Young People Read Old SFF

Eurema's Dam

R. A. Lafferty

Young People Read Old SFF

6 Dec, 2021

This month’s Young People Read Old Hugo Winners presented me with a dilemma. Eurema’s Dam” by R. A. Lafferty shared the 1973 Hugo for Best Short Story with The Meeting” by C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl. How to choose between two works the voters found worthy? The answer, it seems, was in having read The Meeting”, which is about commandeering a developmentally deficient child’s body so the body can house the brain of a superior child. Since I don’t actively dislike my Young People, I went with the story I didn’t remember anything about, a story that only might annoy them, rather than the story I remembered all too well and was absolutely certain would enrage them.

R. A. Lafferty was a beloved author of whimsical fantasies. My brain lacks the proper receptors and I don’t see the appeal. I am aware I am in the minority here. Perhaps my Young People will see the virtues in Laffery’s writing to which I am blind. Let’s find out! 


I have read it through a few times and I am not quite sure what to make of it. It follows an inventor who is not traditionally” intelligent nor does he have many good social skills. As he gains more fame he continues to feel more alienated. A not bad twist on the usual super smart teenage scientist that often populate science fiction.

But it then seems to extend it to some kind of strange argument that all inventors are like this and when society becomes too developed and smart invention stops and leads to collapse. This is just not even close to being true and I am not sure what to make of it.

Also, I feel like I am meant to feel sorry for Albert but I just felt cold. Possibly the sections about women all being scary did little to endear me to him. Or it might just have been the writing. Either way he certainly didn’t have the impact that Charley had on me in Flowers for Algernon.

I haven’t much liked what I have read of Lafferty before so it is possible his writing is just not for me. 


1973 was one of those throwback years for the Hugos. In the fiction categories you had wins for veterans like Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, and Fred Pohl, with the one real exception being Ursula K. Le Guin in the Best Novella category. The Meeting” and Eurema’s Dam,” in what had to be coincidental, were much older in their origins than their publication dates would indicate. The Meeting,” a black hole of a short story, was Fred Pohl expanding on an outline by Cyril M. Kornbluth that would’ve been no more recent than 1958, while Eurema’s Dam” was apparently written around 1964 and remained rejected by publishers until it got picked up for Robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions series (this was when original anthologies were going through a renaissance). I personally read it a few years back in Orson Scott Card’s Masterpieces anthology.

R. A. Lafferty is a bit of an oddball. He was certainly part of the New Wave, and he was certainly an eccentric (no doubt he projected his own perceived limitations onto Albert), but he was also a conservative, socially and politically more in line with Poul Anderson than Ursula K. Le Guin. Eurema’s Dam” itself reads like a fable, about as far as removed from reality as you can get without jumping into fantasy territory. That Albert could build machines so easily and quickly is absurd, but then it’s not meant to be taken as believable necessarily. As to why the story was well-received by voters, and why it continues to be reprinted fairly frequently, I theorize that it’s a story about SF fandom. Albert is the average SF fan, or rather how the average SF fan perceives himself, someone who might be a technical genius but who also lacks social skills or even basic intuition. Not to mention the fear of girls, naturally. Taken in this way, it’s quite romantic in how it pays tribute to fandom, maybe too romantic.

I reckon modern readers will have a hard time grappling with Eurema’s Day,” not for anything particularly outdated that it does, but because not only does it feel even older than a story published 50 years ago (it was actually written, after all, closer to 60 years ago), but because recent controversies with the Hugos and SF fandom at large have led to a sort of collective crisis of faith in recent years, a bubbling pessimism that clashes with Lafferty’s melancholy optimism. Lafferty argues rather passionately that outcasts (one of whom he was) would determine the course of history and shape the future. With Lafferty it feels sincere, but from our current perspective it could be read as more… sinister. 


I’ve asked this question before but I’ll ask it again: what is it with old OF and protagonists who are terrible human beings? The tone reminds me a lot of Or All the Seas with Oysters.” There’s a lot of well, he is stupid” when he clearly is not, but he’s very much a terrible person who is awful to everyone around him. In 1973 computers were just beginning to go mainstream, so it seems like this is the forerunner of the whole computer people are terrible with other humans but brilliant at computing” thing which is so associated with the tech industry. Except it’s rather beneath the surface in this story– while the modern take on this archetype just outright says they’re brilliant at computers which means they are secret geniuses so you must put up with them,” this take on it seems to be coming around at it from the back by treating the lack of social skills as a flaw while still ignoring the murdering of a girl as a problem.

I could also look at it from a perspective of neurodivergence, because I actually know a number of people who have the whole bad at social skills and book learning but also brilliant inventors” thing who aren’t terrible people– this is definitely playing off the beliefs at the time about what neurodivergence did to you, and there’s a strong sense of superiority baked into it, a sense of AH you laugh at me and call me stupid but really I am the superior being” that still exists among a certain segment of the neurodivergent community. Like, the problem with this story is not that he doesn’t live up to social skills standards, it’s the combination of mechanical intelligence isn’t intelligence” and the attitude that invention is only possible when you’re alienated… and in a broader form than this specific story, that attitude has a lot to answer for in the ways it’s damaged the art community over the years.


I was annoyed by this story from the first paragraph onward, and it didn’t get any better as the story progressed. The fact that the narrator constantly reminded us about how stupid” the main character was, despite also pointing out all the inventions he was creating that clearly showed otherwise. The main Albert was clearly being portrayed as neurodivergent, and the things he invented to assist him ended up helping many people, but all we ever heard was how unintelligent and useless he was. I want to hope this was an attempt to discuss ableism, and how society perceives intelligence, but I really don’t think it succeeded, if that was what it was attempting.

I think the story wanted me to feel sorry for Albert, and I was ready to be on his side until his misogyny became a driving force for the plot. Alice should not have treated him like that, but him murdering her in response to rejection is barely even acknowledged within the story. I feel like this story is really leaning into the idea that genius inventors are awful and everyone needs to tolerate their behaviour or else how will society progress, which is used far too much now to justify harassment.

I can see a lot of real-life sources for the issues present in this story, but I don’t think it does anything interesting or worthwhile with them.