“E for Effort” by T.L. Sherred
from The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction ed. Asimov, Waugh, Greenberg
Carroll & Graf, 1989
Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, May 1947
Price I paid: $3
During the 1940s, the great names emerged in an eruption of talent. They formed the mould for the next three decades of science fiction and their writing is as fresh today as it was then.
Okay, uh, WOW, folks.
I was feeling lazy this week and opted for a novella. It may be worth noting that there’s just one more left in this book after this one! And it’s Jack Williamson! Oh dang!
But before getting to that, I had a story, and an author, that I’d never heard of before. Now I’m certainly not the authority on who is worth having heard of, but it was still surprising to me that there was another author in this book that was new to me. I don’t just read a lot of sci-fi, I read a lot about sci-fi, so I’d think that the name would have tickled a couple of molecules in the back of my head, if only from a passing mention somewhere.
But all of that is neither here nor there. Nor is the fact that the author’s name is Thomas L. Sherred. I haven’t found a source for what his middle initial stands for yet, but if it turns out to be the same as mine, I’ll explode.
It turns out that maybe the reason I haven’t heard of this guy is because this one story is the one that sticks out for everybody. Guy was not especially prolific. He published five stories and one novel in his lifetime. There was another novel, a sequel, that was finished posthumously by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. after Sherred passed away in 1985.
I’ll probably make an effort to check out all of those things, because folks, this story was great. It was also his first published work, put out in 1947 by Astounding. Industry legend has it that the story was accepted into the mag by someone other than John W. Campbell, who almost certainly would have hated it. Knowing about some of Campbell’s, uh, politics, I can see why.
This story was so good that I’m inaugurating a categorization for it. I may have declared this for other works in the past, but this is the first time I’m putting the words in big letters. Folks, this story belongs in the category of
Stories I Wish I’d Written
This is absolutely a subjective sort of category and I’m not sure what even qualifies things to belong in it. It’s kind of an “I know it when I see it” situation, to quote Justice Potter Stewart and his opinion of what constitutes pornography.
But maybe a few things can be summed up. For one, it’s a sci-fi premise that I’m a real sucker for. In this case, the premise is a TIME VIEWER. For two, the story is clever, and makes use of its idea in interesting and novel ways. I wish I could do that. The third criterion is the most vague: Does the story make a point that I agree with? Remember, this is about stories I wish I’d written. This isn’t about whether I enjoyed reading it. There are plenty of books that I like and don’t agree with, and I don’t wish I’d written those books. I don’t want people thinking I advocate certain aspects of the tale. The biggest possible example of this might well be The Lord of the Rings. I’m a big fan, have been since I was a little kid. But aside from all the race stuff that didn’t age well, there’s a large component of LotR that’s pretty dang keen on monarchies. I don’t want people thinking I like monarchies. I do kinda wish I’d written The Hobbit though.
And of course the fourth criterion is whether or not I think the story is good, because there are plenty of books that I agree with on an ethical or political or philosophical level with prose that just stinks to high heaven, so I don’t wish I’d written them either.
So it looks like I can break down the discussion of this story into its constituent criteria! Hooray for systems!
1. Good Premise
This is a story about a Time Viewer. I frickin’ love Time Viewer stories. I first got roped into them by the 2000 Arthur C. Clarke/Stephen Baxter novel The Light of Other Days when I was in high school. Now I’m aware that that book was about 99% Baxter and that I was basically conned into reading it by them putting Clarke’s name on the cover, and I also have no idea if it holds up after all this time (I should put it on the stack), but here we are.
The Time Viewer in this story was created by a fellow named Miguel Jose Zapata Laviata. By god, a Person of Color! And he’s not, like, magical or whatever! He’s a skilled engineer who created a cool device!
We learn about it all from the point of view of Ed Lefko, who is narrating this story in a letter to an otherwise unknown person named Joe. Ed first meets Miguel, whom he calls Mike for the rest of the story, when the latter is showing movies for 10 cents a pop, movies that are strikingly realistic in content and huge in scale, but suffer from poor quality because of inferior equipment. The movie that Ed sees is about Cortez and his conquest of Mexico.
After the movie, the guys get to talking and Miguel reveals his secret. He got all of this footage from a device he created that allows him to look through time. He demonstrates it by showing whatever Ed was doing the night before. The device is real. Miguel’s problem is that he doesn’t have any way to monetize the thing. He’s broke. You know that saying about how you have to spend money to make money? The core assumption is that you have money to begin with.
Miguel knows so many things. He knows where great historical treasures are buried, but of course he can’t just pack up and dig them up! Where would he get equipment? Travel expenses? Anything else? It’s a real humdinger of a problem. Likewise he knows that he could make a mint by taking pictures of history, or making movies about it, but without the proper equipment, he’ll be stuck selling tickets for ten cents a pop in downtown Detroit. So Ed convinces him to partner up. Ed will handle the business stuff if Miguel sticks with the tech. And then things get wild.
2. Using the Premise Cleverly
Part of what I love about this story is that it acknowledges the real life problems of using this technological marvel. Not the problems of killing your own grandpa or whatever, but the problems of funding and production. See, Ed’s plan is to basically do what Miguel was already doing. They’re going to make movies.
But the money? Well, step one is to use this device nefariously. They get footage of a couple of local rich guys doing things they’re not supposed to do, and then blackmail them. Bing bang boom. (The story later establishes that they paid them back.)
They use that seed money to purchase equipment and film a grand epic about the life of Alexander the Great. The IMDB cast list for this movie would also include such co-stars as Philip of Macedon, Bucephalus the horse, and so on.
But there’s more to it than just filming history and putting it in theatres! There’s so much attention to detail in this story, and that’s part of what makes me love it so much. For one, the time viewer doesn’t record sound. So they have to get somebody to dub in lines and music and foley and stuff. And even with the footage they have, the movie is only about 80% done for the purposes of Hollywood-style storytelling, so they have to find real actors to sort of fill in the gaps.
See, our guys know that just putting real history in front of people won’t sell. So they splice it up, make an actual movie out of it, and they opt for the Liberty Valance treatment: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” They use actual footage of Alexander to tell a mythified version of the story of Alexander, the one everybody already knows. They don’t rock the boat. And it succeeds. It’s huge. The guys are catapulted into riches and fame.
3. I’m On Board Morally
At this point I thought I had the rest of the story figured out, and was already thinking about how I’d talk about it in the review. I’ve been doing that a lot lately, and I’ve also been wrong about it a lot lately!
My prediction was that our fellas would get cocky and start further manipulating the real stories of history for fame and profit, and that maybe the world would collapse or something. I was going to say something like “Wow this Sherred guy predicted the Internet” and remark on how fake news isn’t a new idea and it’s kind of a shame that we’ve known about it for so long and never done anything about it.
But nooooo, author had to go and surpriiiiiiise me.
Miguel and Ed follow up their Alexandrian epic with one about the French Revolution. They decide to varnish the truth a little bit less this time, and there are consequences. Nothing too major. They’re able to laugh it off. But it gets Miguel thinking.
He’s been watching a lot of raw history and he’s seeing trends. They’re not good trends. In brief, Miguel is beginning to see the People of History as less like legends and more like actual people. And he wants to talk about that.
So now we’re thinking that maybe this will be a source of conflict between our fellas? And that’s the story?
Nope, wrong again! Ed jumps on board. And the guys start making movies that Tell the Truth.
First up, a movie about the Revolutionary War that depicts the Founding Fathers as the human beings with selfish motivations they actually were, not as the Apotheoses of Liberty. And just to keep stirring the pot, they release a movie about the Civil War not long after.
The movies are banned all over the place. But, our author predicted the Streisand Effect by a solid half a century and tells us that trying to suppress them makes the films all the more popular. They also get nasty letters from the DAR and a cross is set on fire near their “studio.”
The guys next decide to tackle the concept of war by showing it as the product of rich men sending poor men to die to further line the pockets of the rich. And they decide to do that by showing the behind-the-scenes wheelings and dealings of the men who ran the World Wars. Yeah, both of them.
Folks, this story was written in 1947. And here comes this T.L. Sherred guy right out the gate saying “Yeah, we beat Hitler, and that’s pretty nice, don’t get me wrong, but also our side was not morally impeccable. People profited off of this war and that is bad.”
Jeez, this guy has guts and I love it. Can you imagine trying to put out a work criticizing Allied leadership even today? Hellfire, you can’t talk about the failures and atrocities the US and its cronies have committed in Vietnam, Iraq (take your pick!), or Afghanistan without the SuPpOrT oUr TrOoP’s crowd coming for your head.
And that’s what happens in the story. Miguel, Ed, and their team are all arrested by the government for sedition, treason, slander, etc., etc.
Did I mention that still nobody knows the secret of how the guys make their movies? Well, it’s at this point that the secret gets out.
Miguel and Ed defend themselves in court by revealing the Time Viewer machine. They prove that it works. They demonstrate the everything they recorded is the actual, factual truth.
So they get put into “protective custody.”
I mentioned already that this story is narrated by a letter to some guy named Joe. As it comes to a close, Ed reveals to Joe that there is a bank vault in Detroit with copies of the plans anyone would need to build the Time Viewer machine. Joe is to distribute these plans far and wide.
And that’s where the story caught me, and let me know that Sherred and I would probably agree on some things even across the generations. The guys make it clear that there are several reasons for distributing the plans like this.
For one, it’s specifically to stop wars from happening. What use is war when all sides can see what the others are planning? When the Pentagon can watch the leaders in the Kremlin scheme, but also the other way around? It’ll be a perpetual stalemate.
But there’s also a bit of a subtext here, and that’s what grabbed me. The narration says that in the aftermath of the machine’s revelation, there was a mass resignation of folks from governments across the world. What Miguel has invented is a machine that, if allowed to the public, would be the ultimate in transparency and accountability. People would at all times be aware of what their elected officials, the captains of industry, the generals and admirals, and everybody else who wields power are up to, at all times.
And of course, that cannot stand! Those in power will never willingly sacrifice even a micron of that power, and as the story comes to a close, the US government is already ramming through a constitutional amendment(!) to prevent the further construction of any more of these machines.
But now that the machine’s existence is known, there will be others seeking to produce one of their own. And of course there’s the possibility that Joe, whoever he is, will get this letter and disseminate the plans like he’s been asked to do.
Ed predicts that if the United States attempts to suppress the knowledge of the machine after it’s been revealed to the world, the result will be war. He hopes he’s wrong and that the plans can be sent out fast enough…
It turns out he’s wrong. The story ends on a pessimistic note, with a list of military dispatches that, among other things, tell us that the bank in Detroit with the plans has been hit with a nuclear weapon, and that both Miguel and Ed are dead.
4. Was It Good?
Hell yeah, this story was good. For one thing, it felt pretty timeless in a lot of ways. This story could have been written at nearly any point since the end of WWII without changing any details. The prose was clear and had flavor and character beyond the stodgy sort you typically get around the Golden Age. It was a tale in which there was a marvelous technological marvel, but the story wasn’t about that marvel or how it worked. It was about what resulted from using it. It was a tale about human nature, about power and how those with it will do anything at all to protect it. A story about how one of the greatest weapons to use against those with power is Truth. A story about the lies we’re told every single day in an effort to maintain power for those who already have it. How war is, without exception, a grab for power by the already powerful at the expense of those without that power, and how those on the bottom are sold on it.
Damn, this is a powerful story, well told, and I am 100% here for it. Even the downer ending, bummed out as it made me, fits the bill. While I might have preferred something a bit more optimistic, at least a shred of hope to run on, I get it.
So yeah, you can probably tell that I liked this story a lot.
It’s not above criticism, to be sure. The main thing is that while it’s cool the device was created by a Person of Color, it’s not great that he requires a white guy to be the face of the operation. But on the other hand, the story is set at least somewhat near the author’s present day, so I reckon he was being at least somewhat realistic on that front.
And there’s only one woman in the story, a pretty blonde that the guys hire as a secretary. Her treatment is also less than great. At the beginning of the book her whole existence is summed up as getting paid to read romance novels and tell the occasional solicitor to go away. As things get better she ends up putting in some work, but then she leaves the guys and becomes an actress, never to be heard from again. Not great, coulda been worse, hey it was the 40s.
The best and worst thing about this novella is how well it holds up over the years. You could write it today, word for word, and it would resonate exactly the same for me. The lessons here are eternal, and I already went over those, but also it even offers up a solution. Admittedly a magical sci-fi sort of solution that we can’t duplicate, but we can look into it metaphorically and work toward a society that does have more transparency and holds people accountable for their actions. This story would be about what dumbasses call Cancel Culture and what ought to be referred to as consequences. The Internet has many problems but it does at least give us the ability to look at what people have said in the past in a way that they cannot deny. It also gives marginalized people at least a little bit more of a voice to present their sides of the story. Abusers, profiteers, racists, and general pieces of crap, can be named and shamed. Is it perfect? Hell no. But just look at how many people are trying to put a stop to it, wailing about “Cancel Culture” and “this is censorship” and “repeal Section 230” and you’ll see that what T.L. Sherred was saying in 1947 is still extremely relevant 64 years later.
I’m starting to preach so maybe I should boogie on outta here now. Have a great day, take care of yourselves, take care of each others, and don’t forget your meds. Luvya.