Coppel, Alfred – The Dreamer (1952)
Opens with Denby, a young man about to embark on his first flight into space, arguing with Feldman, a psychologist in the process of doping him up for the excursion. Feldman isn’t so sure Denby is ready; Denby is positive that this is what he was born for.
Denby, you see, is special, and never fit in as a child.
“Listen, Feldman,” Denby said in a tight voice, “I’ve worked for this. Ever since I can remember. Even when I was a child, I was laughed at and put apart because of this. I was different. I was alone always, and the dream was my only companion. I read and thought and wondered and wanted. Now I’m having my chance to make it mean something.”
“You lived with a fantasy,” Feldman pursued, “and because of it, you were lonely-always. Isn’t that so?”… [Denby] remembered his mother asking: Why do you read so much? And such trash! Why don’t you go out and play with the other boys?
I understand that this sort of message resonates with the commonly-understood science fiction reader as social misfit, but enough is enough – we even had a takedown of this trope in Leiber’s “Poor Superman” last year, so why pick a story this year that brings little else to the table?
To make matters worse, “The Dreamer” then adds on a distinctly self-pitying angle that again condescends to the common folk: once he actually reaches space, Denby almost immediately falls apart under the “vast emptinesses” and “hideous, mind-cracking loneliness.” (The Earth itself is described as a “greenish, cloud-flecked ball, unreal, alien,” and we have to remind ourselves that the pictures from space that show how blue the planet is weren’t taken until the end of the decade).
The launch, though, turns out to have been a fake, a test devised by Feldman to weed out those hopefuls whose constitutions couldn’t handle spaceflight:
“You see, spaceflight is not for the lonely. It’s not for the brilliant, the sensitive, or the imaginative. Such minds can’t stand it. No, the stars belong to the clods, the dull ones. They can face real loneliness. For them it has no meaning and therefore no terrors… The dream is not for the dreamers…”
And so what could have been an interesting examination of space’s effect on a person becomes, instead, yet another way to reinforce the tragedy of the special outsider.