Sunday, 16 June 2013

The 4-Sided Triangle by William F Temple

First published in Amazing Stories, November 1939.

This story asks one of the most fundamental questions of SF – what is a real person? Given you have two exactly identical versions of a thing or person, which is the ‘real thing’? More importantly, does the issue of a real thing make any sense in that context? It’s one of the great themes of SF that takes the genre away from mere technological futurism or social satire, and into the realm of philosophy.

This story’s a neat take on a sci fi perennial, but it emphasises for me how SF is so often just a re-statement of old ideas in a new context.

Will, Bill and Joan are co-inventors of a duplication process that they’ve put to work creating exact copies of great artworks ‘for distribution and sale at quite reasonable prices’. I think Temple rather misunderstands what fine art’s all about:
Families of only moderate means found it pleasing to have a Constable and Turner in the dining room and a Rodin statuette in the hall. And this widely flung ownership of objets d’art, which were to all intents and purposes the genuine articles, strengthened interest in art enormously.
There’s a huge assumption about ‘genuine’ here that doesn’t seem to be questioned in relation to artworks, but which forms the basis of the story’s philosophical dilemma.

Anyway, the three chums finally get bored with the turning out fake art:
‘Look here,’ went on Bill, ‘I don’t know what you two think but I’m fed up! We’ve become nothing but dull business people now. It isn;t our sort of life. Repetitions, repetition, repetition! I’m going going crazy! We’re research workers, not darned piece workers. For Heaven’s sake, let’s start out some new line.’
The new line Bill proposes is the pursuit of duplicating a living being. Just at this moment, though, Will announces that he and Joan are going to get married. As the title of the story hints, there’s been a bit of an unstated love trinagle between Will and Bill and Joan – both have an eye for her, but she has yet to express a preference. When Will announces their engagement, and Bill that he’s left it too late to say anything and his poor heart breaks.

At this point, I think we can all see which way the story’s going.

Temple pursues a particular way through it, but manages to avoid making a final judgement on which version of Joan is the real one thanks to the vagaries of the plot. He does raise the central questions quite eloquently, though and contrives events to shine a light on some of the more intractable conundrums.

This is the earliest example of this problem I’ve seen, although it has its roots in gothic tales of the doppelgänger. Philip K Dick famously pursued it over numerous stories and novels, and when I first encountered it – in We Can Build You – it blew my mind! Greg Egan’s short stories and novels have takes the ideas further – and similarly blown my mind – and it’s a favourite theme of the cyberpunks and later authors, with their AIs and uploaded minds and artificial realities.

It’s been a big feature of my own fiction over the years, too, in particular my story Looking out For Number One, which was published in Abyss & Apex Magazine in 2007 and my third-place-equal winning story Original Mike’s Coffee Shop. Even when I’m banging on about my other favourite topic – celebrity culture – the plots seem to boil down to some variation of these (although in my mind they’re related ideas, a subject for another day).

There’s another underlying theme here, though, that I quite liked. Bill produces a perfect copy of Joan and marries here (creepily, they all call this version ‘Doll’) but rather deliciously the copy, like the original, prefers Will. It’s obvious, of course: what else would you expect? It does say something about Bill though, and perhaps the reader (or this reader, at least) that this totally natural consequence comes as a surprise.

Maybe it’s a little prim by today’s standards – Will never seems to entertain some of the naughtier ideas that crossed my mind when Doll’s emotions came clear – and a rather over-wrought and melodramatic prose style by today’s standard. I’m sure however, that when this old saw comes around again, contemporary irony and cynicism will seem as old hat as this story’s prim buttoned-up mood.

Themes: what is an individual? science as business, love’s young dream, tragedy, lost technology.

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