Welcome to Literary Counterparts, a book review series in which I compare two books from a library or a thriftstore. This time:
- Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper
- The Agoraphobia Workbook by C. Alec Pollard and Elke Zuercher-White
This month’s topic: “Perfectly Effective Devices”
Science Fiction is full of technologies inserted into a story to allow some necessary end. Maybe the most common is faster-than-light travel, which allows characters to reach some of the universe’s more interesting alien races. Or, if you need your character to blast into a strongly fortified encampment, give them a blaster sufficient for the required blast. Perfectly Effective Devices (PEDs) are a dime a dozen, and really I have no qualms with them overall.
This month, though, I read a book whose PED ended up accomplishing too much, almost abrogating the need for the entire story. The book was H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy which I read once years ago, when I was in middle school. The book investigates the question of how we should decide if an alien race is “sentient” or not.
There’s a court case on Zarathustra. If the little fuzzies are sentient, it means they’re people, and companies can’t come in and destroy their planet with mining operations, etc.
But what stuck out to me more on this reading was a device known as the “veridicator.” It’s a globe that hangs over your head. If you’re lying, it’s red. If you’re telling the truth, it’s blue. The existence of this machine is the primary force driving the plot of the book toward its inevitable conclusion. Without the veridicator, the court case would have gotten bogged down in all kinds of sidelines, lies, obfuscations, etc. But everybody gets the glowing ball, and must tell the exact truth as they understand it.
There’s not much to Little Fuzzy beyond the sentience question and the veridicator. Of course, a device such as the veridicator could never exist, because the difference betweet “truth” and “lie” is not generally quite so clearcut due to conflicts, or changing situations, or misunderstandings, or ethical issues, or whatever. And in this case it is s PED that takes care of too many problems. There is basically nothing left of the plot of Little Fuzzy once the veridicator glows red for all of the bad guys.
In PEDs there’s a shying away from the grit of life. Faster-than-light travel yeilds some good romps, but flies in the face of just how vast and empty space is (and getting moreso all the time as the universe’s dark matter propells thing apart). Certain very interesting and legitimate conundrums cannot exist when you have fast spaceships and barrelfulls of aliens, and so those stories wither.
The rote discussions in Little Fuzzy, prodded by the ineluctable findings of the verificator, short-circuit much of what would actually have taken place between such a variety of personalities, interests, and conflicts. The book has a hollowness to it.
Still … how great would it be to have some of these perfectly effective devices. This concept was on my mind this month as I slowly worked through the other book that it was my course to peruse: The Agoraphobia Workbook by Pollard and Zuercher-White.
Last month, I went to see a therapist for the first time in my life, because I’ve been suffering from panic attacks surrounding a longstanding malady I’ve suffered since I was fifteen: migraine headaches.
If you know me, you know about these headaches. When I say they’re “terrible” it’s an understatement. But I don’t get them often, so the main impact on my life for the past thirty years is that I worry about them a lot. This anxiety, like a slowly rising tide, was covering increasing amounts of the shorline I used to call my life.
So I went to a therapist, and he diagnosed me with agoraphobia. I blanched, because that didn’t seem right. However, as The Agoraphobia Workbook explains, agoraphobia isn’t like you see in the movies, with some watery-eyed slugabed peering through closed shades and cursing himself for his failure to step out the door. It is, rather, a more subtle sort of thing:
Agoraphobia is a maladaptive fear of and desire to avoid situations in which the individual believes a symptom attack may occur and result in incapacitation, humiliation, or some other catastrophe.
Okay, well, yes—I’ve got that. The book advocated an extensive treatment schedule that involves slowly facing your fears by degrees, and keeping a diary of how you deal with the situations that upset you. For myself, these usually involve me feeling (internally) sensations that remind me of a migraine. This is exacerbated when I’m away from the house, and in a situation from which it is difficult to extricate myself, or that might lead to me inconveniencing others.
It’s been rough going, I’ll tell you. When a panic attack hits you, any resistance you might put against it is like trying to defeat a tidal wave with a sugar spoon. And yet, you must do it. You must hold up that little spoon and say, “I defy you, tidal–(blurp.)” Hopefully some of the preparation you’ve done in advance will help you.
But has me thinking further about perfectly effective devices. My problem is bad enough that I would be sorely tempted, if I could, to recreate reality in suchway as to allow for the elimination of migraines. That would, of course, reduce the world by some degree–a degree I can’t really anticipate because no one knows what causes migraines. But still, something would surely be lost in addition to the trauma of these headaches. Where I given this choice, I’d probably jump at it, honesely.
H. Beam Piper committed suicide at the age of fifty. He cleaned his house, placed a drop cloth over his furniture, and shot himself in the head. His suicide note read, “I don’t like to leave messes when I go away, but if I could have cleaned up any of this mess, I wouldn’t be going away.”
The nature of the mess referred to isn’t known. But clearly there was no perfectly effective device for dealing with it. Often, there isn’t, and all we’ve got left in such cases is our ability to cope, and a willingness to try to endure a little longer. Dreaming of a world in which you can cure your headaches by destroying a scary monster who’s causing them might be okay for the purpose of fiction, but for day to day life, it’s the slow slog through The Agoraphobia Workbook, whether it helps or not.
As a final note, there was one really great sentence in The Agoraphobia Workbook, which was this:
If you are unsure if this book is for you, please read further.
I’m going to make that the opening sentence of every book I write from now on.