“Six Matches” (short story) by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
English Publication History: The Heart of the Serpent (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), More Soviet Science Fiction (Collier Books, 1962)
Original: Russian (Шесть спичек), 1959
Translated by R. Prokofieva, 1961
Synopsis: With the arrival of a neutron beam generator, the chief of the physics laboratory of the Central Brain Institute—Andrei Komlin—eagerly begins his experiments behind closed doors. After a few months, only Komlin’s assistant knows of the various experiments as he has participated in and been subject to a few of them; meanwhile, the Director is left clueless. A series of accidents and bizarre incidences raise eyebrows, but only when Komlin is left catatonic does investigation begin on his brain experiments and sacrifice.
Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #39:
Engineers and technical workers! Rationalizers and inventors! Actively struggle to hasten scientific-technical progress!
Analysis: Progress—and eventual defeat of Nature—is conducted by the means of Scientific Method: question > research > hypothesis > experiment > analyze > report. This is the rational way to investigate the pattern and mysteries of Nature and should not be given detour. Rationalizers—as mentioned in the propaganda quote above—should be active in their pursuit of progress, but not reckless. In “Six Matches”, the scientists involved in the neutron beam experiments are reckless as they treat the tried-and-true Scientific Method dismissively: “They are trying to take a short cut to the Truth, to victory over Nature. But too often they pay with their lives” (181).
Both Capitalists and Communists respect the Scientific Method; however, both somehow romanticize those rogues who take the occasional shortcut in favor of making that big breakthrough; for example: Jonas Salk with the polio vaccine and Sir Humphrey Davy with nitrous oxide. When these self-inflicted tests are a success, the scientists are heralded as brave souls in fight against ignorance, yet when these tests fail, the scientists are mocked as ignorant. Ingenuity—not sacrifice—is the fuel that drives progress.
[T]his was a wonderful age … Wonderful people too, these Communists of the fourth generation. Like their predecessors, they forged boldly ahead with little thought of themselves, from year to year advancing more and more daringly into the unknown. It required tremendous efforts to channel this vast ocean of enthusiasm so as to use it with maximum effect. Mankind’s victory over Nature must be won through the medium of ingenious machines and devices and precision instruments, not by sacrificing lives of its finest representatives. And not only because those who live today can accomplish far more than those who died yesterday, but also because Man is the most precious thing on Earth. (182)
When the efforts of the self-sacrificing scientist begin to encroach upon the taboo fields of pseudoscience, they further lose credibility as a so-called scientist, one who holds sacred the Scientific Method; therein, they should no longer be labeled as such, rather perhaps as pseudo-scientists, the ultimate downfall for any respected scientist.
The story penetrates the tacit ethos of scientists everywhere and the responsibility of even the Communists to abide by the Scientific Method. While heroism and sacrifice in war is much lauded, commended, and awarded, the same heroism and sacrifice is greatly frowned upon.
Review: This story follows the mad scientist rut quite predictably with additional aspects of the paranormal. How neutron beams affect the brain to produce telekinesis isn’t explained even remotely, it’s just left as is. The curious effect of the experiments is that the telekinesis is unidirectional—push—but resists any other movement—lift. The title “Six Matches” comes from Komlin’s experiment of trying to lift the said objects with his mind. Aside from showing the rationalization of Communist scientists, the government mocking the sacrifice of the mad scientist, and the bizarre effects of the same mad scientist’s experiments, there’s very little here to capture the reader.