Friday, April 18, 2008

C M Kornbluth's "The Little Black Bag" (novelette, science fiction): A bum finds purpose in life

Quote from short story titled The Little Black Bag by C M KornbluthPlot is familiar: a gadget from an advanced civilization ends up with humans of current times, causing fun & later chaos. Not quite in the class of Kuttner/Moor's "The Twonky" & "Mimsy Were the Borogoves", but still very good.

Both gadget sending & receiving civilizations are human. Receivers are from mid-twentieth-century, senders are from twenty-fifth century. The magical gadget is a doctor's (general practitioner's) black bag; story gets its title from that.

Sending side story summary.

The advanced civilization of twenty-fifth century has been doing something to make humans smarter for "twenty generations" (about the time from receiver's time to sender's?). This society comprises of mental subnormals, normals & supernormals. Subnormals have been out-breeding others. Supernormals are only a "handful".

There are 4 characters that play a role:
  1. Dr "John Hemingway, B Sc, MD" - "a general practitioner". It's his medical bag that gets sent to past.
  2. Dr "Gillis, B Sc, M Sc , Ph D", a physicist & a close friend of Dr Hemingway. He's the one who causes the bag to be sent to past. He was just demonstrating a time machine, & the "ordinary" bag just happened to be close at hand. And this time machine can only send things; it cannot recover them back! First case of sending a little time machine without a human occupant to otherwhen where it will be unrecoverable is somewhere in first two chapters of H G Wells' "The Time Machine" - as far as I'm aware.
  3. Mike - a supernormal genius with "an IQ six times that of Dr Gillis". Mike works as "a bottle washer" somewhere!!! He gave Dr Gillis "these here tube numbers and says, 'Series circuit... Build your time machine, sit down at it & turn on the switch." That's how Dr Gillis built the time machine. Of course it works. It never occurred to apparently only "normal" Dr Gillis to ask Mike for the return-trip design too.
  4. Al - either a service technician or maker of the medical bags of the kind that got sent to the past. He has a switch that can be used to remotely destroy the medical bag. In case the bag's instruments are used for bad things like someone's murder, he gets a signal from bag; bag also lets him talk to local cops - in case of such emergencies!! But normally, when a bag is lost, he leaves it on. It's magical instruments almost operate themselves; let them do some good where ever they are!
Dr Gillis gave the demonstration when some friends were chatting. When it became clear that machine only sends things one way, 'There was wholesale condemnation of "Mike"' by this group!!!

Receiving side story summary.

Recipient is old Dr Bayard Full. Once a medical practitioner, years ago ("on July 18, 1941") he was barred from practicing the profession by the "Committee on Ethics of the County Medical Society" on charges of "milking several patients suffering from trivial complaints". He's now living the life of a bum in a slum. He will find the mysterious bag in his room when he wakes up one morning after a drunken sleep.

Bag is easy to open & close - just touch the lock. It contains a lot of wonderful instruments, medications, & a rather easy to follow user's guide. Dr Full will quickly cure his old broken bones, & quickly fix up a neighbor's 3 year old girl Teresa who's badly cut herself with glass.

Only, the little girl's elder sister Angie Aquella is too smart. She quickly figures the bag is not Dr Full's. Threatens Dr Full, & makes him agree to give her 50% after selling it for hopefully $20-30. Only there is no buyer - even among those regularly dealing in stolen goods!

Dejected, they accidentally notice some writing on one of the instruments in bag: "Made in USA... Patent Applied for July 2450"!!! Without understanding how it landed here, they begin to wonder where the magic came from.

We next meet the duo - Dr Full & Angie - much later. They're now successful - thanks to magical bag, prosperous, & run a sanitarium. We learn about them via "Edna Flannery, Herald Staff Writer" - a newspaper reporter suspecting them to be quacks, but coming back convinced after her investigation that she's met super genius of a doctor - never mind what County Medical Society says.

Dr Full wants to donate the bag to the "College of Surgeons"; many people should benefit from the magical box than just the two current owners. Angie wants to make maximum profits for herself - world's welfare be dammed.

It's during one of these altercations that Angie realizes Dr Full is serious about donating. She kills Dr Full using an instrument from the bag. She will later cut up his body into many small pieces, & dispose it off using an incinerator that is part of the bag - this incinerator makes stuff vanish.

Only one little thing she missed about the bag - the built in safety features. Al got notified (in his time!) of the killing via smart bag. He informs local police (in Angie's time - presumably via bag) that someone has been murdered. And he kills the bag - instruments quickly lose their magic & rust away, medicines rot, etc.

The final scene is an accident coinciding with kill signal from future for the bag. Angie is trying to milk rich Mrs Coleman for some cosmetic surgery. Woman is scared looking at Angie's unfamiliar instruments. So Angie is demonstrating one of the instruments that can be moved through flesh & won't cut anything except programmed type of tisse. Only, by this time, bag has received the kill signal, & Angie will actually end up cutting her own throat!

Collected in.

  1. Robert Silverberg (Ed)'s "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964".

Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding Science Fiction, July 1950.
Rating: A
Winner of Retro Hugo Award 2001 in novelette category.

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