“Day of the Moron”

After “Dearest”, Piper published “Temple Trouble” which I reviewed as part of Paratime.

If the recent Piper stories I’ve reviewed don’t seem like anything particularly special, I’d agree with you. While I’m covering Piper’s work chronologically, I’ve reviewed some of his better work in my reviews of not only Paratime but also Federation and Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. By this point in his career, though, he had only written stories showing up in Paratime.

But this is the first story of the current review series on Piper to that is interesting on its own merits.

Review: “Day of the Moron”, H. Beam Piper, 1951.

This story didn’t beat the most famous 1950s science fiction work with “moron” in the title: C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl’s “The Marching Morons”. That story saw print in the April 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Piper’s story appeared in the September 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. However, Piper sent his story off to editor John W. Campbell in 1947. Why Campbell didn’t buy it right away is interesting, and we’ll be getting to that.

While Kornbluth’s and Pohl’s story had a eugenics theme, Piper was just aghast at what he saw as a general drop in intelligence. Piper scholar John F. Carr says:

To Piper the average working man was a creature of minimal competence at best, a prejudice I expected he picked up on the job while working with the laborers at the Pennsylvania Railroad. 

The science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s is full of massive, centralized technological projects, and this is one. Here it’s the Long Island Nuclear Reaction Plant which is getting a replacement of its manual control system with a “fully cybernetic” one.

I said in my review of Federation that the stories are from a time when you “you could engineer a culture the way you engineered a bridge”, and there is some of that here.

He is Scott Melroy, an engineer. He owns the company installing that cybernetic control system. And, as we’ll see, he knows something about social engineering too.

There were still, in 1968, a few people who were afraid of the nuclear power plant. Oldsters, in whom the term ‘atomic energy’ produced semantic reactions associated with Hiroshima. Those who saw, in the towering steam-column above it, a tempting target for enemy— which still meant Soviet— bombers and guided missiles. Some of the Central Intelligence and F.B.I. people, who realized how futile even the most elaborate security measures were against a resourceful and suicidally determined saboteur. And a minority of engineers and nuclear physicists who remained unpersuaded that accidental blowups at nuclear-reaction plants were impossible.

Melroy is in the last category. He already knows that there have been several “near-catastrophes” at the plant. The retro-fitting job has been going on three months, and work on the reactors is just starting. Melroy schedules a meeting with a psychologist, Dr. von Heydenreich. He’s surprised when a Dr. Doris Rives shows up instead. She is, of course, quite an attractive woman.

The theme of moronic behavior is introduced when we hear that Heydenreich was shot by someone in a hunting accident and sent Rives as a replacement. Rives has been briefed by Heydenreich about what Melroy’s concern. Melroy has a phobia about the “ubiquitous lame-brain with a dangerous mechanism”. Rives has experience giving IQ tests to “subnormal persons”, but Melroy means more than just a low IQ: 

. . . people who do things without considering possible consequences. People who pepper distinguished Austrian psychologists in the pants-seat with turkey-shot, for a starter. Or people who push buttons to see what’ll happen, or turn valves and twiddle with dial-knobs because they have nothing else to do with their hands. Or shoot insulators off power lines to see if they can hit them. People who don’t know it’s loaded. People who think warning signs are purely ornamental. People who play practical jokes. 

The psychologist suggests several possible tests including a “semantic reaction test” based on Korzybski’s General Semantics theory of which Piper was a fan. (The sensible Dr. Rives is suspicious of Rorschach tests.) 

Then they get interrupted by the project’s general foreman, Sid Keating. He warns Melroy the union workers aren’t going to like being tested. Melroy reminds him that their contract says he can fire anyone whom is determined to be “quote, of unsound mind, deficient mentality or emotional instability, unquote”. (This is one of Piper’s many stories in which the combat is done as much through legal mechanisms and political intrigue as outright violence.) 

The testing schedule is set up, and we learn that all the management of Melroy’s company are armed as United States deputy marshalls. They aren’t much for counterespionage, but they take countersabotage very seriously. 

Melroy tells Rives more of the situation. About 50 of the workers are his, but they can’t work on reactors because they aren’t members of the Industrial Federation of Atomic Workers (I.F.A.W).  Non-union employees have to work in just fabrication and assembly work outside the reactor area. Most of the union workers won’t be a problem when it comes to submitting to tests, but a few will.

The odds are that the ones that yell the loudest about taking the test will be the ones who get scrubbed out, and when the test shows that they’re deficient, they won’t believe it. A moron simply cannot conceive of his being anything less than perfectly intelligent, any more than a lunatic can conceive of his being less than perfectly sane. So they’ll claim we’re framing them, for an excuse to fire them. And the union will have to back them up, right or wrong, at least on the local level.  

. . .  The moron I’m afraid of can go on for years, doing routine work under supervision, and nothing’ll happen. Then, some day, he does something on his own lame-brained initiative, and when he does, it’s only at the whim of whatever gods there be that the result isn’t a wholesale catastrophe. And people like that are the most serious threat facing our civilization today, atomic war not excepted. 

We learn the reactor powers everything, including electrified trains and factories and water and fuel pumps, in the Greater New York City area and beyond. 

We hear the concentration of industrial facilities as already come at a cost in this future. For instance, in Chicago, in 1963, 600 people died because of a mistake at a soda bottling plant. 

Melroy invites Rives to his apartment for dinner, and the next day trouble starts at the plant. The union workers are milling about because radiation is still too high to work on the reactor, and “Wash-room lawyer” Burris, a roustabout, is causing problems. 

All the men will be given written tests at the same time with personal interviews and oral tests, both recorded, to follow. 

Melroy is called by Crandall, executive secretary of the I.F.A.W. He is mad that union members are being compelled to take the test. Melroy tells him nobody is being compelled to take a test. However, if they don’t, they will be dismissed with back pay. And the contract doesn’t say anything about such dismissed men having the right to have their case reviewed. 

Crandall wants the unions own psychologist to review the tests. Melroy advises him that’s not provided for in the contract. He does consent to union steward Julius Koffler being present at the test but warns him not to interfere. 

Melroy then gets a call from Leighton of the Atomic Power Authority asking what’s going on.  Melroy tells him that Leighton has troops and tanks outside the facility and undercover men inside yet he’s not interested in the quality of the workers?

Speaking of the Crandall, Leighton replies,

But it’s like this— anything a workman tells him is the truth, and anything an employer tells him is a dirty lie. Until proven differently, of course, but that takes a lot of doing. And he goes off half-cocked a lot of times. He doesn’t stop to analyze situations very closely. 

That evening Keating tells Melroy there’s still radiation in one of the reactors, not lingering radiation but like somebody left some plutonium inside it. 

Discussing the results of the tests, Rives said there are only two “washouts”: Burris and Koffler.  Keating suggests they wait until all the tests are done before letting Burris and Koffler go, but Melroy intends on doing it the next morning. 

After Melroy fires them, he gets another call from Crandall who demands to see the tests which Melroy agrees to supply him. 

Then Leighton calls angry about the labor dispute. Crandall is talking about a strike.

Melroy responds,

Well, let him. In the first place, it’d be against me, not against the Atomic Power Authority. And, in the second place, if he does and it goes to Federal mediation, his demand for the reinstatement of those men will be thrown out, and his own organization will have to disavow his action, because he’ll be calling the strike against his own contract. 

Crandall then shows up at Melroy’s office with complaints of

unfair work-assignments, improper working conditions, inequities in allotting overtime work, and other infractions of union-shop conditions. 

Melroy tells him Burris has a “persecution complex” and Koffler believes anything Burris tells him. The union calls a walkout. 

Keating confirms that a piece of plutonium was left in a reactor. 

Melroy warns the union that, under the Federal Labor Act of 1958, the strike is illegal. It’s not a strike, he’s told. It’s a “spontaneous work-stoppage”. Melroy considers the contract with the union void, and he’ll use his own men to continue work. 

That afternoon, Leighton calls upset about the walkout. Melroy tells him he welcomes a strike because mediation will be called, the President will have to intervene, and troops can work on the facility. 

Rives finishes grading more tests and finds another washout. Melroy tells her all the union employees have washed out given what they’ve done. 

Later in the day, the union announces a walkout for the whole plant, and Melroy cites the statute they’re violating. Federal mediation is evoked. Then Melroy finds out that, on Crandall’s orders, Number One reactor has been “re-packed” to start another chain reaction. This is against Melroy’s orders. 

On the way to the mediation session (it’s noted, as a growing sign of stupidity, that New York City traffic jams get worse each year), Melroy realizes he still has his gun on him. Even he’s started acting stupid he says. 

At the mediation session, Rives explains the test. Mediator Fields asks why such “an extraordinary level of intelligence” is demanded from laborers. Melroy says the country is in trouble if the level of intelligence he’s asking for is extraordinary. The cybernetic system being installed will merely do what is designed and built to do. Mistakes made in those areas will result in mistakes in control at the plant. 

Melroy asks another mediator, the elderly Cronnin with “the nearsighted squint and compressed look of concentration of an old-time precision machinist” (he is, as Melroy guesses, an old reactor man himself),

Suppose some moron fixed up something that would go wrong, or made the wrong kind of a mistake himself, around one of those reactors? 

(Spoilers ahead)

Just then the lights go out. Over in Long Island, they see a huge ball of flame. The core of the reactors has gone critical and exploded. Melroy suspects the union employees, just before their walkout, repacked the reactor to keep Melroy’s men from working on it. Somehow, he suspects, that lump of plutonium got back in it. 

Melroy knows most people at the reactor are now dead including his own men. Melroy tells Rives, since she’s certified as a medical doctor, to contact the authorities. She’ll be needed.  He knows, since he has a commission as a major in the Army Corps of Engineers, he will be recalled to duty. 

The last paragraph is interesting in what it says about crime in New York City and its recapitulation of the story’s theme: 

Melroy helped her on with her coat and handed her her handbag, then shrugged into his own overcoat and belted it about him, the weight of the flashlight and the automatic sagging the pockets. He’d need both, the gun as much as the light— New York had more than its share of vicious criminals, to whom this power-failure would be a perfect devilsend. Handing Doris the light, he let her take his left arm. Together, they left the room and went down the hallway to the stairs and the long walk to the darkened street below, into a city that had suddenly been cut off from its very life-energy. A city that had put all its eggs in one basket, and left the basket in the path of any blundering fool.

Unfortunately, Carr doesn’t tell us why Campbell got interested in the story again after rejecting in 1947. He does tell us that Campbell wrote to Frederik Pohl, Piper’s agent, on June 18, 1951, and said

Please tell Piper that this one, as set up, is too hot to handle. It’ll have to be changed slightly.  As set up, it’s enough to make most union men ready to chaw the handiest publisher’s representative; this we consider an unhealthy phenomenon, as we need publisher’s representatives.

The thing to do is to make it clear that the Union officials have been misled by misinformation from the two discharges, and are equally aware of the necessity, once they get the true picture. In other words, the union isn’t to blame, but the individuals are.

And it could be done fairly readily by installing a scene in which the union leader confers with the fired shop steward and organizer, and is given deliberately misleading information.

Point is—we got unions too, you know. 

Union power was such in the 1940s and 1950s that Campbell, iconoclastic editor, feared insults to unions would be noticed in a lowly science fiction magazine and bring unpleasant repercussions. Piper made the requested changes, and the story was published.

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