The most anthologized of Bierce’s science fiction works are “The Damned Thing” and “Moxon’s Master”. I suspect that is a function of both their relatively short length and timeless themes. Bierce’s other science fiction works, some of which I will be covering in my next posting, are satirical vehicles for political issues we either no longer care about or vehemently disagree with Bierce on.
“The Damned Thing” (with Spoilers)
This tale is justly celebrated, one of Bierce’s most controlled in terms of tone. It concerns a lethal, invisible entity in the hills around San Francisco.
H. P. Lovecraft’s description of Bierce’s weird fiction in his “Supernatural Horror in Literature” as “malignly supernatural” works for this particular story. But so do the words of James Gunn in introducing the story in his The Road to Science Fiction #1: From Gilgamesh to Wells:
“The Damned Thing” is typical of a kind of science-fiction story that focuses on a fantastic event that has no explanation — except one or more that science has not yet discovered. The story has its psychological basis in the observed fact that new discoveries about the nature of the universe, continue to be made, and the most profound of the discoveries were unpredictable and would have been incomprehensible to an earlier generation.
Bierce modifies his usual story structure here. While the story proceeds in linear time, exposition is done with excerpts from two manuscripts.
The story has an opening both oppressive and full of menace that is both claustrophobic and agoraphobic.
Seven of them sat against the rough log walls, silent, motionless, and the room being small, not very far from the table. By extending an arm any one of them could have touched the eighth man, who lay on the table, face upward, partly covered by a sheet, his arms at his sides. He was dead.
… From the blank darkness outside came in, through the aperture that served for a window, all the ever unfamiliar noises of night in the wilderness — the long nameless note of a distant coyote; the stilly pulsing thrill of tireless insects in trees; strange cries of night birds, so different from those of the birds of day; the drone of great blundering beetles, and all that mysterious chorus of small sounds that seem always to have been but half heard when they have suddenly ceased …
Bierce can’t resist irony though. It is present in the black-humored titles of his story’s four sections. This first scene, with a coroner’s jury being convened around the corpse of Hugh Morgan, is titled “One Does not Always Eat What Is on the Table”.
The coroner is reading out of a book when a young man, newspaper reporter William Harker, shows up with a written account of what he saw at Morgan, his friend’s, death.
Harker’s account, in a section titled “What May Happen in a Field of Wild Oats”, tells of visiting Morgan to go hunting. Normally cool, Morgan seems jumpy. “That Damned Thing”, Morgan remarks when sensing some disturbance Harker doesn’t.
Then Harker sees a wild oat field “as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only bent it, but pressed it down”.
Harker is knocked down by something unseen. Before he can even rise, he hears Morgan cry out with “hoarse, savage sounds”. And he sees Morgan:
At a distance of less than thirty yards was my friend, down upon one knee, his head thrown back at a frightful angle, hatless, his long hair in disorder and his whole body in violent movement from side to side, backward and forward. His right arm was lifted and seemed to lack the hand — at least, I could see none.
After a few seconds of struggle, Morgan is thrown down, the wild oats move, and Harker finds his friend is dead.
Bierce engages in a bit of social satire in the third section, “A Man Though Naked May Be in Rags”. The coroner details Morgan’s injury. The coroner’s jury regards Harker’s account as mad and delivers its verdict: “… death at the hands of a mountain lion, but some of us thinks, all the same, they had fits.”
“An Explanation from the Tomb” is an explanation via Morgan’s diary. It lists, for about a month, the increasing signs — his dog’s behavior, suddenly occluded stars — of something in the hills around his cabin.
It’s hard not to see, in the penultimate paragraph, similarities to Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”, written shortly after he finished “Supernatural Horror in Literature” and another story of an alien menace with unusual optical properties:
As with sounds, so with colors. At each end of the solar spectrum the chemist can detect the presence of what are known as “actinic” [electromagnetic waves of a higher frequency than violet light] rays. They represent colors — integral colors in the composition of light — which we are unable to discern. The human eye is an imperfect instrument; its range is but a few octaves of the real “chromatic scale.” I am not mad; there are colors we cannot see.
“Moxon’s Master” (with Spoilers)
“The Damned Thing” is hardly the first invisible menace story in science fiction history.
“Moxon’s Master”, though, stands further upstream in its tributary of the science fiction river. It’s an intelligent robot story.
It is the Bierce work that is closest to the engineering sensibilities of Bierce’s acquaintances Frank Marriott and Robert Duncan Milne in that it deals with an advanced technology. Thematically and in its rationalization of an intelligent robot, it owes more to Edgar Allan Poe and the philosophers Herbert Spencer (explicitly mentioned) and Thomas Hobbes (my guess).
The plot is simple, a single set piece without a narrative that jumps back and forth in time. The narrator and Moxson discuss what defines a machine and how a man can meet that definition. This segues into a philosophical rationalization of what is to be revealed. Plant tropism is said to be a type of consciousness. Crystallization is said o be “intelligent cooperation among the constituent elements of crystals”.
This discussion takes place in Moxson’s shop with him leaving to go argue with somebody in another room”
Herbert Spencer’s definition of life, “a definite combination of heterogeneous changes, both simultaneous and successive, in correspondence with external coexistences and sequences”, is used to claim a machine in operation is alive. I sense the influence of Hobbes in Moxon’s claim that “Consciousness is the creature of Rhythm”.
The narrator takes his leave of Moxon and his shop but then, sensing that something more is up with Moxson that him overworking himself into believing his wild ideas about machine consciousness — and, the narrator mistakently thinks, arguing with a woman he has in the house, he returns.
He finds Moxson playing chess with something that looks like a man:
He was apparently not more than five feet in height, with proportions suggesting those of a gorilla — a tremendous breadth of shoulders, thick, short neck and broad, squat head, which had a tangled growth of black hair and was topped with a crimson fez.
The fezzed mechanical chess player is a pretty obvious allusion to an Edgar Allan Poe expose on a supposed chess-playing automaton, “Maelzel’s Chess-Player“. It also shows a long association with artificial intelligence being proved by chess playing.
The machine attacks Moxson, seemingly in a convulsion of violence at being checkmated. The machine throttles Moxson. There is an implication that it has rather misunderstood the bounds of chess and come up with its own solution to being beaten: ” … upon the painted face of his assassin an expression of tranquil and profound thought, as in the solution of a problem in chess!”
A fire breaks out. The machine and Moxson are consumed. Years later, the narrator begins to doubt the truth of what he saw, thus introducing a note of characteristic Bierce ambiguity. (It is true we see no undeniable proof of the mechanical nature of Moxson’s killer.)
Previous Installments in This Series
More Bierce related material is indexed at the Bierce page.