Saturday, January 12, 2008

Lewis Padgett's "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" (short story, science fiction): Cognitive processes impossible to adults can be taught to very young kids

Quote from classic science fiction short story titled Mimsy Were the Borogoves by Lewis Padgett (joint pseudonym for Henry Kuttner and C L Moore)Note the author's name Lewis Padgett is a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner & his wife Catherine Lucille Moore (better known as C L Moore) writing together.

Title comes from a passage in Lewis Caroll's poem titled "Jabberwocky", included in his "Through the Looking Glass". A bit of nonsense that children in this story use to figure out an unrelated & profound puzzle.

I don't know if this story is normally tagged a science fiction classic, but I have no hesitation dubbing it so. This is the kind of story that defines a genre.

While you need to sometimes suspend credulity, I found it great fun & very imaginative. And anyway the main story is about adaptability of human mind, & that it can be shaped to think in unfamiliar ways - fantastic devices applied are only story teller's aids.

Ending is sad, & the story is a bit cerebral - don't pick it up when you want something light.

I collect some quotes from the story here.

Story summary.

There are three threads - an alien sending something to human space twice, & two threads in human space when this something is claimed by different individuals. Only one of the claims leads to the main story; other is generally irrelevant to story & is very small.

Thread 1: Alien sends something to human space.
Unthahorsten is either an alien, or a human "a good many million years" into the future - I could not quite figure out which. Anatomically, he is similar to humans, but there are many differences. And he is not on earth, "technically speaking"; you can interpret the last phrase based on your imagination. He is in his lab testing his "time machine" (also called "the Box").

The test requires that he put something physical in the Box. Then he will manipulate controls to send it to someplace somewhen. The machine is programmed to return after a while. "solid in the Box would automatically be subject to the entropy and cosmic ray bombardment of the other era, and Unthahorsten could measure the changes"; hence he could determine whether the machine had been to place & time it was sent to!

So his puts some old toys of his son Snowen in the Box. The "boy had brought with him when he had passed over from Earth", & "needed this junk no longer. He was conditioned, and had put away childish things." Text I've quoted here will come in handy later in the main story.

"The Box went away. The manner of its departure hurt Unthahorsten's eyes.

He waited.

And he waited.

Eventually he gave up and built another time machine, with identical results."

Neither machine ever returned. "Disgusted, Unthahorsten decided to make no more time machines."

Both would be claimed by different children at different places on earth. First one would lead to the main thread, second to dud thread. Second one "should have appeared on Earth in the latter part of the nineteenth century, A.D."; I don't recall if a time was mentioned for first one, but it's close to modern times.

Thread 2 (the main thread).
Scott Paradine, a 7 year old boy would find the first Box. "The gadgetry would have given Einstein a headache and driven Steinmetz raving mad."

He is alone near school when "Something tumbled down the bank and thudded into the muddy ground near the water". Curiosity will make him examine & claim the box. He will have difficulty opening it because the "box had not yet completely entered the space-time continuum where Scott existed, and therefore it could not be opened - ... not till Scott used a convenient rock to hammer the helical non-helix into a more convenient position."

OK - so finally he opens it. And finds curious objects inside. We are not given the full inventory, but the stuff includes what looks like a "crystal cube", a curious kind of abacus, & an even more curious doll. A little examination of the cube, & he is hooked - he can see a whole world inside the cube, & he seems to be able to control it with his thoughts. Cube sounds a lot like ancient Indian story where Yashoda sees the whole universe inside the mouth of her little child Krishna .

He will take the stuff home, & lie to his parents - Dennis & Jane - that it was given him by Uncle Harry. Uncle Harry is out of station, & lie will eventually be exposed; but damage would have been done by then. And Scott will share the toys with his 2 year old sister Emma. For "a week or so ... Emma and Scott had free rein with the toys", & then some more limited access for 3 months.

Children can see things in & do things with the toys that their parents cannot.
  1. Abacus doesn't seem to have linear wires but curious twists the adults cannot follow. It apparently is a 4-dimensional abacus! Children quickly learn to play it, but adults never figure it out - in spite of several demonstrations by children.
  2. The Cube shows what looks like people leading normal life. You "wish" that a particular house there burn down, & it does! You wish that they build a new house & how, & they do it.
  3. Doll, nicknamed Mr Bear by Emma, seems to be the kind that medical students will be proud to have for an anatomical dummy. You can peel off its skin & see the insides. And it seems to have organs inside that are different than humans, & some flows that either are not human or are yet to be discovered by humans.
  4. "a crimson globe, two inches in diameter, with a protruding knob upon its surface." We don't know much about it except that the children "Hold it up in front of them and move it back and forth. No particular pattern of motion... No Euclidean pattern".
The toys not only keep the attention of children & entertain them, they educate them & "condition" them to think using the cognitive processes of the toy's makers - processes totally alien to human ways of thinking. Among the things thus taught to children will be a desire to return home, & a method of returning home that children can follow!

Looks like the aliens have child birth procedures similar to salmon. See - salmon swim to fresh water river, from sea where they normally live, to lay eggs. When the kids are born, they figure out how to go to sea & survive in the meantime. Alien kids are apparently born on earth, hidden from humans. "There would be incubators and robots. They would survive, but they would not know how to swim downstream, to the vaster world of the ocean." Toys apparently aid this - teaching them enough to eventually return home!

Eventually, the parents will discover something fishy, seek advice of child psychologist Rex Holloway, get worried, give up on Rex as someone who is "an alarmist" & is unnecessarily adding to their worries, & ultimately face the horror when their kids go home!

Thread 3 (the dud thread).
"A very small girl" has found the second box & opened it in England in "the latter half of the nineteenth century". She also has lied to one Uncle Charles about the origin of her magical toys - that she got them from her now dead mother. While she will learn some alien ways of thinking & develops a desire to go home, she is too old to really be able to do so.


  1. The family in Thread 2 is of a college professor & has a female servant, Rosalie, who speaks like slaves did in Alex Haley's "Roots"! I haven't seen such servants in many stories of US origin.
  2. This story makes reference to two older stories: Richard Hughes' "A High Wind in Jamaica" with reference to "All children are mad, from an adult viewpoint" (I haven't read this story). Oops, probably forgot marking the second one, & I cannot recollect the name now!

See also.

  1. Other stories on essentially the same theme - a "minor toy" from an advanced civilization somehow ends up in human space, causing puzzlement & chaos: Henry Kuttner & C L Moore's "The Twonky", Eric Frank Russel & Maurice Hugi's "Mechanical Mice", & C M Kornbluth's "The Little Black Bag".
  2. Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" (1998): I kept seeing similarities between the two. Both are essentially about human cognition, & that training the mind to think in new ways can lead to leaps of thought that are normally beyond human.
  3. Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" (1961): Another story where the hero has learned to think in ways utterly alien to humans because of his peculiar childhood, & can use that leaning to do superhuman stuff.
  4. Arthur Clarke's "2001 A Space Odyssey" (1968): In a sense, the toys are smart teachers in the same way the monolith was in first part of Clarke's story.
  5. Isaac Asimov's "The Gods Themselves" (1972): There is a similarity in the way an apparently desirable but actually harmful alien object ends up in human hands.
  6. Eric Frank Russell's "Sinister Barrier" (1939): I cannot quite pinpoint why I kept being reminded of this story. Perhaps because aliens end up controlling humans through subtle interference.
  7. Issac Asimov's "The Ugly Little Boy" (1992): In Asimov's version, humans forcibly pull a Neanderthal child from his time. In Padgett's version, they end up inadvertently pulling human kids to a future time & place.
  8. This story was adapted as a Hollywood movie "The Last Mimzy" (2007). I haven't seen the movie, but SMD at "The World in the Satin Bag" has posted this uncharitable movie review.
  9. This story has a French TV adaptation under the title "Tout spliques étaient les Borogoves" (1970); I haven't seen it.
  10. All stories by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner & C L Moore).

Collected in.

  1. "The Best of Henry Kuttner".
  2. David Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer (Ed)'s "The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF".
  3. Robert Silverberg (Ed)'s "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964".
  4. Isaac Asimov & Martin H Greenberg (Eds)' "Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 5 (1943)".

Fact sheet.

"Mimsy Were the Borogoves", short story, review
First published: Astounding, February 1943.
Rating: A


benzrf said...

You can read this online at

Tinkoo said...

Thanks benzrf.

I've actually posted a couple of different links to this story in the past, but have been too lazy to add them to this main post:) Will add them also to this post - hopefully in next couple of days.

New links are always welcome. Thanks again.

John Cowan said...

The Charles in Thread 3 is not really the girl's uncle, and his last name is Dodgson....