“Short in the Chest” by Idris Seabright
from The Metal Smile, ed. Damon Knight
Belmont Science Fiction, 1968
Originally published in Fantastic Universe, July 1954
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 know it’s been recently that I’ve dived back into the old robots short story comp, but I had to delay this week’s regularly scheduled novel due to the treachery of my frail human body. I’m better now, but it left me with precious little time and interest to read. I have started that book, and woo, it’s a doozy, so I’ll definitely talk about it sometime.
“Short in the Chest” is the next-to-last entry in this collection of robot stories, the final one being a short poem by Stephen Vincent Benet from 1935. I’m curious about it but I haven’t skipped ahead.
As for this story, I have to admit that I had no knowledge of this author before starting the story. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Idris Seabright was a woman named Margaret St. Clair and that she was a prolific pulp short-story writer (130, with eight novels on top of that).
And not only that, but she was cool as hell.
I’m just cribbing from Wikipedia at this point, but a few stand-out interestings are her and her husband’s 1966 initiations into Wicca, with an earlier (1963) novel Sign of the Labrys featuring some of the earliest overt references to it to be found—not just in sf but in any genre. I’m skimming someone else’s take on that novel and it’s hauntingly familiar. I don’t think I’ve read it, but I think I’ve seen it somewhere.
I see stuff all over the place calling her “underappreciated” and “due for a revival.” Based on this short story, I have to say…YES I AGREE.
Early science fiction is often referred to as a boy’s-only club. St. Clair stands in open defiance of that. Yes, the genre was overwhelmingly male, but one doesn’t even have to dig that deep to find Brackett, Norton, and (apparently) St. Clair. I bring this up because of something very interesting about Margaret and her pseudonym, Idris Seabright. Now, surely she had to adopt that pseudonym so that she could sell stories at all, right? It’s a reasonable thing to think. But look at the cover for that month’s issue of Fantastic Universe and notice that she’s on there twice.
That’s because she’s in there twice! That month’s issue also featured a novelette named “The Rations of Tantalus,” and the byline is Margaret St. Clair. This leads me to believe the following: She was so badass that she needed a second name to sell stories under.
This isn’t to say that there wasn’t any gatekeeping and sexism in the genre at the time (or any time, including now), but the fact that her works were willingly purchased by publishers and typeset brandishing the unambiguously feminine name Margaret in the author credit without hiding it behind any initials or anything, says a lot about how incredible she was.
And this story is a great example of that. I know it would probably be cliché to talk about how ahead of its time this story was, but damn, it was! Let’s break it down a bit.
For one, the protagonist is a woman. And that woman is not a housewife (although St. Clair apparently wrote a number of stories about futuristic housewives) but is instead a United States Marine. While it’s true that women have been allowed to serve in the Marines since 1918 (thanks again, Wikipedia), it’s still a rarity to read a story about them, especially in the 50s.
The Marine in question is Major Sonya Briggs, and she’s “in charge of the Zone 13 piggery.”
I know that doesn’t make any sense yet. It didn’t make much sense in the context of the story yet, either, but it all comes together and it shows some of the other ways this story stands out from the usual mid-50s fare.
So the Cold War has gone on so long that basically everybody works for the Defense Department, “which in the cold war emergency is the country itself” (146). We’re told that each branch of the military provides its own food, and that’s why Major Briggs’s piggery is such a big deal. It provides pork chops for the entire Marine Corps. Lately, though, there’s a problem, and it’s that the piglets aren’t eating.
There is also a great deal of inter-service rivalry. Popular culture tells me that this is already a thing (and when has popular culture ever lied to me?) but in the case of this story it’s to an extreme. The levels of distrust and rivalry between the services has grown to the point where a new system has been implemented, called “dighting.”
There’s a hefty footnote about the word dight and its usage, and it boils down to “this is actually a real word.” And it is! It’s archaic as all get out and I love it. It’s a good word. It means a lot of things, from “to adorn,” “to compose,” “to deal with or handle,” or, as is attested by both this story and Mr. Geoffrey Chaucer himself, “to have sexual intercourse with.”
This science fiction short story from 1954 is talking about sex from a woman’s point of view. One might suppose that by using the archaic term to describe it that maybe the story is being a little cagey, but I can assure you, it’s not. I’m not sure why the word is there in the first place, other than it’s just a neat word. The story is by no means graphic, but it’s frank.
In an effort to cut down on “inter-service tension,” folks are paired off with a member of a different service on occasion. Sent on blind dates. Expected to, you know, do it. Basically ordered to get down and do the horizontal Batusi.
There’s another element to it. In this case, Major Briggs was paired off with an Air Force guy, who was involved in the Air Force piggery, and was thus expected to pillow talk with him enough to see if they were having the same problem with piglets that the Marines were, and if they’d found a way around it.
I hear you starting to wonder where the robot comes in. This is a book about robots, right? Of course it is.
The robot has been here the whole time. Major Briggs relates this story to a robot psychiatrist, called a “huxley.” Maybe psychiatrist isn’t the right word, maybe something closer to therapist? It’s hard to tell. Whatever he is, he maintains strict confidentiality and is programmed to help the patient with their problems. There’s an odd line in there from the huxley about how “the first amendment applies to us, if to no other profession” (149) which I suppose means that Major Briggs has complete freedom to talk with him.
Her problem is that she is having trouble with the dighting. She just doesn’t want to. Instead of relieving tension, the whole thing is just causing more of it.
People given their dight slip are also given “Watsons,” an “oestric,” which is a word I can’t actually find any references to but I assume it’s related to “estrus,” and “anti-concipient.” So it’s a birth-control pill that also works like an aphrodisiac. Men get a “Watson” that functions as a “priapic.”
The fact that such things are needed at all is telling, but in Major Briggs’s case, they aren’t working. At one point she got so scared that she stole a second Watson, hoping that two doses would work for her. And they did, but she can’t risk doing that again because she was almost caught.
So what does she do?
There’s a lot packed into the first eight pages of this short story already. We’re dealing with frank discussions of a woman’s perspective of sex and her worries about “performing her duty.” The comparison of military and domestic “duty” is a damned interesting bit of subtext I literally just now thought of.
And in addition to all that we’ve got some on-the-DL discussion of the implications of forever war, although in this specific case it’s forever cold war. The military budget has grown so much that it now dominates the economic and social life of the entire country. By God, this story is borderline subversive. I don’t see it mentioned anywhere, but if she was called to talk to HUAC at some point, I would not be surprised.
The last two pages deal with another concept, one that I’m not sure is directly related to those other two but is interesting in its own right. It’s the question of just how much we trust technology.
Major Briggs trusts the huxley to maintain secrecy of her issue. She also trusts that it will help her with her problems. Part of this is because the huxley is so well-trusted by others. She tells him, and us, that the waiting room was full when she arrived.
But there’s a dark comedy aspect to this story. All throughout it was hinted at. It’s right in the title, “Short in the Chest.” The robot has a secret, and it’s that it’s malfunctioning. It spends the story hiding that secret in various ways, although it’s always subtle and perhaps made to look like it was an attempt to put Major Briggs at ease. His chest is making buzzy noises, you see.
The huxley explains that it’s not her fault that she can’t make it with these men from the other services. It’s their fault. Why is that? Because the Marines are utterly superior in every way, obviously. The other branches are so much lower they ought to be derided. Why should she, one of the elite, suffer to bring herself down to the level of a mere infantryman, an airman, or a seaman? Utterly preposterous!
So what the huxley tells her she should do is wait until her next date and if she finds once again that she’s unable to perform, she should simply murder him. Bring her regulation sidearm and shoot him right in the heart. And to show that she’s not ashamed of what she’s done, she should leave a signed note saying that she did it.
The wild thing is that the huxley’s logic does make a kind of sense, if you look at it from the point of view of Major Briggs. The huxley’s arguments aren’t some kind of “murder death kill I am a bad robot,” but are actually building on what Sonya Briggs has been taught her whole life. The Marines are the best service. What’s good for the Marines is good for Defense. What’s good for her is good for the Marines. It all flows.
And quite happily, she takes that advice. This is a machine she trusts, and it has told her a twisted, toxic, harmful version of exactly what she wants to hear.
LIKE AND SHARE THIS ON FACEBOOK AND TWITTER, Y’ALL
Hot damn! It goes without saying that Margaret St. Clair wasn’t thinking about social media and its misuse in 1954, but she sure called it anyway! It’s a natural extension of whatever 50s techno-societal anxieties she was writing about—the Bomb, early computing, robots, mechanized warfare, television—and it’s still timely as ever.
Is this a case of an author who saw what was coming, or is it that things don’t really change that much? That’s always an interesting angle on the question of prescient-seeming writers.
The final paragraphs of the story tell us that the huxley has given this same advice to twelve other young women, and while it is still aware enough to know that there will be consequences, it doesn’t really care because it’s got that malfunction.
Is it the malfunction that makes this huxley so popular? Or was it popular to begin with, and now dangerous?
So many things to ponder about this story. So many implications.
Why am I only now learning about this author? If this story is representative of the quality of her work, she’s utterly remarkable. The Internet confirms a lot of this. And I don’t necessarily mean just “remarkable for a woman author of sf in the fifties,” but admittedly there’s a bit of that. She broke through the gender barrier, for one, but it’s clear that she was a force all her own. I’m reading summaries of her books and short stories and they all seem so utterly original that they’d be remarkable no matter what gender she identified as.
Having not actually read those stories or books, it might be a bit much for me to ask why she doesn’t have a Hugo or a Nebula or even an award named after her. But I’m still thinking it.
“The 2019 Margaret St. Clair Award for Fuckin’ Nailing It goes to…”
This story isn’t necessarily mind-blowing. It’s subtle. It’s talking about a lot of things that weren’t being talked about much at the time, but not going forth and making any big statements about them. It’s a story that’s just asking the questions, and it’s not even doing that outright. It’s making us ask the questions. Subtly shifting our points of view.
Somebody make this woman a household name. I’d do it, but I’m gonna be busy bringing back the word “dight.”