Unjustly Neglected: "Dead Center" by Judith Merril

Every now and then I'm going to point toward a story (or maybe book, film, person...) which seems to have been unjustly neglected, a work which is difficult to get a copy of without haunting the dusty and cat-filled back rooms of used bookstores (my favorite is Avenue Victory Hugo in Boston), a work which should be familiar to all serious readers of SF.

There's no better place to start this series than with Judith Merril's 1953 story "Dead Center", which at this particular moment I happen to think is the most unjustly neglected SF story of all time. (Of course, tomorrow I'll probably think of another, but for now that's how I feel.) It was not always neglected -- indeed, it shares the rare distinction of being one of the few stories ever included in the Best American Short Stories series, though it also shares the distinction of being the only one of those stories not currently available in a book which is in print (for a list of such stories, see Andy Duncan's letter to Locus of July 2001).

"Dead Center" is a remarkable story for its bitter, sad ending, the effective use of multiple points of view, and the cold clarity of the prose. Though it is a tale of the early days of spaceflight, and the first manned mission to the moon (written before such a mission had occurred), it has weathered the years well. The situation has been superceded by history, but the strength of the writing and the emotional impact of the story have not diminished in the fifty years since its first publication.

Merril tends to be best remembered as an anthologist and reviewer, and she deserves to be remembered for those tasks, having been one of the defining voices of SF in the '50s and '60s. Samuel Delany has maintained that it is impossible to understand SF in the '50s and early '60s without reading the commentaries she wrote in her Best SF books, and her work as a reviewer helped a generation of readers and writers better define what it was they were reading and writing (and why). Because these achievements were immense and singular, her own fiction has been more ignored than it deserves to be. NESFA Press is planning a collection of her short fiction, a collection which will, I hope, receive a large audience, because what Merril achieved as a fiction writer is no less important than her achievements as an anthologist and critic.

"Dead Center" is my favorite of her stories (or, at least, of the ones I've read -- they can be hard to find). It doesn't seem to have been reprinted at all in the past twenty or thirty years, so finding a copy can be a challenge. I read it in the second volume of Anthony Boucher's Treasury of Great Science Fiction, which I found somewhere years ago.

One of the many notable elements of the story is its lack of sentimentality, despite having one of its viewpoint characters being a six-year-old boy, Toby. Merril's depiction of Toby is sharp: he is frustrated by the lies adults tell him, and he sees through many of their disguises, and yet at the same time he is not able to comprehend the real situation in the second half of the story. The other two viewpoint characters, Jock and Ruth Kruger, are smart and ambitious -- Ruth designs spaceships and Jock pilots them -- and though most of the story's words are devoted to the plot development, at the end we realize the real story was the one we weren't paying close enough attention to: the relationship between Jock and Ruth, and their relationship with their son. Part of the brilliance of the tale is that Merril makes us, the readers, nearly equal to Jock and Ruth, because we, too, want to know What Happens, we want to see the new technology put to use, we want to go to the moon. We have one advantage over those characters, though, because we know what Toby is thinking and noticing. Even with that knowledge, I expect the vast majority of readers do not predict the ending. It's too unthinkable.

Using multiple viewpoints in a story is something writers are encouraged not to do, and it's especially difficult in SF stories because it makes it difficult to understand the world the writer creates. Merril succeeds because she focuses the story on a world not so different from our own, and she uses the viewpoints to explore specific and well-defined actions within that world. To have written this story in a conventional manner would have been to limit its impact, and the central meaning of the story, I believe, comes from the changing viewpoints and the unspoken areas between them.

Could a story like this even get published today? I expect it would find a market, but I also expect the editor would be said to have been "brave" to publish it. The original editors were indeed brave to publish it, and not just because of the downbeat (virtually nihilistic) ending, but also for the fact that Merril created female characters who are equal to men. Not just equal in a good way, either, which puts her ahead of many ideologues who wrote in the decades after "Dead Center" was published -- Merril's females are human beings, full of complexity, as vulnerable as the men to the many temptations to hubris which life offers.

Actually, I may be imposing my own biases on the story by saying its core tragedy stems from the hubris, and resultant blindness, of its adult characters. A reader who is more inclined to support the space program might read the story different, but I find "Dead Center" particularly interesting to read after the various tragedies of the space program, especially the two space shuttle disasters, and the Bush administration's current push for more money to be spent on space exploration. I suppose SF fans are supposed to think spending billions of dollars to put equipment and people up beyond our atmosphere is a good thing, but I've always wondered what would happen here on Earth if the money, resources, and human ingenuity were put to use solving a few of the challenges we face right here, right now.

Merril's writing is a miracle. I hope that NESFA's upcoming collection will bring her more notice, and perhaps provoke a publisher to begin to collect her nonfiction as well, for she is one of the giants of mid-20th century SF, and we owe it to ourselves to know her better than we do.