Saturday, 17 August 2013

Murphy And Others

Which Poul Anderson short story to read or reread next? Homeward And Beyond (New York, 1976), like one or two other collections, also contains "Murphy's Hall," another atypical and difficult story. In fact, I found it both somewhat incoherent and emotionally unpleasant. I have read it maybe twice and perhaps not every word. I will comment from memory, not from a further rereading.

The story has three disparate elements:

an unexplained hereafter specifically for astronauts (!);
a succession of dystopian future scenarios in which social conditions deteriorate while space exploration declines;
a text that begins and ends with bleak closed comments by the narrator.

I will explain what I mean by this. The first incoherence is the discrepancy between the supernaturalism of survival after death and the scientific setting of the astronauts' hereafter. They stroll through the cosmos. The second is the transition from this implausible unreality to the all too plausible realism of the dystopian passages. But perhaps the hereafter passages should not be understood literally? Maybe they are an extension of the narrator's comments? (I am thinking this through further as I write.)

A dystopia is by its nature unpleasant so we cannot complain about this. However, the narrator's comments are additionally and unnecessarily unpleasant. By a "closed" comment, I mean one that explicitly rules out of court any alternative perspective. When the comment is also "bleak," what is being ruled out of court is any hope or optimism. The story ends, "Murphy's Hell." (p. 91) That is as closed and bleak as it is possible to be. ("Abandon hope all ye who enter...")

This narrator is not a character inhabiting the fictitious timeline of the story. He is the omniscient narrator of prose fiction. Yet, at the beginning and end, he speaks in the first person, thus becoming the author addressing the reader, telling us, I think, that the astronauts' hereafter is a lie, though he wishes it were not, and that he is glad that it is a lie that he is in the hopeless future described in the story. Or something. There are too many changes back and forth of perspective here. (In fact, I think that I am only starting to unravel some of them now.)

By the usual rules of writing, this kind of first person comment by a narrator who is clearly to be identified with the author should be edited out of a text that is to be published as fiction and should instead be published in a non-fiction article or essay. And the content of his comments sets up, I think, a false dichotomy between making "...everyone nice and safe and equal..." (ibid.) and exploring the universe. Society can surely aim for and afford:

the physical safety of all;
at least three equalities - of opportunity, of representation, before the law;
continued scientific research and exploration.

So I have problems with both the presentation and the content of "Murphy's Hall." But at the same time I commend the range of Anderson's writings and realize that his entire output cannot appeal equally to every reader.

When the author/narrator lectures us at the end, even addressing us as " friends...," he refers to Murphy's Law (ibid.). We have all heard of this but who was Murphy? Yet again, and ending on a much lighter note, I cannot avoid another reference to Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. The fabulous creatures inhabiting a Skerry of Dream refer to their world's creator as "Murphy." They turn out, of course, to mean Morpheus. I did not guess that although I should have. And, since I will soon be in bed, that is a good place to stop.


  1. Hi, Paul!

    But alternates to the bleak dystopian scenarios we see in "Murphy's Hall" were offered or suggested. They were lines of development that might have been taken--such as what could have happened from a successful Ganymede colony.

    I've also thought "In Memoriam" would make a natural conclusion to "Murphy's Hall." And "Welcome" was Anderson's earlier example of Earth taking a very bad road.


  2. Sean,
    So the future scenes in "Murphy's Hall" included alternatives? They were not set along a single timeline? I found the presentation of the story very disjointed and confusing. And I disliked the auctorial comment, as I tried to convey. In fact, I have great difficulty with the way the word "lie" was used. Fictions are not lies. I might post more about this.

    1. Hi, Paul!

      I'm sorry, I seem to have been unclear. No, we don't see "actual" (in terms of the story's "actuality") alternatives to the bleak "real" events. Only suggestions, here and there, of a better line of development. These "alternatives" are not as strongly developed because it would distract us from the bleak "actuality" Anderson was stressing.

      I know you thought "Murphy's Hall" was disjointed, but I thought the plot development was clear enough. I would have to reread "Murphy's Hall" again to get a clearer idea of your comments about lies.

      Perhaps "Murphy's Hall" could be understood as the posthumous reflections of a man in the afterlife pondering on what went wrong on Earth?

      And I'm glad Poul Anderson tried his hand at writing dystopian fictions in stories like "Welcome," "Murphy's Hall," and "In Memoriam." We need to see speculations on what might go wrong as much as the more hopeful stories Anderson also wrote.


  3. I dig dystopias as well as utopias and everything between but this one really got me the wrong way as I tried to articulate. I particularly disliked "This is a lie, but I wish so much it were not" and "...I'm glad that this is a lie..." Your idea that the story might be the reflections of a guy in a hereafter might start to make (some) sense of it.

    1. Hi, Psul!

      Glad I was able to help your thoughts about "Murphy's Hall" a bit!