"Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Lewis Padgett - Sci-Fi Classic Review
Yes, you can have Shatner read it to you if you like
Can children be trained to think in a more advanced way than adults? This is the underlying thought experiment behind the 1943 short story by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore (operating under the joint psuedonym of Lewis Padgett) called "Mimsy Were the Borogoves," which is about someone in the far-flung future accidentally sending a box into the past, where it is found by modern children. The ostensible toys inside then train the children to use post-human logic. Before their parents realize how much they've changed, the children--spoiler alert--use the coded language of Lewis Carrol's "Jabberwocky" (revealed to also be the result of time travel shenanigans) to rebuild the technology of the box and disappear into another time.
I've seen this story described as humorous or fanciful, but in my mind, it's straight-up horror. Maybe I'm biased as the parent of a child on the spectrum (I'm not comfortable talking too much about that on the Internet, so don't ask), but the idea of children quickly growing apart from their parents and the adult world through their own mode of thinking and being is pretty terrifying to me. It's also too well thought out by the authors to be dismissed as a lighthearted fairy tale, with a significant amount of time spent in the story philosophizing about cognition and how we make sense of the universe around us.
It's also a clever bit of science-fiction, in that it takes a remarkably simple premise--future technology falls into the hands of modern children--and uses it to great effect, revealing layers upon layers of futurist extrapolation and psychological insight that come quite naturally. Sure, it's very heavy on the exposition, and sure, the flashback to Alice and "Uncle Charles" (Lewis Carroll's real name was Charles Dodgson) could be a little too balmy for some, but on the whole, this is one of the best uses of the short story format I've come across in science-fiction.
Where it was first published
Kuttner and Moore very adeptly navigate a tricky narrative conundrum; namely, how do you describe a futuristic way of thinking that could be intuitive to the flexible mind of a child but not to the rigid mind of an adult when you, the writer, are a modern adult? The future toys are given enough description that they make sense in context, and when we are given a brief segment from the point of view of the increasingly warped children, it reads a lot like "Jabberwocky," in that it feels like language that should make some sort of sense, without being particularly comprehensible.
The main reason the narrative works--and specifically why it works better as a short story as opposed to a novel--is that key information is given to the reader right at the start. Readers know before they even meet the main characters that the objects the children find are toys from the future, that they come from a post-human society that is quite alien. The three main adults of the story--Paradine and Jane, the parents, and the child psychologist, Rex Halloway--never learn these facts and are forced merely to conjecture. This conjecture, to the reader, becomes more about the philosophical theory than about the mystery, since the mystery has already been solved.
If written in a more traditional format, with the parents as true protagonists and the mystery of the toys unexplained until the climax, the science-fiction trappings would probably seem outlandish, if not stupid. The horror elements that I read into the story would certainly be highlighted as the parents grow increasingly disturbed by their children's erratic behavior, but like in notably terrible movies like The Forgotten or Knowing, the sudden introduction of a sci-fi premise as big as time travel could easily break the narrative. There might be a way to make it work, but Kuttner and Moore get around the whole problem by making it a non-traditional short story told out of order.
There's more legible versions online if you look for them
I also love how the ending is foreshadowed by the toys themselves, specifically the "abacus," in which balls slide on tracks and disappear, seemingly at random. To the adults, the logic behind how the balls move and the order in which to move them in order to make it work is beyond their understanding, even when the children try to demonstrate it to them. What's more, each demonstration is different, but to the children, who are thinking on a different level of higher dimensions, each is the same. This sets up how a completely random accumulation of objects in a seemingly arbitrary configuration, using the nonsense words of Lewis Carroll as a guide, makes the children themselves disappear in the story's final moments.
It's also wholly appropriate that it ends there. Sure, the writers could have tacked on a happy ending where the children return as easily as they left, but it wouldn't be a genuinely satisfying conclusion, because the story has gone out of its way to demonstrate that these children no longer fit in the modern world, can no longer connect to their peers or parents, and that the parents, in turn, can no longer connect with them. It's a spin on an aspect of time travel that is all-too-often glossed over: if someone from the future came to the present, the sociological barriers would be too much to overcome. A person from one time period just thinks in a completely different way from someone in another time period.
All told, then, I cannot recommend "Mimsy Were the Baragoves" enough. It's easy enough to find for free online, and it's short enough to read in less than an hour. If I can get my hands on a copy or find a way to stream it between now and next week, I'll review the loose film adaptation, 2007's The Last Mimzy, and even though I've never seen it, I can't imagine it does the story much justice. (I hate being right.)
-e. magill 1/21/2021
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