“The Horn of Plenty” (short story) by Vladimir Grigoriev
English Publication History: Galaxy Magazine (December 1969), The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970), Fantasy: Shapes of Thinks Unknown (Scott Foresman and Company, 1974)
Original: Russian (Рог изобилия), 1964
Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1969
Synopsis: Stepan Onufrievich Ogurtsov was a simple handyman with electronics and an amateur inventor before being inspired by the rusted sign at a scrap dealer. He turns the rusted horn of dereliction into a beneficial horn of giving—when he inputs refuse, the horn of plenty, in return, gives random tidings of prosperity: left-footed shoes, a bicycle, woolen socks, etc. As a feature, it can also reverse its function. At a public exhibition, the notorious naysayer Parovozovs gets sucked into the horn, along with its creator.
Analysis: This story reminds me of the proverb, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, which has a Russian equivalent that means, “Don’t look at the teeth of a horse you’ve been given”. Both descend from the 400 A.D. Latin version that means, “Never inspect the teeth of a given horse.” Regardless of which language you use as the proverb, the meaning is the same: don’t be ungrateful for a gift.
From this story, the spin on this proverb is that the gift is the man’s own creation; he was inspired to build it, actually built it, and attempted to patent it, yet he doesn’t exactly understand how it works. Regardless of his ignorance, he pushes through with his own rudimentary testing followed by a public showing. His pride rests in what his machine is capable of doing: it can turn rubbish or scarp into useful items; however, it can also turn the same useful items back into scrap—thus, it can renormalize material.
Perhaps the same pride blinds him as he doesn’t realize the senselessness of his enigmatic machine; by “senseless”, this is in the perspective of a communist, or anti-capitalist. When the machine produces, it seems to have no control over what it produces, so there is no demand for any of the items nor is it any part of the State’s central planning—i.e. The Plan. If there is no demand (by “consumers” or the planners) or use for the item, it is, by definition, useless; in turn, the machine itself is useless.
Further, in his pride and eagerness, he also doesn’t realize the limits of his machine. Certainly, it can produce samovars and bicycles and boots at random, but it can also reconstitute the original rubbish from the finished product—all but rubbish by definition. Only items what the machine had created were thrown back in, but no new items—items that hadn’t been created by the machine—had been reversed through.
These tangible items definitely have a source from natural resources, but what is the source of an intangible object, or an abstract idea: i.e. government, pessimism, or logic. Can these, too, be broken down into constituent parts and thrown back out again?
Review: This is a quirky story very much like something from Sheckley, van Vogt, Harrison, Simak, or Leiber. It’ll put a smile on your face as you question just where the author is leading the story, the reader—this is the first iota of imagination you must use. The second iota: The machine’s physical properties and inner workings are vague enough to compel you imagine. Lastly, the third iota, is in the conclusion: The conclusion is also vague, one tangent of thought of which included in the analysis. It’s a tight, clever story without any adornments.