Tuesday, May 12, 2009

William Tenn's "Bernie the Faust" (novelette): Oh God! What kind of mess I've got into?

Quote from short story titled Bernie the Faust by William Tenn, from Playboy November 1963Stylistically similar to joint works Henry Kuttner & C L Moore, except for ending. That itself is reason enough for me to look for more Tenn; that I've'nt seen anything bad from him yet is more motivation.

Concept is based on the German legend of "Faust" (a man makes a deal with the devil); more on it later in this post. Devil here is a vastly smarter alien; but by the end of the story, both man & alien will be licked.

Story summary.

When Bernie, a wheeler dealer in New York City, is offered easy money in obviously rigged deal by a man, he cannot resist: $20 for $5! Then his "share" in
  1. "The Golden Gate Bridge", San Francisco for $125!
  2. "The Sea of Azov" in Russia + "Kerch Strait" for $390!
  3. All of earth for $2700!!
Only the seller insists on a duly notarized receipt for each transaction.

Bernie will later realize the kind of mess he'd got into - he'd given a legal door to aliens to invade earth because of some trading rights he held with UN.

Well - mistake will be eventually corrected, involving hard bargaining with the buyer. Only, Bernie will have to shell out may be twice the amount he made. This being a half century old story, that's huge money - Bernie is a very poor man post deal.

Some discussion with friends & a bit of investigating later will make Bernie realize he wasn't the only one licked; alien too is in a soup, though he probably doesn't realize it yet!

What is the "Faust"?

  1. Story makes a reference to "Marlowe's Doctor Faustus".
  2. This reference apparently is to a play titled "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" by Christopher Marlowe, available online at Project Gutenberg in two versions that I don't know how to distinguish - so I take the one posted later.
  3. Project Gutenberg text includes the following subtitle: "From The Quarto Of 1616". Apparently, Marlowe borrowed material from a work called "The Quarto" originally published in 1616?
  4. A Google search for "The Quarto" throws up references to a work of William Shakespeare. I didn't pursue it further - not sure what the relation is.
  5. Wikipedia tells us "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is a play by Christopher Marlowe, based on the Faust story, in which a man sells his soul to the devil for power and knowledge."
  6. This "Faust story" seems to have more than one variations, but all are apparently based on a German legend. Does anyone know a reference to an English text no bigger than the size of a short story that tells this legend in language comprehensible to non-Europeans with a very limited knowledge of Western literature? Thank you.

Collected in.

  1. Isaac Asimov & Martin H Greenberg (Eds)' "Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 25 (1963)" (anthology).

Fact sheet.

First published: Playboy, November 1963.
Rating: A.
Included in Ellen Datlow's Sci Fiction classics.
Related: Stories of William Tenn.


Josh said...

"Quarto" is a size of book. "From the Quarto of 1616" means that there was an edition of Marlowe's work published in a volume of that size in 1616 (twenty-five years after his death), and that's what the version you saw was copied from.

Most Westerners, I would guess, who know the Faust legend encountered it in Goethe's play or Gounod's opera version of the first part. There are pretty straightforward Wikipedia summaries of the legend.

Tinkoo said...

Thank you, Josh.

Serg Demin said...

Tanks for summary!

Great story, indeed.

Funny, what in russian tranlate "The sea of Azov" and "Kerch Strait" was changed to Eresunn Strait)

This was 1963 and SSSR censors may not like, what someone can sell this Sea of Azov ))))))))))))))))