Leiber, Fritz – “Appointment in Tomorrow” (1951)
More post-apocalyptia, possibly in the same bomb-shattered continuum as Leiber’s “Coming Attraction” from last year?
The crux of the matter here is the conflict between the Thinkers, devoted to quackery and pseudoscience, and the actual scientists of the Institute. I took the former to be a commentary on sf fandom at first,* but apparently Leiber actually intended them as a takedown of dianetics, L. Ron Hubbard’s pre-Scientology exercise in quackery and pseudoscience, which first appeared in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction in 1950 and counted among its adherents such science fiction luminaries as John Campbell and A. E. Van Vogt.
The public, surprise surprise, is completely hoodwinked by said pseudoscience and quackery, and the President himself has left the White House, Jr. in New Washington (Old Washington having been reduced to a “glassy blot”) to come visit Maizie the super-computer, along with several of his advisers. Maizie is actually a Wizard-of-Oz-style bit of misdirection, but the leaders of the United States are fooled and awestruck: the President “felt he stood face to face with the living God,” while a general asked himself “Was this the Second Coming? Mightn’t an incarnation be in metal rather than flesh?”
This question of whether the age of reason has ended, and what that does to the difference between science and faith, is central to this story, which I guess is totally appropriate to a story critiquing a science-fiction-based fantasy religion that’s made its way into reality. The rupture here is rather cunningly personified by the “martyrdom of the Three Physicists” after the use of the “Hell Bomb” during the war (it’s this kind of off-handed reference to the fictional history of the world that makes these stories of Leiber’s so effective). Just so that we know which period is better, Leiber has his protagonist hold forth on the popularity of the Thinkers (a “plague spot of the disease of magic in an enfeebled and easily infected world.”):
“‘consider the age in which we live. It wants magicians. A scientist tells people the truth. When times are good–that is, when the truth offers no threat–people don’t mind. But when times are very, very bad… Well, we all know what happened to–’ And he mentioned three names that had been household words in the middle of the century. They were the names on the brass plaque dedicated to the martyred three physicists. “A magician, on the other hand, tells people what they wish were true… In good times, magicians are laughed at. They’re a luxury of the spoiled wealthy few. But in bad times people sell their souls for magic cures, and buy perpetual motion machines to power their war rockets.’”
The idea that a confusion of religiosity and reason would spring forth from the rupture between modernity and the post-apocalyptic era (which desperately wants to be called “post-modernity,” but that term carries a little too much baggage to use here) not only echoes Leiber’s earlier Gather, Darkness, (first serialized in 1943), but is itself echoed in Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1955), but also in Dick and Zelany’s Deus Irae (1976), Riddley Walker’s Eusa/St. Eustace (1980), and a slew of other works. An oddity in “Appointment in Tomorrow” is the fact that the yearning for modernity is contrasted with both the irradiated wasteland and the new-fangled science-fictional conveniences of the era.Looking at the story’s protagonist Morton Opperly, a physicist and rational thinker, we get this description of his apartment: his living room was “quite behind the times. Instead of reading tapes there were books; instead of steno-robots, pen and ink; while in place of a four by six TV screen, a Picasso hung on the wall. Only Opperly knew that the painting was still faintly radioactive, that it had been riskily so when he’d smuggled it out of his bomb-singed apartment in New York City.”
This, of course, is a predilection shared by the protagonist of this year’s “Balance,” and oddly enough the two stories also make the same point about geniuses and ill-considered superstition: “I don’t know what the world needs now. Everyone knows Newton as the great scientist. Few remember that he spent half his life muddling with alchemy, looking for the philosopher’s stone. Which Newton did the world need then?”
I haven’t said much about the plot here (because it’s much less interesting than the setting), but it boils down to some melodrama about Jorj, a Thinker who has become convinced of the reality of his order’s lies (hint hint), and his attempt to brainwash his love interest into bringing about the downfall of the Institute. Jorj is initially presented as if he was the protagonist of the story, and indeed seems to have much in common with the superhuman-scientist-heroes of the day… until it’s revealed that none of his delusions are rooted in reality. Remember when I said I thought this was a satire of sf fans at first? Jorj’s “memory went seeping back, back, to the day when his math teacher had told him, very superciliously, that the marvelous fantasies he loved to read and hoarded by his bed weren’t real science at all, but just a kind of lurid pretense. He had so wanted to be a scientist, and the teacher’s contempt had cast a damper on his ambition.” I mean… come on.
It ends with Caddy (the love interest, who is fleshed out more/given more agency than most women characters in this era) revealing that she had been outmaneuvering Jorj all along and addressing him contemptuously as “Poor Superman.” This story has also been published under that title, and it’s a far more appropriate one.