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The Negatives

Various members of the Bewildering Stories Review Board discuss Michael C. Thompson’s “The Negatives.” The following is a compilation.

Somebody should have told the Nihilist to keep his hands off the merchandise. I remember a college student, many years ago, divying up white powder into separate little envelopes. He was licking his fingers quite a bit. An hour later he was crawling around on his hands and knees.

Hoist with his own petard, wasn’t he? But why didn’t the Nihilist use a nuke? For such a “godlike” destroyer of worlds — I believe he associates himself with Shiva in the Bhagavad-Gita — he sure screws up with the LSD.

Indeed, the nukes were a tried and true recipe. But they do raise a problem: Erik has already made himself a big target. I kept wondering why the government wasn’t hot on his trail. Attempting to poison a big-city water supply with chemicals is a desperation measure and almost guaranteed to fail. He’d have had more success with toxic bacteria.

Erik’s changing his modus operandi seems to be designed to bring him into the clutches of the inquisitor. But the confrontation still depends on an accident: if Erik hadn’t tried the LSD himself first, he might have escaped.

A “neo-Islamic” future America is an easy target, but it serves its purpose in the story well enough. I thought the last scene with the Inquisitor was quite well done. And the final third of the story had enough unexpected twists to keep me reading. The image of the protagonist-narrator held it all together, and one can ask, in the end: did he get what he had coming? That, I think, is the crux of the story.

Yes, eternal torment does seem to be a kind of poetic justice for a mass murderer. And the scene with Erik and the inquisitor may even be the first in which two characters begin to listen to each other.

We do get some backstory about the setting, but it still puzzles me. What is the purpose of showing that Islamists have conquered the world? Why not some other religious group? Or something a little less unlikely, such as neo-feudalistic anarcho-capitalists? Indeed, is a post-apocalyptic setting even needed? Why not stick with that of the present day?

The original literary nihilist, Bazarov, in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, achieved infamy by saying Pushkin (i.e. pure art) was worthless and a pair of real shoes was much more important than a painting of shoes. We’ve come some ways since then, I suppose...

Marcel Duchamp’s painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe set a standard for metacommentary in art. Of course a representation is not the thing itself. And Andy Warhol’s “grocery art,” e.g. his famous picture of a can of soup, showed that even reality can be art.

If Bazarov had an extra pair of shoes, he could have put them on a pedestal in an art gallery for paying customers to admire. And if Erik is a latter-day Bazarov, then he seems to be saying that even a real pair of shoes is worthless, not to mention whoever might be wearing them.

At the end, I’m still perplexed. Why does Erik do what he does? What's the reason for his monomania? It has to come from somewhere.

And what's the point? Erik can’t just go around blowing up and drugging “order” wherever he thinks he sees it. Order, like colours, does not exist in the abstract; it always applies to something.

Okay, what does Erik have against organized religion? The fact that it seems to be the only kind of order left in society is quite incidental. He could target circus carnivals with as much justification. And, in the end, if the inquisitor were a clown, the same discussion would ensue.

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