Twinkle, twinkle little bat!

How I wonder what you’re at!

Up above the world you fly!

Like a teatray in the sky!

Lewis Carroll[1]

[This is Larry. G’s out. After the last piece, on the Marching Morons, he just disappeared without a word. He did leave some travel brochures scattered about his desk, for Florida, Fiji, Rio and so forth. But I’m pretty sure he didn’t go to any of those places, otherwise he would have taken the brochures with him. Or maybe he just had newer ones, and left the old ones behind; I don’t know. But in any case the blog must go on, and I’ve volunteered to edit it for a bit in G’s absence. Phil’s up this week, with another example of satire, as practiced in the old Galaxy Science Fiction magazine.

By the way, what was so controversial about last week’s blog? Frankly, I haven’t had time to read it.]

That’s OK, Larry. Don’t worry about it. Everybody tells me that. In fact, I have a question. Why do people call to tell us they’ve received a blog, but haven’t read it? Do they do that to everybody who writes something they don’t read? Imagine if they called an author every time they didn’t read something he (or she) wrote. Why, the phone companies would get rich! Or are the callers just trying to maintain plausible deniability, to stay out of trouble? But trouble from whom? Who has an opinion so important that people can’t read something that disagrees with it?  Who has that kind of authority? Where’s the list of things that cannot be questioned?

[Treat it as a conundrum, Phil, and get on with your talk. We don’t have all day.]

Fine, I can do that. The story I want to discuss today is The Tea Tray in the Sky[2], by Evelyn E. Smith. As far as I can determine it was her first published story in Galaxy or anywhere else.[3] Nevertheless, she spotted a trend that others didn’t, and still don’t, and one perhaps that is with us even more today than before. But before I get into that, let’s talk about the title of the piece. What in the world is a tea tray “in the sky?”

The quote at the beginning of this piece is from Lewis Carroll, who was doing a parody of a well-known nursery rhyme, you know, the one that starts with “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” and ends with “like a diamond in the sky!”[4] While there were many other parodies of “twinkle, twinkle,”[5]Carroll’s is the only one I know of that substituted bats for stars and airborne tea trays for diamonds.

So what was Evelyn E. Smith getting at with that title? Well, of course, the original rhyme was about stars; every night they wheel around the sky in a measured and orderly way; on a good night they actually can look a bit like diamonds. Lewis Carroll’s ditty is about bats; they careen about in no identifiable pattern, and certainly don’t sparkle. They look more like dark smudges, or, on a good night, you don’t see them at all. So when she called her story “Tea Tray in the Sky,” she was really hinting that it was about chaos and perhaps a bit of ugliness, not about order and pretty things

Why ugliness? Well, that’s a speculation on my part. Back in Lewis Carroll’s day it was very insulting to call an artist a “tea tray painter.” I’m not quite sure why, but we have a good example in the footnote.[6] If you’re that kind of painter, you have no sense of color and probably a lot of other bad habits as well; you’re certainly not fit for polite company.

[I get your drift. A “tea tray” future is not necessarily a happy one. But what are the specifics? Our readers need the gory details.]

Well, it seems that in the not-so-distant future our planet joins with many others in a union called, wait for it, the United Universe. By the time of Tea Tray the UU has been around for 500 years, and there have been no internal wars or revolutions. Why? Well because the founders, called the Wise Ones, recognized that “wars arose from not understanding one’s fellows, not sympathizing with them.” So they decided “every nation, every planet, every solar system” in the union should follow the same laws, etc. The same rule book would apply to everybody, so everybody would know their rights and duties, and there would be no misunderstandings.[7]

[How in the world (or “worlds”) could any group do that? How could they write a single legal code for a multitude of races, cultures and even species? It would be really difficult to do in a static environment; think of the turmoil if they add new members! There would be endless lobbying and negotiations.]

Actually it can be done quite easily, if one takes the right approach. The United Universe recognized only one crime, that of “injuring a fellow creature by word or deed.”[8]So the union set up a system of “universal kinship,” under which “all the customs and all the tabus [today, taboos] of all the planets [would be] the law on all the other planets.”[9] They didn’t have to make any new rules; all they had to do was incorporate everything that existed elsewhere in all local codes.

[Couldn’t that get, well, a bit complicated? In the story, how many planets are in the United Universe?]

Apparently lots and a new one was added during the narrative.[10] So there were complications; so many that some people lived in special reservations on earth and other planets, to isolate themselves from the demands of modern society. The author used a person like this to illustrate some of the problems of living in the multi-multicultural outside world. On a trip outside, to “civilization,” this hapless fellow learned:

  • He couldn’t turn off commercials in public or private spaces, because it would “violate the spirit of free enterprise,” and might hurt the advertiser’s feelings, thereby causing him “ego injury.”[11] This is a running joke throughout the story, with lots of interruptions by tasteless, unintelligible or simply obnoxious commercials.
  • He had to wear gloves in public, because that was required on Electra (wherever that is);[12] but they couldn’t be yellow, because that’s the color of death on Saturn.[13]
  • Similarly, he had to wear a hat, because it’s immodest to go bare-headed in Zosma (a new member of the Union).[14]
  • He couldn’t ask for directions to a restaurant because, on certain planets, it was immoral to speak publicly about eating.[15]
  • He couldn’t take a walk for recreation, because on some planets it was forbidden to walk more than 200 yards in any one direction[16]; therefore, everybody everywhere had to take a cab.
  • The words hotel and lodging were no longer used in polite society, because they implied one was looking for sex. Instead one traveled with a family, as aliens did, or hired one if a personal family wasn’t available.[17]
  • He couldn’t talk about history in public, because some species were fast developers, didn’t have a history, and were offended when reminded of that.[18]
  • The Empire State Building had been converted to a giant lavatory for all races and species.[19] Everybody went there but people didn’t talk about it.
  • He couldn’t get married, because “exclusive possession of a member of the opposite sex” is forbidden in some places, and therefore everywhere. Also, it would be wrong to frustrate others who might want to have sex with his intended by denying them access to her.[20]

That last one was too much so he, the visitor, went back to the reservation.

[OK, I think I’m getting the general drift. This is a satire, so the author decided to show what might happen if trends continuing at the time were carried too far. So perhaps her basic point was, while it’s good to understand and appreciate other cultures, it’s not healthy to adopt their values simply because they’re different. We should think carefully before we do that kind of thing. The other guy is not always right,]

It’s not that simple. The purpose of the society outlined in Tea Tray is to avoid conflict. It’s not really concerned with the “right” and the “wrong” of particular values; it simply wants everyone to agree on a set. When there’s agreement, the parties have no basis to go to war.

[I agree that’s a premise of the story, but I don’t think it’s correct. Our history is full of wars between nations who professed to believe in the same sorts of things. For example, Christians fought among themselves for centuries during the Renaissance and after the Reformation. The struggles were more about power than anything else, and in that the warring parties seemed to agree: Power was a good thing to have.]

Let’s not over-generalize. There are lots of opinions about why those conflicts occurred and who was at fault. I’m just saying that the author’s on to something when she says we need to be more respectful of other cultures and sympathetic to their views.

[Perhaps, but she’s also doing a parody of that position. Let me leave you with a question. Suppose you’re at a cocktail party, and a raging narcissist walks in the door. He stomps over to you with fire in his eye, and yells that he wants your spouse. You have no right to deny him, he says, because one person should not own another, and in any case your denial would hurt his ego. And your spouse has no right to deny him, either. His/her refusal also would damage the narcissist’s delicate ego. In that situation would you (a) punch him in the nose, (b) tell him to go away, or (c) call the police?]

Your options are all male stereotypes. How narrow-minded! But I do get your point. This guy won’t go away unless he’s neutralized or gets what he wants. I guess I’d dither quite a bit, then ask my spouse to call the police.


[1] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition, 2003) (henceforth, ODQ at __) at Lewis Carroll, p. 194, n. 10. Lewis Carroll was the penname for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who the ODQ describes simply as an “English writer and logician.”

[2] This story was first published in the September, 1952 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction at p. 100-116. We have that issue on file here at the Zoo, so it’s our source for this piece. We’ll cite it as 09/1952 Galaxy at __)

[3] For more about the author, see Clute & Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martins, 1993) (hereafter cited as SF Encyclopedia at __) at Smith, Evelyn E., p. 1124. See also SF Encyclopedia at Women SF Writers, p. 1344-1345.

[4] This is the version I remember as a child. It’s earlier than Lewis Carroll’s, and came from Ann and Jane Taylor, who also wrote children’s stories. See ODQ at Ann Taylor, Jane Taylor, p. 774, n. 16. It goes:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,

How I wonder what you are!

Up above the world so high,

Like a diamond in the sky!

[5] See, for example, a couple listed in Rees, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2006) at Anonymous, p. 32, n. 3. One begins with “Starkle, starkle little twink,” the other with “Scintillate, scintillate globule vivific.”

[6] See ODQ at Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, p, 124, n. 9. “To the Grafton Gallery to look at … the Post-Impressionist pictures sent over from Paris … The drawing is on the level of that of an untaught child of seven or eight years old, the sense of colour that of a tea-tray painter, the method that of a schoolboy who wipes his fingers on a slate after spitting on them … These are not works of art at all, unless throwing a handful of mud may be called one. They are the works of idleness and impotent stupidity, a pornographic show.” Now there’s a denunciation!

[7] See 09/1952 Galaxy at p. 102.

[8] See 09/1952 Galaxy at p. 102.

[9] See 09/1952 Galaxy at p. 102.

[10] See, e.g., 09/1952 Galaxy at p. 106.

[11] See 09/1952 Galaxy at p. 103.

[12] See 09/1952 Galaxy at p. 103.

[13] See 09/1952 Galaxy at p. 104.

[14] See 09/1952 Galaxy at p. 105.

[15] See 09/1952 Galaxy at p. 106.

[16] See 09/1952 Galaxy at p. 108.

[17] See 09/1952 Galaxy at p. 109.

[18] See 09/1952 Galaxy at p. 110.

[19] See 09/1952 Galaxy at p. 111.

[20] See 09/1952 Galaxy at p. 112, 113.