Some Things Are Not As They Seem

Stories can become dated and lose their luster, but amazing stories have a tendency to shrug off changes over time and shine on with fresh wonder. Written in 1932, The Lost Machine by John Beynon Harris is one of those amazing stories.

The Lost Machine from April 1932 issue of ASsketch by Leo Morey
The Lost Machine from April 1932 issue of Amazing Stories
sketch by Leo Morey

Sifting through some musty old boxes at the local library book sale, I stumbled across a tattered paperback copy of The Best of Amazing. It’s a Belmont edition from 1969, published two years after the original Doubleday print. Joseph Ross (a.k.a. Joseph Wrzos), editor of Amazing Stories in the mid sixties, selected the stories for the book. In his forward, he addresses the tacit rift between science and literature:

“What is a science-fiction story anyway if it’s not a literary exploration of some scientific idea, an imaginative try at predicting what impact science can have on man, on society, on the very quality of life on this planet?”

Now many years later, this collection of short stories which Ross had pulled together can still be examined for its scientific literary value. Stories can become dated and lose their luster, but amazing stories (see what I did there?) have a tendency to shrug off changes over time and shine on with fresh wonder. This time around, these “timeless” perspectives may have an even greater influence on our lives as we look at how far we have come …or how little we have, depending on your perception.

The first entry in the book is a story about a Martian robot stranded on Earth after a crash. One would think a robot should be able to survive using its advanced technology. But when John Beynon Harris penned The Lost Machine way back in 1932 for the April issue of Amazing Stories, his robot Zat was vulnerable in a different way. Everything is looked at analytically through Zat’s eyes and recorded in a journal, so any deductions about Earth are based solely on first impression and comparisons with his own planet.

The vegetation on Mars is dependent on canals, but the vegetation on Earth is widespread across the land and the canals are scattered inanely. Outcroppings of “peculiarly regular” rocks have points of smoke sifting up from stone masses which indicates the internal fires must be extremely close to the planet’s surface.

Now I’m confident that the statute of limitations of any spoiler alerts have long since expired on this story, but I would still rather have you read the story in its entirety first. We can still look at this small snippet from the story though and consider where we are today compared to 1932. Now, as humans with a familiarity of our home world and its surroundings, we can surmise what Zat was actually seeing. The canals are probably just the rivers formed by nature and the “peculiarly regular” rocks are houses or other building fabricated by man. Chimneys or industrial smokestacks can be the venting internal fires. The fact that these two simple elements became so twisted by incomplete reasoning is amusing. It’s what makes the story charming. But it is also an eye opener to our own limitations.

We know a lot about the world around us. It’s not flat like we once thought. It’s not the center of the universe either. But Zat does remind us that we need to keep an eraser handy as we reach further into the stars. Things may not be as they seem.

Let’s not allow the Mars rover Curiosity to become our own version of Zat?

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1 Comment

  1. You know, that story sounds strangely reminiscent of Alexis de Tocqueville's 'Democracy in America.' That work has been commented upon by many over the years because he made us look at ourselves. Good literature will give the reader something new to think about and I don't suppose it matters so much whether it's called science fiction or something else. Of course, I think that happens in science fiction more often than other genres. Not that I'm biased, or anything.

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