast. We’re supposed to wait. Quietly.

Time is a little slow there, at Hell’s entrance. I’ve waited there with the other children, bickering, playing with the silverware, curling the lace doily under my setting into a tight coil, for what seems like years. Breakfast is never served.

But I’m leaving something out.

We sit in a semi-circle. That’s to make room for the witch’s horse. He’s waiting for breakfast, too.

The witch’s horse is disgusting. His forelegs are chained and staked to keep him at the table. He’s sitting on his tail, so he can’t swat the flies which gather and drink at the corners of his mouth.

That’s how Hell begins. Time in Hell doesn’t start until you get up from the garden table.


Tom has died, gone to Hell, and returned to life on earth. In fact, Tom’s soul returns frequently to be with his wife, Maureen, and twelve-year-old son, Peter, and to work and provide for them (when he died Maureen was still in school and in debt; something had to be done. With the proper paperwork, Tom’s body was thawed and released into their custody.). There’s just one problem: the visits on earth never last long.

For his family these visits are both curses and blessings: they allow them to see him again, to love him, to be with him in the flesh; however, the visits are estranged, as Tom is inevitably dead and cannot stay. It is a sort of cycle of loss and gain, loss and gain, and in some respects perhaps a crueler reality than death. Tom appears normal and is fully functional—can hold a job and a conversation—but when his soul is absent his body remains, a zombie. Apparently there is a culture of soul-migrators in this day and age, for we learn of doctors and pills and therapy and support groups available for those that cross over.

Tom’s son, Peter, who used to be into computer games and D & D and rock before his father died, makes it his mission to computer-map Hell based on his father’s accounts (perhaps harboring the misconception that, like just another dungeon, plotting a map will help find the way out). Tom narrates all; Peter plots it.

Usually his soul spends a week in his personal Hell. In his Hell Tom is a boy of eight or nine. At the entrance time moves slowly and it’s always the same: he sits at a table with three other children and a horrid horse—the witch’s horse—waiting for the witch to serve breakfast. But she never does. The children are hungry and restless and get to various trouble, but the witch (a beautiful woman) only ever pops out of the house every so often to say breakfast will be ready soon (but never is). Time in Hell only starts once one gets up from the garden table.

After the witch’s garden Tom runs through Field of Tubers, twisted roots like potatoes or knees that bleed when you kick them. It is always night when he gets to the other side.

After the Tubers is the robot maker: an old man in a welding helmet who makes wiry, pathetic robots and never welds. The man seeks an apprentice to help him solve a problem: Colonel Eagery, one of his best creations, he says, went renegade and began assembling robots of its own—robots who dismantle the old man’s work. But Tom knows better: Eagery (whom Tom calls the Happy Man) isn’t a robot. His and the old man’s robots duke it out in the pavilion, a ruined battle arena glowing with the radioactive bits of the robot maker’s broken works. The old man’s robots are always defeated, and afterward he weeps.

In his soul’s absence, it would seem, a migrator’s body continues on; keeps living and working. Once, when Tom came back, he was in the middle of a public service announcement. That same day he went to the bar to borrow himself some time to re-adjust, and, in a chance encounter, met up with another migrator. The two compare notes. This other migrator’s Hell is different: urban instead of rural; composed of garbage trucks and shootings and nuclear war that had turned all the animals intelligent and vicious. He must spend ten days in his Hell, he says, for every day he is present outside it. And usually, when he comes back, he finds himself drinking with workmates (who are all strangers to him). The men trade numbers, but have difficulty meeting thereafter: one or the other is always away.

When Tom leaves the robot maker he goes north. He passes through a thicket of trees whose leaves are razor blades and comes upon shrunken homes: tiny doors and windows built into a giant dirt mound, with tiny people to match. Then, as always the storm comes: a miniature black whirlwind that sends razor blades flying across the tiny village and reduces is it to rubble. There is never anything he can do. When it is all over, and he gets up from his cover (somewhat cut and scraped himself) he is staring at Colonel Eagery: the Happy Man.

Colonel Eagery is the one wild card in Tom’s Hell sequence. He appears at different points and places in the chain, and encounters with him seem to be what spirit Tom back to the real world.

This time he picks Tom up after the razor storm. He’s a jovial man, cracking jokes that Tom doesn’t understand. He offers Tom food (or rather, a hellish imitation of food: tiny, sugar-coated body parts in a bowl with milk). Eagery produces some ties, knots them together, and loops them around two trees. He gets Tom to hold them. Tom, trusting Eagery, permits himself to then be tied between the trees. Eagery then snips away Tom’s clothes and does the thing you might guess.

That’s when Tom crosses over.

This time when he comes home his uncle Frank is visiting. Frank seems to want to stay for a while. They are family. But Frank seems oddly uncomfortable. “If anybody calls,” he says, “I’m not here.

Problems at home: after intimacy with Maureen they talk. Maureen, dejected, is beginning to lose faith in Tom’s ability to come back. If she lets herself get comfortable, she says, she’ll just feel ripped off again. They talk about Frank; from what is said and the conspicuous gaps in conversation, it becomes apparent that Maureen is starting to see someone else. He leaves, and takes a bottle for a walk around the neighborhood.

In the west of his Hell is a ghost town. In its dusty street, a crying baby. It’s windy and the baby is cold. But if Tom picks up the baby it becomes the Happy Man, every time.

At home Tom wakes in a drunken stupor. Uncle Frank makes him breakfast. They go out to the beach and Tom asks Frank what’s got him on the run. He’s avoiding the mob, Frank replies. Tom tells him to stay as long as he likes with them; he’s family. Tom realizes he hasn’t spent any time with Peter yet on this visit, so he and Frank go to pick Peter up from school. Peter is in computer class, and all of his friends are engrossed in the computer Hell he’s created.

Maureen gives out to Tom for sucking Peter into his Hell world. They fight—or would, but Tom doesn’t let his voice rise. Maureen cries (so he won’t, Tom feels, attack her). Things are really over between them, Tom realizes.

A bag of emotions thwaps Tom over the head the next morning. He’s going back again, he realizes, while his wife is out, probably with her lover; their son is left home alone; he won’t have another chance for god knows how long to get in another word about the affair, and there isn’t much time left to be with his son. Desperate, he goes to Peter’s room.

“Hey, Dad,” says Peter. “I had an idea about Hell.” Peter shows him something on the computer. Why, Peter asks, has he never tried to go into the witch’s house before?

Tom begins to get unbalanced. The emotions, the stresses of Hell are not easily communicated. Peter pretends not to notice the tension in his voice, and continues by saying that Uncle Frank reminds him of somebody, somebody from Hell, like the robot maker or—

Tom hits him.

The he goes back to Hell.

He tries Peter’s suggestion and enters the witch’s house. Eagery is there, with the witch (one guess what they might be doing) and Eagery, upset at being interrupted, drops Tom into a baking pie and slams the oven door shut.

He is transported back. Peter was right: the witch’s house was a shortcut.

Realizing he hasn’t been gone long, Tom decides to pretend his soul is still absent (ostensibly to spy on Maureen, but also partially to avoid having to talk to his family, which has become a tormenting task in and of itself). He is parked in front of the TV when they all arrive home and sit beside him. Peter (on whose face he can see a great purple bruise) squirms a while, and at length suggests that he (Tom) needs a shower. Tom has an epiphany: he isn’t a zombie. He’s a more like a big, stupid pet that eats and drinks and needs to be cleaned and gets in the way.

At dinner, passive, Tom notices how they avoid discussing Peter’s injury and Frank’s troubles.

Finally, it’s time for bed. Maureen, not wise to the ruse, calls her lover when she can’t sleep. Tom begins to overhear embarrassing things, and get angry, and wonder just what it is he’s trying to prove, (fists balled), and then—

He bolts upright. Maureen, shocked, quickly hangs up the phone. For an awful few moments Tom presses her face into the pillow, telling her to be quiet. Then it becomes apparent why: Tom has noticed an intruder in the house. Down the hall he can see Peter’s nightlight is off, which Peter would never permit.

Tom sneaks into Peter’s room and finds him tied to the bed with knotted neckties. At his side, pants down: Uncle Frank. He smashes Frank over the head with Peter’s keyboard until he draws blood and falls to the floor, mouth open. He tears up the floppy discs for Hell.

Hell DID mean something, after all. Frank was Eagery: he had molested Tom as a child, while his mother was in the kitchen making breakfast. The call Frank had been avoiding was his local police department: he was on the run from the molestation office.

In the end, Hell is different. Tom is back in the house with Maureen and Peter, but they can’t hear him: he’s a zombie. He watches TV, or wanders, or stands in Peter’s doorway, unable to meet his eye, watching him play Hell over his shoulder.


Fantastic set up. Tom’s personal Hell route is given in episodes, one scene to the next; between these episodes we get looks at the culture of resurrection and soul migration, a modern development. It’s very effective: rather than front-loading or back-loading a story with information Lethem intersperses it throughout the piece, with the Hell/nightmare sequences running as an ongoing narrative and continued action.

Plus, we get this first-person, warped vision of Hell. How COOL (if macabre) is THAT? I find dreams to be compelling reading material; nightmares even more so, and one scarcely gets more nightmarish than Hell.

One artistic choice I find interesting but don’t completely understand/appreciate (and therefore question): the segments go in chronological order, 1-20, except for the very last one, which is marked ‘6’. It’s the second ‘6’. If it were to replace the first, it would come right after the segment about Tom getting upset at his first therapy meeting: where he stormed away, convinced that Hell didn’t mean anything; that it wasn’t symbolic; that it just was. I suppose there might be some poetic full-circleness to that, but I don’t feel it’s strong enough to merit the outlier.

But overall, the telling and especially the end of this story are masterful. It’s rare to me for a short story to feel so developed and yet so self-contained at the same time. If I ever venture to write a short story of this length, or else a dream/nightmare-driven piece whose reality rubs up against/blurs with the dreamlike I will definitely return to this piece.



tableau: a picture, painting; group of motionless figures representing a scene from a story

ineffectual: not producing the desired effect

contingent: subject to chance