Clifton, Mark & Alex Apostolides – “What Thin Partitions” (1953)
I haven’t kept track of what person these stories are written in so far, although I might start – I can’t remember if this is the first to be written in first person, but if not it’s definitely one of a small number, because it was quite jarring. This is another story about an industrialist and a crazy new invention, but this time it’s an HR guy, although that doesn’t really impact the course of the story all that much. Odd for featuring two unrelated novums – a chemist at Computer Research, Inc. has invited a “chemical impulse storer” which is a kind of sludge that learns things, sort of; while a capsule of this sludge is in the personnel director’s desk, he upsets a girl with ESP who telekinetically wrecks the room, which teaches the sludge to repel gravity. The chemist and the social scientist then try to recreate this effect in order to market the capsules.
The girl, the daughter of a single mother who works at the company (to whom the personnel director is sympathetic, if condescending), has ESP, we’re told, because she has been left home alone so much that she has formed her own “real world matrix” or framework of thought for understanding the world, and “there may be any number of frameworks, separated from one another by perhaps the thinnest of partitions, each containing its own set of real world conditions, natural laws, consistent within itself, obeying its own logic, having its own peculiar cause-effect-sequences.” It’s as good a justification as any that can be offered for ESP, I suppose.
The protagonist tries being mean to the girl in order to shame her into a tantrum again, and when that doesn’t work he scares her into it using 3d cartoons, producing a few more capsules. Feeling somewhat guilty over terrorizing a child, he turns the problem over to the military (who are very interested in these anti-gravity capsules) and tells them the project can only proceed if they can find more “poltergeists.” The military men, too proud to admit that they don’t know what a “poltergeist” is, assure him they will do so. He assumes this has ended matter until his secretary asks him what he’ll do if they actually show up with more psychic children.
It seems always to be the stories that don’t deserve it that have sequels, and sure enough this one is the beginning of a lengthy and apparently increasingly-humor oriented series about the misadventures of the personnel director.