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The Fourth “R”

The Fourth “R” by George O. SmithThe Fourth R
Ballantine Books, 1959
Price I paid: none

Jimmy Holden was an experiment…

He was normally bright, normal-sized, and enormously curious—just like most small boys. The only thing different in Jimmy’s life was a machine—a machine which could teach him better, faster, more completely and more thoroughly than any human method yet devised.

It was really nothing more than a glorified memorizing contraption, but it filled the mind permanently with whole books of fact and figure—readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic—plus all the diverse information that an insatiably curious young mind could seek, including how to build the machine that taught him.

So Jimmy quickly became a very valuable experiment indeed. Certain people figured that, properly handled, young James could be a goldmine, and they weren’t above murdering in order to get control of him. But even a five-year-old mind will defend itself when attacked.

And nobody had figured on what the machine did not teach—the fourth “R”—REASON…

Wunderkind novels are tricky things. Done wrong—and they’re usually done wrong—they end up stories about completely unlikable kids who are supposed to be smart but really they aren’t, we’re just told they’re smart over and over again while the supposed kid genius goes out and does ridiculous and stupid things.

I think I’ve mentioned before how writing about very intelligent characters is itself tricky, no matter the age. An author writing about a character that is by definition more intelligent than they are is in a bind. How do you show it without just having other characters stand around going “Oh man, this lady’s smart.” There are ways, but it’s easy to tread the realms of the cliché. You might have the character invent something fantastic, or solve a famous mathematical problem in a new and elegant way, or any number of things, but those things don’t necessarily have to indicate sheer intelligence. They might indicate something like good networking skills (the character isn’t actually all that smart, but is good at finding other people who are) or that the character is simply very hard-working and persistent (1% inspiration, 99% perspiration). And anybody from the past, oh, fifty years will be able to tell you that college degrees are no measure of intelligence, so don’t throw that one at me.

I say all this because The Fourth “R” very, very nearly gets it right. Here we’ve got the story of a kid who is waaaay too smart for his own good but, and this is an important but, isn’t the smartest person ever. The kid’s not perfect, he can’t whip up a starship from some sand and a TI-89 calculator. If there’s a good word for it, it’s precocious.

He’s not the smartest thing humanity has ever produced; he’s just the smartest five-year-old humanity has ever produced. If he stayed the same level of intelligence as he grew up, he’d probably get a doctorate in something and be about average for that level. I guess, if anything, I’d contrast him with Ender, who was a genius and a brilliant tactician no matter how old he was. Even at thirteen or whatever he was blowing all the adults out of the water. The kid in this book isn’t like that. He’s just had his intelligence accelerated, if anything. That’s a major difference.

The kid’s name is Jimmy Holden and yeah, at the start of the book he’s five. His parents were very intelligent people in their own rights. His mom was a neurosurgeon and his dad was an electrical engineer. One day the two of them got together and combined their efforts to create a smart-making machine.

I really like how the machine works. Basically it takes how the brain acts when it learns something and speeds that process up. The learner sits with the machine on his or her head and reads something. The machine learns where in the brain that information is being put together and then repeats that process over and over again very quickly. Whereas in normal learning that process is happening anyway (by rote repetition), the machine takes over and repeats the process on its own.

To put it one way, the machine sees where the groove will go while you try to memorize the text of “Jabberwocky” and then deepens the groove for you.

So Jimmy’s parents figure the best person to test this thing on is their infant son, ethics be damned. It works masterfully. By the time he’s five he’s got an adult’s vocabulary and can do math up to, I think, algebra.

On his fifth birthday, Jimmy’s parents are murdered by their best friend, who is also Jimmy’s godfather. Their car gets knocked off the road in a horrific accident. Jimmy gets flung from the car and is able, just before he passes out, to see this guy, Paul Brennan, finish off his mom and dad. Harsh.

Of course, no one believes Jimmy because he’s five and traumatized. This kind of thing makes up the bulk of the book. The kid’s smart, damn smart, but nobody can get past the fact that he’s barely more than a toddler.

Paul did it because he wants the secret of the machine. Jimmy is found and taken to Paul’s house. Paul essentially tortures the kid by boring him to death. He takes away Jimmy’s smart-kid stuff and replaces it with picture books and blocks. Jimmy can’t take it. He runs off, breaking his parents’ prototype machine in the process so that Paul can never get his grimy hands on it.

At another point Jimmy gets sent to school. He starts in the first grade and can’t stand it. He eventually decides if he doesn’t hide his talent under a bushel he gets bumped up grades, so in a matter of weeks he’s in the fourth grade. Then he escapes from that too.

He actually runs off and gets caught several times. One time he ends up spending a few months working for a guy named Jake, who steals cars and strips them for their parts. Jimmy is a spotter. He runs around, acting like a five-year-old, looking into cars and stuff. What he’s really doing is seeing which cars have the keys still in them. When he finds one, he summons Jake and the car gets stolen.

It’s while doing this that Jimmy finds a car with a typewriter in it. Jake gives him the typewriter and Jimmy learns an important lesson: the machine may have given him knowledge, but it couldn’t give him skills. He has to learn how to touch-type the same way everybody else does. It frustrates him. I can sympathize with that.

Still, he learns enough that he’s able to hash out a short story and sell it to a boys’ magazine. The problem comes when he can’t cash the check. What bank is going to let a five-year-old cash a check? Jake gets fed up with Jimmy after a while and turns him in to Paul for a reward. Turns out Jake follows the news. Oops.

We get a time jump here to a few years down the line. Jake has run off again, this time successfully. He manages to get away using a Boy Scout manual. The book even states that the manual is great because Jimmy can use the survivalist parts for information and use the parts about merit badges to start fires. Lord Baden-Powell would have been proud.

He manages to make a pretty swell literary career for himself, even getting to the point where he buys a house. He convinces the people in the town that it belongs to an old man named Charles Maxwell, a pen name that Jimmy occasionally uses, but that Maxwell is a recluse who does all his business by mail. Under the guise of Mr. Maxwell, Jimmy hires a caretaker named Janet Bagley, who brings along her seven-year-old daughter Martha (Jimmy is eight at this point).

Okay, we’ve got a Jimmy, a Jake, and a Janet so far. Too many J-names. Minor nitpick, perhaps.

Things go pretty well for a while. Janet frees up some time for Jimmy so he can write more. Jimmy also gets to work on a new version of his parents’ machine so he can use it on Martha. He reveals this to Janet, who is at first trepidatious, but she eventually relents when Jimmy lets her use the machine to memorize recipes.

Dames.

Jimmy also starts to make plans for getting himself declared a legal adult. He’s sick and tired of being held back by the fact that he’s a kid, even if he’s smarter than most grown-ups. In the meantime, Brennan is using Jimmy’s parents’ money to find the kid for his own insidious purposes.

The last part of the book details what happens when Jimmy gets found. He’s actually been planning on it, preparing a defense that will get him declared an adult so he can get on with his life. I think Brennan hires the District Attorney. Jimmy gets a lawyer but uses the machine to teach himself law so that he’s basically able to pull the lawyer’s strings.

There’s a big court case. Throughout the whole thing Brennan and his legal team come across as really dumb. This was the weak part of the book, where it turns out that it’s less about Jimmy being really smart than it is about grown-ups being really stupid. Brennan spends a lot of time smirking, but the smirk comes off his face as things progress. It was almost satisfying.

What gets ruled is that Jimmy cannot be declared an adult, but he also doesn’t have to go to live with Brennan. He’s declared a ward of the state and gets to live with the judge, a guy named Carter. Carter asks Jimmy for details on the machine. The guy seems like a decent enough dude, so Jimmy shows him how it works.

There’s a bit where Jimmy goes back to visit Janet, her new husband Tim, and Martha. Jimmy is about thirteen by this point, going on fourteen. Martha is also thirteen. Jimmy has just started to learn about puberty. What follows is actually pretty sweet. This kid, usually so confident and secure in himself, is brought to jelly by the thought of this girl. He just doesn’t know what to do. He’s like any other kid at that age. Finally he manages to swoop in for a kiss and I was just awwwwwww.

Jimmy goes back to Judge Carter’s place following the romantic interlude and finds things a bit…distressing. There’s a political campaign going on. Judge Carter is running for something. And he’s using the machine to do it.

Jimmy goes bonkers. Not only has his trust been violated, it’s been violated in the name of politics, and furthermore, Judge Carter has hired PAUL BRENNAN to help him out. Jimmy flips. He catches Paul in the machine learning something and shuts it off in the middle of the lesson. This has the humorous effect of causing Paul great pain whenever he hears the word demagogue, because apparently that was the word he was on when the machine got shut down. Judge Carter takes Jimmy aside and explains to him what’s going on.

Judge Carter points out that the machine is dangerous, but it’s more dangerous as a secret. If word leaked, there would be chaos. There would be people demanding access to it, other people demanding that it be destroyed. It might actually be the spark that ignites the Cold War. The only thing that makes sense is to release it, all at once, to the entire world. That’s what he’s building this campaign on. It’s basically education reform, using the machine, and it will save the world.

All that fell kinda flat to me, like the book needed to end on some kind of lesson but that was the best the author could come up with. I wasn’t thrilled with it.

We time jump one last time a few years into the future. The machine has been released to the public and there are academies set up for its use. Jimmy is now attending one, as is Martha. In this education system of the future, there are no grades, but rather students are assessed on how many doctorates they qualify for. Reports are coming in that some kid, somewhere, has swept the board. Jimmy himself is being tested today for his final qualifications. He has to discourse on the connections between Medicine, Astronomy, and Psychology (the subjects were chosen randomly). I liked that a valid option was to state and prove that there were no connections. That was a nice touch. Either way, Jimmy succeeds and everybody is happy and the book ends.

It all fell flat at the end there but up to that point, I was absolutely in love with this book. What really got me was the narrative tone. The book was conversational. That’s the best way I know how to put it. I’d compare it in some ways to Martians, Go Home in that regard, although this one was a little lighter on it. There was one point, I forget exactly where, when the narrator goes (I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find the page) “Now, what I’d like to be able to tell you is that he succeeded handily and was able to make an escape. Sorry.”

At another point he switches from the third-person narration style to a second-person style, asking you to put yourself into the shoes of the train attendant that Jimmy is talking to at this point. Imagine, if you will, what it’s like to be addressed by an erudite five-year-old, and so on. It was pretty great, although it was the only time it happened so in a way it might be jarring. Both this part and the “sorry” were one-offs, and part of me thinks that, even though I liked them, they probably should have been dropped if they didn’t happen again. While I liked the style of this book, it wasn’t especially consistent.

One thing that gets me is that the back of the book claims that the titular fourth “R” is “reason,” but the book never really comes out and says that. One theme of the book does seem to focus on how knowledge does not equal maturity, which might in some ways evoke “reason,” but I feel like that was a jump of logic. I think the fourth “R” that Jimmy missed out on could have been “romance.” He spends a lot of time before puberty trying to figure out what the big deal is (he understands it intellectually, but not, well, hormonally), and it’s amusing when he finally does come to understand it.

Of note, George O. Smith should not be confused with George H. Smith. They are very different.

And just what’s up with that cover art? It’s like I almost get it, but it has nothing at all to do with the book. Plus the “locked in his mind was a time-bomb!” completely misses the point and tone of the novel. It led me to believe that it would be much worse than it really was. Of course, that’s not at all unusual.

George O. Smith was quite prolific, and I know I’ve seen a copy of his Venus Equilateral on the sci-fi shelves at the library, so I think there’s a chance I’ll see how much I like it. Apparently a lot of his work dealt with outer space themes and The Fourth “R” was a break from that. His work also (from what I’ve read) was very engineer friendly, more about devices and how they work than about people and settings. That’s interesting to me, because this book did not feel that way at all. It felt quite human-concerned, and that’s why I liked it.

Give this one a read and tell me what you think. It’s available for free on Project Gutenberg.

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1 Comment

  1. Thingmaker says:

    Reading round-about your review, it does indeed sound interesting. Thanks for the link.

    Like

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