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.Continue reading