Preliminary Research – Ilya Varshavsky

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“Preliminary Research” (short story) by Ilya Varshavsky

English Publication History: The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970)

Original: Russian (Предварительные изыскания), 1965

Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1970

Synopsis: Enticed by a lucrative job offer, Dr. Rong leaves his biochemistry research position. For something entirely vague, he’ll earn three times his normal salary simply by thinking creatively by whatever means possible. His supervisor—Mr. Latianic—says he’s allowed to imbibe in alcohol or drugs such as heroin—like his female colleague Noda Storn—as long as he offers up creative scientific ideas. Prosperous ides begin to form in his head and the computer accepts each absurd one, but for what nefarious reason would this kind of program exist? 

Analysis: Function, beauty, and originality rarely converge. Take a sphere: it’s quite beautiful yet hardly original, nor is it exactly a useful form—like a panda. Next, take the first bicycle: it’s ugly and not terribly useful, but you have to admit it was original—like a platypus. Lastly, take a rubber band: it’s super useful but there are many like it in exactly the same shape—like an ant.

The field of science is where the three do tend to converge, however; to name a few: buckminsterfullerene, supernovae, and the human eye. Regardless of the rare trifecta of design, the field of science also leans towards functionality rather than design; therefore, a scientist’s logic is held in much higher regard than their aesthetic balance or overall originality. If either of the latter follow suit, it’d merely be a consequential bonus.

Q: Take the logic out of scientists and what would you have left?

A: Idling minds bent on finding order where none is to be found.

As Dr. Rong idles without his demanding work, his mind begins to stray with such thoughts as, “[P]erhaps all this abracadabra [of cabalistic symbols in White and black Magic] was only a coded expression of certain logical concepts” (191), a thought of which the computer quickly gobbled up. Another from his heroin-addicted colleague: “[I]f blood contained chlorophyll in addition to hemoglobin, then, given a transparent skin, metabolism within the organism could take place in a closed cycle” (195), another idea of which the computer consumed greedily.

Who could possibly want to harvest such modes of thought? What wicked motivation could they be following? The answer is closer to your nose than it may seem.

Review: What begins as a mystery and a bit of a thriller turns, abruptly, at the end into a much more whimsical story, an ending of which would better match a 4- or 5-page short, short story rather than the 18-page length here. It cleverly takes you along page for page, leaving morsels of hints for you to follow, teasing and enticing you, only to have it remove its glove and slap you in the face, thus provoking a profound “aha!” It’s clever and fun with a unique ending that’ll get the best of you, leaving a smile on your face while nodding your head in satisfaction. Akin to R.A. Lafferty; not very Soviet at all!

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