“The Sack” by William Morrison
from Science Fact/Fiction, eds. Farrell, Gage, Pfordresher, Rodrigues
Scott, Foresman and Company, 1974
Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, November 1950
Price I paid: $6.56
Hot damn this book might well be the best collection of science fiction short stories I’ve ever run across, or, if I have to be more specific with my praise, it’s one of the most consistently good short story collections I’ve read. And of course that might change, because I’m not even halfway through it yet. It would take only one stinker to throw the whole average out of whack.
This story is not that stinker. It’s not just a fun and original idea well written, but it’s also got one of those things that I may have talked about before, the subjective but undeniable feeling that it was written specifically for me.
I probably don’t need to say this, but I will just in case, but I’m not saying that I think the story was actually written for me specifically. For one, it predates me by 30-odd years or so, and while I’ve been known to get into a mystically-minded mood every so often, it would take a lot to convince me that Joseph Samachson, writing under the name William Morrison, predicted my existence and wrote a story that would entertain me.
But I’m also not saying it’s impossible.
What I’m really saying is that with the sheer preponderance of stories that exist, it shouldn’t be a surprise if one of them occasionally speaks to its reader in an immediate and very personal way, whether the separation between author and reader be a few years or centuries. It’s just a cool thing and it ought to be celebrated when it happens.
It does leave me with the question of how many of the author’s other stories will resonate with me like this. I guess I’ll just have to find out!
It turns out that Samachson is a pretty interesting fellow, at least in terms of his output. According to the SFE his writing career stretched from 1938 to 1953, with only a few novels in there and quite a bit more short stories. He wrote two Captain Future thingies under the house name Brett Sterling. He also wrote for DC comics, where he and artist Joe Certa created J’onn J’onzz, The Martian Manhunter. I’ve never been much of an MM fan but that’s still really neat.
“The Sack” is the story of an alien life form discovered on the fringes of the Solar System by some Earth astronauts. Its proper name is Yzrl but nobody calls it that after the first couple of pages. It is always “The Sack” or occasionally “The Mind-Sack.” It earns this name because, well, it looks like a sack of potatoes.
The creature is intelligent but largely inert. It is capable of extending a pseudopod for movement or to grab something, but it never does in the story. And when I say it’s intelligent, I mean that it’s nearly omniscient. It is capable of vast mathematical computations in the blink of an eye, allowing it to assimilate input and offer knowledge or predictions immediately. It’s also capable of communicating psychically, but that’s not actually that pertinent to the story other than that’s how it was discovered. I should mention that this is the first story of the third section of this collection, which is entitled “Mind Waves.”
So the discovery of this remarkable creature makes its way back to Earth, where it becomes a sensation. This unique creature, vastly wise, the last of its species (we later learn), is immediately exploited for financial purposes.
Some of the things I’ve read about this author call his work “cynical” but honestly I think it’s just realistic. And this is pretty much where I decided that this story and I would vibe.
We learn about how the Sack is being used when its caretaker, a guy named Siebling, is put on trial by the Senate. See, the Sack has come under the control of the Government, who is charging people one hundred thousand credits a minute to meet with the Sack and ask it questions. What happens is that the living creature is treated like a machine and questioned perpetually with no rest, causing it to metaphorically collapse from exhaustion, causing twelve scheduled people, paid in advance, to lose their time with it. This becomes a Major Incident.
The precise moment I decided that I loved this story was when the Senator who is questioning Siebling about this failure, a guy named Horrigan, attempts to assert the gravity of the situation by announcing that the refund for these twelve people has cost the government one hundred and twenty million credits, which is in fact ten times the actual amount, a fact easily noticed by anyone listening. An aide leans in to whisper that the real number is twelve million. Horrigan does not correct his math, and the papers dutifully print the incorrect number in their headlines.
Good lord almighty how is this story still so relevant?
The story does a good job of establishing that Horrigan is an incompetent blowhard of a senator. When he asks what idiot allowed people to question the Sack constantly without allowing it to rest, the answer comes back that it was in fact him. This only causes him to double down on his position, and causes him to resent Siebling and declare a private war on him. The story takes a moment to establish in narration that Horrigan is a deeply unpopular senator, even within his own party. I had to take a minute to figure out just which current congressperson would play the role of Senator Horrigan in my brain drama of this story. There are so many that fit the bill!
Siebling states that the Sack has stated that it requires two hours of rest and one of recreation every day for it to sustain itself. Horrigan is incredulous at the waste of potential money this would cause, but nevertheless a team is selected to go to the Sack’s asteroid and question it personally about this requirement, whereupon a decision will be made.
A committee of seven senators talk to it and finally a vote of 4-3 ensures that the creature they rely so much upon will be allowed to have the things it needs to continue to survive so that they can continue to rely upon it.
It’s just so freakin accurate that I want to bash my head on the table. On the other hand, the US government can’t seem to legislate a livable minimum wage for the working class that generates all the profit, so maybe it’s not that accurate. Maybe this “deeply cynical” story is, in fact, too optimistic in the year 2022?
The hour of recreation that the Sack asks for is basically just conversation with Siebling, and it’s here that we finally learn about the Sack’s background. It’s the last of its species, the rest of which were wiped out due to a “miscalculation” that rendered them incapable of producing another generation. While the Sack’s species was basically immortal, the lack of descendents deprived them of any reason to live, and they began dying off three hundred thousand years ago. Yzrl remains alive largely out of habit.
The Sack also discusses that it laments the purposes it’s been put to since its discovery by humans. All of the questions it receives are largely short-sighted and for personal gain. Wealthy people ask it how they can exploit resources for even more wealth. Politicians ask it how to get reelected. Doctors ask how they can cure rich patients and ensure that they get paid. Nobody asks any important questions. Siebling starts to ask a few, like whether the Sack thinks that it’s doing good or harm to the human race by answering its questions. The Sack freely admits that it’s doing harm, in several ways. Siebling finds this unbelievable.
Years pass and Siebling comes to understand what the Sack meant. The number of scientists doing real research is diminishing, as answers to the great questions can be answered easily. Humans have become overly dependent on the Sack, but it predicts that soon that will come to an end. There are lots of squabbles throughout the Solar System about who should have access to the Sack and for what purposes. Because it doesn’t have a dog in any fights, it willingly aids both sides in conflicts when questioned about them, which usually just escalates matters. Things are getting heated.
Finally, a strange visitor shows up, one that has paid for a whole ten minutes of Sack time. The visitor asks their questions in a strange Martian dialect, one that Siebler can’t understand, but the Sack is fine with it. Later, the Sack admits that the questions were on how best to steal the Sack and take it away from here, which it answered honestly. Siebler asks how they can be stopped, but the Sack says the only way to do that would be to kill it. Siebler knows that he can’t, and then asks if there’s at least a way to protect his own life and the other people who work on the asteroid. The Sack says to just leave and let the abduction happen and everyone will be fine, so that’s what happens.
The thieves, one of whom turns out to be the disgraced former Senator Horrigan, carry off their heist without a hitch. The Sack broadcasts the situation psychically to Siebling, in which the team of kidnappers all end up turning on each other as the Sack plays to each of their own brands of greed. Sure enough, enough of them wipe themselves out that too few remain to run the spaceship, so they will eventually die themselves. The Sack states that it wishes to remain alive for a bit longer, and then flies away with the ship.
Siebling admits that this is probably all for the best, but he feels sad about it.
I do too.
Dang, what a hoot! I admit it kind of slowed down near the end, when it just became a series of conversations, but on the whole it was a great story. Moreover, it was a really clever story, with an arc that I’ve never seen before! Yet at the same time it was so predictable and realistic with its approach to the human reaction to the Sack that I couldn’t help but be amazed that I haven’t seen a story like it a hundred times before.
I keep thinking that if the kickoff of this story had been in a Star Trek episode, a franchise with such an overriding sense of optimism, that the episode would have been about the Federation trying to protect the Sack while somebody else, like the Klingons or the Ferengi or whatever, try to steal it for their own purposes. It probably would have been a weak episode. But the real story says to us, look, we’re the villain here, not some outside force. We are the ones who would misuse this creature, abuse it even, and we simply have to admit that before we can move on as a civilization.
And acknowledging that would be akin to acknowledging the way Global Capitalism misuses and abuses the manifold gifts that we do have in this world, including the world itself, which is irreplaceable no matter how much we want to go to Mars or whatever, and especially including the precious and irreplaceable human lives that are fed into the Capitalist machine like a meat grinder, all to generate short term profit for the Ownership Classes.
One day I should go back to some of my old reviews, from before I started to see the fnords, and look at them with these new radicalized eyes I’ve grown. That would be a fun experiment.
Anyway, that’s this story, and I really liked it! I think it had a good couple of important things to say, and it said them well and with a healthy sort of side-eye that I found refreshing and entertaining. Perfect story? I wouldn’t go that far, but it hit me right in the sweet spot today. I recommend it.