Young People Read Old SFF

The Tunnel Under The World

Frederik Pohl

Welcome to the first installment of Young People Listen to Old SFF, an experiment to see if old science fiction and fantasy radio shows aged better than old science fiction and fantasy. Unsurprisingly, my first selection is from that classic old time SF radio show, X Minus One.

To quote from my tor dot com piece: NBC’s Dimension X (1950-1951) and X Minus One (1955-1958) shared a network, some staff and initial source material for scripts. The first fifteen scripts for X Minus One were repurposed Dimension X scripts. Although the shows began by adapting stories from Astounding, X Minus One turned to more sophisticated material from Galaxy Magazine. I prefer X Minus One over Dimension X, so I’ve snagged two episodes from the first and none from the second. As I've said before, DX had the all time best ad lib: immediately after a character in one play made an impassioned plea for world peace, the news broadcasters broke in to announce the outbreak of the Korean War.

X Minus One's adaptation of Frederik Pohl's The Tunnel Under the World may have been the show's 66th episode but it was the first one I ever listened to. I was hooked on X Minus One as soon as I heard it: let's see what the Young People think!


I liked this a lot! It reminded me of The Twilight Zone, especially since the conceit revealed at the end is one that's used in a few episodes of the TV show. The sound effects and voices were a lot of fun. I wish audiobooks of today would take some cues from old radio shows like this because maybe then I would like them. One detail that stood out to me is that it's the wife who gaslights her husband about his dream. It's so often the other way around so it was kind of funny to hear the script flipped in something from this era.


—Claire

Oh, what an innocent time 1955 must have been! A time when advertising was a blunt bludgeoning instrument, wives were incurious, and we all lived in a jar of tang.

I originally read the story in my "voracious, undiscerning reader" stage, probably as a teenager. In fact, it's been so long I'd forgotten I'd ever read it. Now, having listened to it a couple of times, I keep finding more and more holes with every repetition. There's Mary, who is completely unimpressed with her house suddenly acquiring a copper foundation. There's Miss Horn, who goes from zero to inappropriately flirtatious in the space of two sentences. There's the bus, which is somehow filled with unfamiliar faces – I guess Guy rode the out-of-town route and everyone else was outside of the blast radius.

The really disappointing thing is, Pohl was a far, *far* better writer than that. I had only looked up the written story to make sure I spelled the characters' names correctly. Imagine my surprise when I discovered just what sort of a hack job the audio adaptation was. Distinct characters condensed into one (Ms. Horn was never Burckhardt's secretary), motivations and rationales removed, plot threads left unfinished... Now that I've had the chance to compare the written and audio versions, all I can say is, I hope Pohl got paid very well for the adaptation rights.

—Dan

That was fairly enjoyable! It feels like it could have been about 2/3 as long, I don't feel like it was necessary to go through more than 2 days in order to build the tension and establish the plot.

The plot itself was nothing new, but hard to tell how much of that was it being derivative versus it being old, and it seeming derivative in the same way Lord of the Rings sometimes feels so, in that it set the precedent for the future.

—Joseph

This was my first time listening to old sci-fi radio. Immediately, I looked forward to the whole episode. I really liked it at first, thinking it was better than written short stories.

I liked the combination of music, voices, sound effects and narration. I figured it would hard to get bored. However, I found it more difficult to follow since I am a highly visual person. I very much like to physically read words, and I imagine words subtitled in my head. This is tiring, and I usually give it up when listening to podcasts, which I do every day.

Eventually I got a little bored and restless. I warmed up some leftover dinner and ate it while listening to the episode, which I imagine people at the time did not do. I have the luxury of rewinding and replaying as much as I like, whereas people at the time would have had to sit there and listen. I imagine that reception could fluctuate at the time, so people could miss bits of the story. I was afraid there would be a lot of repetition, but there wasn't too much for my taste. Fortunately, the story had some built-in repetition because of the story's plot.

Some other random thoughts:

Ah, good ol' secretarial misogyny. I haven't missed you. ... Was that a real ad for cigarettes embedded in the story? ... Sci-fi Groundhog Day is very much like Groundhog Day (take that as you will). ... Tiny humanoids on a table; did the Lego movie steal its idea from this or something like it?

Overall, this was a well-done story, though there were all-too-familiar tropes of atomic explosions, humans replaced by robots, alienation, and a 'normal,' average, middle-class white man goes about his normal day. I look forward to hearing more sci-fi radio to compare.

—Mel

Tunnel Under the World is a horror story that mixes familiar elements - waking up from a nightmare, worrying about being late for work, riding an elevator – with still impossible science fiction concepts such as transfer of consciousness. Although it starts with a cosy domestic scene, the“repeating day” theme of comedies like Groundhog Day is used to gradually introduce an ominous sense of unreality, culminating in terror and despair. In one way, it highlights the daily tedium and inescapability of our lives. But there is a darker relevance, in these days of Facebook and Google, to the evil of the advertising industry - “propagandists” and market testing.

It’s interesting to contrast these themes with some of the elements that date the story – it’s difficult to imagine cigarette advertising still being permitted in most countries. The reference to the atomic bomb and the accents of the characters place it very clearly in its decade, as do the sound effects. It obviously fails the Bechdel test, with the only women being the protagonist’s wife and secretary. And the actual science is explained fairly sketchily.

—Melissa

It was remarkable how much the theme of advertising and being able to influence people by studying them, considering the events that have been happening with Facebook and other social media lately. It could definitely be argued that we're living in the real-world equivalent of this experiment and its consequences.

I do love time loop stories. For this one, a day seems like a very short loop to be able to measure the results they claim to be measuring, but it makes sense for the length of the story. I suppose they might have had multiple different experiments going with different time lengths to account for this.

However, this story feels like an example of considering technological advance without the societal consequences that would come along with it. I found it very hard to place the setting of this story. It felt like it was more-or-less contemporary to the time in which it was written, and the science fictional elements seemed to come in from nowhere close to the end. I find it frustrating that they have miniature robots that are exact copies of dead people, that this technology seems to be a thing that's known, and society hasn't changed in any other way.

Overall, I think this story is interesting and still relevant today, but that I wish it had done more with the concepts it introduced.

—Mikayla

Comments

  • James Davis Nicoll

    That was a real cigarette ad. Other episodes have ads for Pabst Blue Ribbon and E Series Bonds.