Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Retro Review - "Or All the Seas with Oysters" (1958) by Avram Davidson

"Retro Review -
'Or All the Seas with Oysters' (1958)
by Avram Davidson"

(c) 2012
by
Jordan S. Bassior


Introduction:  I first encountered this Hugo-winning story by Avram Davidson (1923-1993) as a teenager, and failed to appreciate it.  Re-reading it recently, I was struck by its economy and power.

*** SPOILERS (in case someone hasn't already read this tale) ***
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Synopsis:  Oscar and Ferd are partners in a bicycle shop, but they have drifted apart as friends.  Oscar is an big, beefy, practical sort of guy into

beer, bowling and women.  Any women.  Any time.

while Ferd is an intellectual fellow who likes

books, long-playing records and high-level conversation.

Ferd becomes obsessed with the idea that safety pins seem to keep disappearing while there are always too many coat hangers.  One day, in a fit of frustration at Oscar's easy ways with women and the misuse of a red French racing bicycle which Ferd was fixing up, Oscar tears up the seats and tires and smashes the spokes of the bike.

Two weeks later, the bicycle is intact, and Oscar is amazed at how well Ferd fixed it up.  Except that Ferd never fixed it up.  It is at this point that Ferd comes to his Big Realization:

"... suppose there are ... things ... that live in people places.  Cities.  Houses.  These things could imitate -- well, other kinds of things you find in people places ...

"Maybe they're a different kind of life-form.  Maybe they get their nourishment out of the elements in the air.  You know what safety pins are -- these other kinds of them?... the safety pins are the pupa-forms and then they ... hatch.  Into the larval-forms.  Which look just like coat hangers.  They feel like them, even, but they're not ...

"All those bicycles the cops find, and they hold them waiting for owners to show up, and then we buy them at the sale because no owners show up because there aren't any, and the same with the ones the kids are always trying to sell us, and they say they just found them, and they really did because they were never made in a factory.  They grow.  You smash them and throw them away, they regenerate ..."

Ferd goes on to postulate a whole ecology of "false friends"  ... creatues that mimic human things.

Oscar scoffs at Ferd's idea.  He insists that Ferd conquer his delusion by trying to ride the red French racer.  But when Ferd does, the bike throws him, somehow scratching his cheek.

Ferd is telling this story to Mr. Whatney, who has come into the store.  Ferd talks about the new special bicycles he has:

"... Combines the features of the French racer and the American standard, but it's made right here, and it comes in three models -- Junior, Intermediate and Regular.  Beautiful, ain't it?"

Mr. Whatney asks

"By the way ... what's become of the French racer, the red one, used to be here?"

Oscar's face twitched.  Then it grew bland and innnocent and he leaned over and nudged his customer.  "Oh, that one.  Old Frenchy?  Why, I put him out to stud!"

And they laughed and they laughed, and after they told a few more stories they concluded the sale, and they had a few beers and they laughed some more.  And then they said what a shame it was about poor Ferd, poor old Ferd, who had been found in his own closet with an unravled coat hanger coiled tightly around his neck.

Analysis:  This is intellectual rather than gruesome horror, for all that it ends in violent death.  The main terror lies in the idea that unknown life forms mjight be among us, hiding in plain sight by mimicking everyday things, and might be willing to kill to protect themselves and their secret.

It is also very clearly science fiction horror.  I missed this point as a young man, when my definition of "science fiction" was far too narrow.  Really, though:  is there anything in this tale which is scientifically impossible?  Yes, our kind of life couldn't do what these mimics do, but as poor damned Ferd points out

"...Maybe they're a diffefrent kind of life form ..."

Maybe they are.

There is also a subtle character-generated horror here.  The story strongly implies that Oscar knows about the "false friends" -- that he knew at least after Ferd's revelation and death, and might have known even before Ferd realized what was going on.  Certainly, he's taking advantage of it after the fact -- he really has put Old Frenchy out to stud, and has obviously gotten the hybrid bicycles from Frenchy and one or more American standards.

The vein of this horror runs deep.  Not only is it a personal betrayal -- and how did Ferd wind up in the closet with the coat-hangers? -- but it is the betrayal of the intellectual, who reasons out a relationship, by the man of the world, who simply takes advantage of it without thinking too hard about its implications.  Ferd was horrified by the false friends; Oscar simply uses them to breed more bicycles.

In a sense, Oscar was the falsest friend of all.

Addendum:  Similar premises were used in Donald Wollheim's "Mimic" (1950) and Lisa Tuttle's "Where the Stones Grow" (1980).  Wollheim's work, later made into a movie by Guillermo del Toro (1997), is about giant insects which have evolved to mimic human beings.  Lisa Tuttle's tale is about silicon-based life which secretly shares the planet with Man, and keeps its secret by slaying any humans who witness them move.  The notion of secret life passing among us undetected is inherently terrifying:  for it means that the monsters are already here, it's too late to close the door.

5 comments:

  1. Of course it could be that Ferdy was just plain murdered. In which case it was all a mind screw

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    1. This occurred to me -- in which case the story isn't really science fiction, but is still truly horrific, as Oscar would have deliberately driven Ferdy mad and then murdered him. As false a friend as one can be!

      It seems a bit elaborate, though, for Oscar as his character is drawn -- Oscar's a plain sort of guy with a plain sort of cunning. I could see Oscar going "Hmm, okay, some bikes are alive and one of their children killed Ferdy, how do I profit by this fact?" but I have trouble seeing him deciding to actively kill Ferdy and then choosing such a roundabout means of doing so -- Oscar seems more the hit-you-over-the-head kind of guy, if he chose to be a villain, if you see what I mean?

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  2. Could you double-check your usages of "Ferd" and "Oscar"? I found the summary a bit hard to follow in places and wondered if you might have some of them flipped.

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    1. Not sure where. Ferd is the intellectual and Oscar the practical fellow, and Ferd is the one who dies.

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    2. Ferd is the one who slashes the bicycle and twists the spokes, not Oscar. And Oscar is the one telling the story to Mr. Whatney. Check again.

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