“The New Father Christmas” by Brian W. Aldiss
from The Metal Smile, ed. Damon Knight
Belmont Science Fiction, 1968
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 1958
Price I paid: none
“DO NOT FOLD, BEND, OR MUTILATE”
marked the beginning of our cybernetic society. How will it end?
The varied answers to that question have proved to be fertile ground for some of the greatest science fiction imaginations. But perhaps we shouldn’t look too closely into the future of cybernetics. It may be that the survival capacity of the thinking machine is greater than that of its maker…
I had to work this weekend, and because I can’t get ahead on reading during the week I decided to do a little something different today. You may have noticed I’m doing that a lot. I’m just trying to keep away from burnout. Keep it fresh, you know? A blog is like a shark. Left unchecked it will consume your life, but on a tight leash it can be transformed into a person’s best friend.
I’ve been toying with the idea of reviewing short stories for a little bit now. I’ve done some collections of short stories before, like Cinnabar and Element 79, but that’s not something I really want to do again. Trying to keep everything that happens in a novel straight is hard enough.
A friend of mine found this book in a shop somewhere in San Francisco and brought it back to me. I like the title and I like the premise. The cover’s not great, but you can’t win ’em all.
What I didn’t expect is for this story to be a total of five pages long. At least I got to read it a couple of times before sitting down to review it. That doesn’t happen with novels.
There’s an old lady named Roberta and her husband, Robin. They live on top of an automated factory. I think they’re supposed to be some kind of caretakers, but they never do any caretaking so I don’t know what’s up with that. There are some tramps living down in the factory proper, and they’re not supposed to be there, but the couple tolerates them.
Roberta is that kind of sweet, doddering old British lady that is immediately likable. At one point she’s looking at a clock while making tea, and accidentally puts the clock on the burner and starts to try to wind the kettle. Aldiss’s writing sparkles in describing things from her point of view. She notices her mistake when the clock is “almost on the boil.”
She notices that it’s Christmas Day, 2388. She’s pleased by this fact, but is wary of “The New Father Christmas,” which is never really described because this is a really short short story.
It becomes evident to me that lots of bad-to-mediocre novels are so because they’re not novels, but rather very long short stories. In a short you don’t have time for multidimensional characters. You get ’em in and you get ’em out, you tell the story of a thing happening.
Even the novels I’ve read that aren’t fix-ups of previous stories seem to have this same issue, an issue that’s not welcome in a full-length novel. We have some flat characters, they do a thing, and in the meantime we get pages of exposition and conversation to bring the story up to novel length.
I mean, I get it. A novel pays more than a short story, and if you’ve just had the one idea, you don’t want to waste it on something that’ll net you thirty bucks from Analog when you might get an advance from a novel publisher.
Oh man, one story into this little experiment and I’m already having revelations.
Anyway, The New Father Christmas doesn’t make an appearance until the very end of the story, when it “caught them all on the stairs.” That’s the last line and it almost comes off as a brick joke. Did I say “almost?” The more I think about it, the more it seems that that was the whole point of the story.
Also, since everything in the world is mechanized now, including British Santa, the only logical thing to do is to assume that this is the origin story of Robot Santa from Futurama.
It’s difficult to say there’s any kind of real conflict in this story, which makes sense if you treat it more as a joke than a story, which is how I’m planning on doing it from here on out.
The only other thing worth noting is that the factory has changed what it’s producing, and those things look like eggs. When one of the characters takes one and later drops it, we find out that the eggs are, well, factory eggs. The factory is reproducing itself. It’s that revelation that causes the characters to flee the factory, only to be caught by The New Father Christmas immediately.
I know I said that one of the things about short stories is that you don’t need a bunch of character development, but at the same time, I’m going to say how amazed I am at how much character development Aldiss did manage to include in this story. Roberta has just about one trait―she’s forgetful and a little wacky―but Aldiss managed to capture it so well. He never, ever, comes out and describes her as such. He just lets us see it. Her dialogue contains such gems as
“I’ll put the tea on for some kettle.”
That’s how you show and don’t tell.
If there’s any kind of bigger-picture point to the story, it’s when one of the tramps tells us that he once met an old robot that told him that when robots took over humanity’s duties, they also took over their myths. The robots changed those myths to be more useful to robots, and that’s where The New Father Christmas came about.
We’re not told if any of this is actually true, but it’s a helluva neat idea.
There’s a lot of ambiguity in this story, and that works really well for it. We don’t know what the factory is supposed to do, what it’s actually doing, what’ll happen to our characters now that they’ve met The New Father Christmas, or anything.
In the end, do we learn anything? Are we supposed to?