When a writer comes up with a single genuinely good idea, be it for science fiction or detective fiction or high concept fiction or wedding invitations or whatever else, the temptation is to stick with it. To expand on that idea and make it pay and should another idea join the first, as it inevitably will, to save that one for another pay-off sometime in the future.
The frenzied mind of pulp great Robert Abernathy either suffered no such sense of economy or was so overwhelmed with great ideas that he just didn’t have the bandwidth for it. Either way this now largely forgotten master of the genre advanced science fiction in a way that has yet to be fully embraced by his successors both great and otherwise.
Abernathy subscribed quite evidently to the school of fiction writing that holds that a good story has a good backbone, a subtext or philosophy upon which to hang the actual narrative. His stories appeared mostly in Planet Stories and Astounding and similar anthology magazines in the forties and fifties and like the best of the science and speculative fiction of the time they were founded on well-researched and/or well-considered philosophies. Among his more well-known works is a musing on the single most important geo-political conflict of his era which ostensibly kept the world on the brink of nuclear war for decades and, in Heirs Apparent, eventually destroyed everything and reduced the ideologies to their fundamental pointlessness in the face of more immediately existential disputes. It’s a good read, too, which showcases Abernathy’s keen and Harvard-educated mind and knack for positing original ideas in an original manner.
But it’s in the The Record of Currupira that Abernathy strikes his zenith as a craftsman of stories built on a reverse-pyramid of progressively bigger ideas. The initial proposal, on its own, is manifestly one of the most original and fertile ideas in short science fiction – humanity, finally exploring Mars, discovers that tens of thousands of years earlier Martians explored earth and what’s more they brought home and preserved records of mankind’s past that had been long lost to earth science. That’s already a sufficiently compelling idea from which Abernathy could have easily woven a thrilling tale but it is, in fact, the introduction. This intriguing concept is just the platform on which he presents his next theme, the origin of language (the subject of the author’s PhD).
And the alluring and instructional treatise on the respective theories of the foundations of human language is, too, just the next of what turn out to be several more layers of device and guile, each more bold and ambitious and terrifying than the last. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment that the initial notion, as brilliant and self-contained as it first appears, is eventually thoroughly overshadowed by what turns out to be an almost entirely unrelated and much bigger and better and more absorbing idea for a story.
How is this not a movie?
The Record of Currupira is a short and thrilling and high-velocity story set in distant 2001, after man has begun exploring Mars (so not actually that far off) and the rich plot dashes from the red planet to an archeological museum in New York to the Amazon jungle and leverages a fascinating theory of the origin of human language and obscure Brazilian mythology and in spite of it all is an accessible and simple story of man confronting a mystery from his own past. This is a pulp fiction masterpiece and available from the fine people of the Gutenberg Project. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31762/31762-h/31762-h.htm