Mimsy were my memories

I think I first discovered “Lewis Padgett“‘s “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” at the age of eight or so, in a hardbound grey volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. I on my grandmother’s shelf.

As I remember it – and memory is all I’ve got, now that the lawyers have had at the versions once freely available online – it’s an elegantly creepy story about a box of educational child’s toys that are sent backward in time from the far future, to wash up on a creekbed in Smalltown, U.S.A. circa 1940. Where, of course, they are discovered by local kids who at once set about absorbing lessons in transdimensional “x logic” from them, with predictably hair-raising results.

Like the children in Clarke’s later Childhood’s End, it’s the youngest who disappear into the manifold first, their as-yet unstructured brains far better able to adapt to the alien concepts being fed to them. I still have a vivid sense of how well the story conveys the parents’ helplessness and desperation, as they watch their baby daughter Emma disappear irretrievably into some curled-up dimension inaccessible to their docilized adult minds.

The story never once failed to send a shiver up my spine. Its dense rush of ideas – that there were such things as non-Euclidean geometries and non-observable dimensions, that there was a strict mathematical logic encoded in Lewis Carroll’s work, that evolution wasn’t over – supplied a kick I foolishly believed (and continued to believe for many years) that I would routinely find in science fiction. Even the way “x logic” sat on the page terrified me. Must’ve been the italics.

And now, well. I haven’t seen it yet, but do they have to dumb everything down? Why, for example, was it necessary to change the contents of the box from “Jabberwocky” to a cyborganic pet “mimzy,” and, in so doing, apparently eliminate anything that might have sent inquisitive kids back to the truly mind-blowing Lewis Carroll? No, don’t tell me. I know the answer, and it depresses me too much to think about.

In fact, all I can offer you by way of argument for the original’s superiority is this heavily-branded excerpt, which is in itself disheartening. (And that’s without even considering the idea that Carroll, with his known pedophile tendencies and so on, is probably too hot to handle in the charged, knives-out milieu of contemporary education.)

Looky here: if I believed for the space of a heartbeat that this film version would enlarge its viewers’ worlds (and minds) the way “Mimsy” did mine, I’d be its strongest advocate. But I just don’t see it happening.

5 responses to “Mimsy were my memories”

  1. millytoast says :

    Thank you for drawing my attention to this. How can I get to read a copy of the original though I wonder. i am presuming this is out of print?

  2. six says :

    Nope; it’s collected in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol. 1 (1929-1964), ed. Silverberg, published 2003. Paperback was published in 2005; Amazon link here.

  3. mikepop says :

    I was initially excited to hear about this movie since I also have hazy yet fond memories of the story (especially the scene where you describe, where the youngest pops out for an transdimensional bungee jump.. After seeing the trailer, I am similarly wary. I’ll report back if I end up seeing the movie.

  4. Vidiot says :

    I bought a used copy of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. I when I was twelve or so, and must have read it several hundred times. If I remember correctly, it also had “Nightfall”, “Micocosmic God”, “Flowers for Algernon”, and “The Country of the Kind.” Good stuff…but it was a letdown to read other SF and realize how crummy 90% of it was.

  5. speedbird says :

    Right? Right? Like, I think it also had “The Nine Billion Names of God,” and how’s that for a final sentence to ice your spine?

    Truly, I weep for kids today when I slouch through the SF section at the Borders downstairs. A, a good 75% of it isn’t SF at all, but fantasy of just about the most reactionary sort. (Well, maybe not “most” reactionary. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Conan volume on the shelf. But you know what I mean.)

    B, the actual science fiction on offer seems to be predominantly composed of wack-ass, played-out, third-order cyberpunk, with the usual mega-boobed “street samurai” grrrls splayed across the cover. And that’s not even counting all the series pap, all the sadasstic umpeenth retreads of Li’l Kirk and L’il Spock Meet The Zombiebots of Calabi-Yau XI. By contrast, the SF shelves of my childhood were places where Phil Dick, Samuel Delaney, J.G. Ballard, Ursula LeGuin, John Brunner easily outnumbered the garbage – which has, admittedly, ever been with us.

    You know what almost made me weep about that excerpt from the original “Mimsy”? The kid was carrying a pocket knife. It was part of his routine, part of his kit, part of the way he interrogated his daily world. He hadn’t had it confiscated at the school metal detector, or adduced as evidence of gang activity or ADD. He was able to pry into the alien box of wonders because he was appropriately equipped.

    And not to beat y’all over the head with the metaphor, but that good good SF was my pocket knife, and I wouldn’t have been able to probe the world in quite the same way without it. And they just don’t seem to issue suchlike to kids anymore. Not even in Vice City.

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