Friday, May 11, 2007

"Mimsy were the Borogoves"

is one of the great science fiction/horror stories of the 1940's. I call it a "horror" story because of the way it ends, with every parent's worst nightmare: losing their children to a world the parents can't begin to comprehend. Oddly, that 1943 story captured a sense of rapid change which perfectly characterized my Baby Boomer childhood, but doesn't reflect quite the world my daughter will grow in to. I was an adult before I began listening to Duke Ellington and some of the music my father grew up with; my daughter already listens to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and, as she says, she's probably the only person in her high school with Judy Collins on her iPod.

The story, by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and his wife, C.L. Moore) is my favorite Kuttner story, and the occassion of a movie based on it brought out a collection of his/their stories, which gives me a chance, finally, to have their stories in more than scattered anthologies. Until I saw the book, I vaguely worried that the movie was based on the story; now that I've seen the website, my worst fears are confirmed.

Padgett wrote a story typical of 1940's science fiction (and why it was a "Golden Era,") in which an inventor in a far and almost inhuman future (the differences are only hinted at throughout the story, heightening the "horror" affect) sends a box of toys back through time. Not for any particular purpose, but rather because the time machine he has created needs an object he can test. The randomly selected toys never return, so he tries again with more toys, then finally gives the whole thing up as a failure and thinks no more about it. A random act, in other words, with no malice or beneficence intended: the worst kind of horror of all, complete indifference.

Or rather, a complete inablity to imagine consequences. The first box arrives near Scotty, the 10 year old boy and protagonist of the story. He and his sister Emma soon start playing with the toys, and learning. Which would send a chill down the spine of any Boomer family who has raised children within the past two decades, what with all the "educational" toys and "developmentally appropriate" crib mobiles and such that came on the market (are they still around, or has that fad faded, too?).

This was the first story to make me realize children really are "different," that they are not "little adults," and that their minds are (conceivably, at least) open to alternate views of the universe (as if ours is the only one). Padgett leans heavily on this, pointing out that, for example, the Euclidean geometry we take for granted (pace Socrates) as a description of space is not necessarily the only system of description possible. The "non-Euclidean geometry" of the story is used as the "difference" between the parents and their children, a way of perceiving and thinking in a way meant to be complete inexplicable to those of us who think in Euclidean terms. Indeed, these toys teach the children to think in ways humans don't or, in the world of the story, haven't learned to yet. You can see how that could become a powerful metaphor for the "generation gap" of the '60's, or for the necessary differences between generations brought about by rapid technological change. You can see, in other words, where where the horror enters in. Think of grandparents perplexed by computers their grandchildren handle with ease. As the toys do what they are supposed to do, "teach" the children how to see the universe as the toys' designers have learned to, the children learn slowly but surely to leave their parents behind. By the end of the story, "all mimsy were the borogoves/And the mome raths outgrabe" stops being a snatch of nonsense verse, and becomes directions only a child, a properly trained child, can understand. And the story ends, as it must, in nightmare.

This could be, in other words, an absolutely visionary movie, a metaphor for our age, a revelation, of sorts (let's not get carried away here).

So what does the movie do, besides update the story from mid-20th century to early 21st century? Well, now the arrival of the box is not random and indifferent but, apparently, directed and intentional. And the change in the children is not frightening and ultimately horrific (for the parents; there is definitely a "childhood's end" in the original tale), but salvific. From the trailer, it looks like the two adorable kids, rather than terrifying their parents, end up saving the future.

Think Mulder and Scully as brother and sister but living an upper-middle class childhood and instead of alien conspiracies, technology helps us save us from ourselves and fix the future we haven't yet lived through and get to fix thanks to a time machine, a talking rabbit, and two appealing child actors.


All I can do is be grateful the movie gives me the book which gives me some Kuttner stories I didn't have otherwise.

ADDING: There is simply something infantile about taking a story with a very mature perspective on children and how "other" they actually are, and turning it into a story about how children will, essentially, save us from ourselves. The latter is the decayed and dessicated caricture of the navel-gazing 'Baby Boomer' generation, the generation which never really grew up and took responsibilty for its own actions. In that sense, the Bush Administration is a perfect metaphor for our times, and a movie that turns this kind of insightful story inside out to make it "warm and fuzzy" is also a perversely apt description of our pursuits. To wrap it all together with as many pop culture references as my poor brain will contain, last night Anderson Cooper ran a special: "What is Christianity? Where do you fit?" One brief (mercifully!) segment focussed on the "gospel of wealth" preachers like Joel Osteen. All three members of Cooper's panel (two conservative theologians, a Southern Baptist and Jim Wallis, and one American Baptist, a professor at Chicago Theologicaly Seminary) decried this kind of preaching as un-Biblical and completely at odds with the Gospel (thank goodness!). But the "Gospel of Wealth" is another metaphor for America, an America blissfully uaware that it is Omelas, resting very comfortably on the misery of the Third World, which we keep locked in a basement of neglect that we don't even pretend exists. It was not (quite) always thus, and stories like "All Mimsy were the Borogoves" is an artifact of a time when we were mature enough to face our fears of the future.

Now we wait expectantly, like small frightened children, for the future to rescue us from our inability to act. We drown in our self-interests, and look to our own children to save us from our selfishness. We turn stories of challenge inside out, the better to keep us from recognizing what we have done, and what we have not done.

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