“The Ban” (short story) by Dmitri Bilenkin
English Publication History: The Uncertainty Principle (Macmillan, 1978)
Original: Russian (Запрет), 1968
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, 1978
Synopsis: Stigs is a theoretical physicist who has just published an enlightening article in a journal, but the implication of which he is keen to explore further: left-spiraling photons; however, the research fund head scoffs at the idea and it’s been a dead-end of research for years and for many bright minds. Convinced of the accuracy of his speculation, Stigs suggests that he himself get the approval of the well-know physicist named Gordon. As Gordon begins to pen the formula for why left-spiraling photons are impossible, an epiphany occurs, for better or worse.
Analysis: Naturally, as a science fiction aficionado, I’m fan of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy novel and series. When the movie was released, it was pretty damn good. It’s chock full of great one-liners, just as the book and series are. One of my favorites is from Marvin, the Paranoid Android: “This will all end in tears. I just know it.” Consider that he’s “fifty thousand times more intelligent” than humans, one could understand his depression. The better one understands the universe like Marvin, the better one can predict its outcome; similarly, the better you a situation, the more likely your prediction of its outcome will be… not that you’re as intelligent or depressed as Marvin, you just grasp the whole of it pretty well.
Stigs, with his wondrous theory, can see the end result: possible time travel. The research fund head, however, sees another result: the lose of years of manpower. Gordon is not only a wondrous mind, but also a wild card; after consulting with Gordon, Stigs will need to choose his path of either possible fame through discovery or defamation through the Sisyphean task of chasing after ghosts: just when you thing you see one, it disappears. The final truth, however, is just a slippery as the awkward start, so Stigs finds out.
Review: Re-reading this a second time, the initial kick that had eluded me came around full swing; the aha moment was experienced. It, too, is a short nine-page story that builds the conviction of Stigs quite well and sets up the twist really well. The conclusion, too, has a nice ring of humanity to it. Thus far, five stories in to the eighteen-story collection, Bilenkin shows himself to be a clever writer of short stories, ones which snag the reader by luring them into the trap that he had laid, the snap of which is ever so simple yet pleasing.