[Note: This one is for Stu Reichart, whose good example convinced me to get back to work. Use it or lose it!]

[This is G. You may have noticed there haven’t been any posts on this site since early November. That’s because we’ve been writing this thing for almost 5 years,[1] and decided to rest a bit, look at what’s been done, ponder next year’s potential crises, real or imagined, and develop some positions in advance.

Frankly, that effort failed almost from the outset.  It wasn’t easy to look at the past; we’ve had lots of opinions about lots of subjects; and, of course, there’s always the possibility that one or another of them ought to be changed. In short, the volume of material was quite large. Then, of course, there’s always the inertia that sets in over Thanksgiving and the Winter Holidays. None of us really had the energy to develop a broad-based restatement of our collective views.

So what would you do in that situation?  Well, we went to Plan B, which was to plan a series of blogs to restate or explain first principles, and then apply them to real [or imagined] situations in 2015. We all agreed to this, in principle; but in practice we had the same problem as before. Nobody wanted to come up with a detailed work plan for the year.

Now I’m supposed to be the content manager for this blog, but I’ve never seen my job as doing all the planning, and dragging the rest of these guys along to implement my ideas. That would be a lot of work, and anyway they wouldn’t cooperate. My solution, therefore, was to call for volunteers. “Who wants to be first,” I asked, “to write up something and justify it? We’ll use it unless the others vote it down.”

The first volunteer was Phil, our resident Philosopher.]

Yes I am. And the principle I advance for the group’s approval is, “Don’t be paranoid! But remember, even paranoids can be right some of the time.” I intend to prove my point by example and, because people today don’t seem to distinguish much between fiction and fact, I’ll take my example from Science Fiction.

[Oh, no! Tell me at least you’re not going to those old magazines from the early 1950’s. I’m sorry I ever lent you those copies of Galaxy Science Fiction!]

But G, those magazines were very helpful. They did thought experiments with society as it existed, and examined what would happen if changes occurred. They asked questions that no one else did, back then.

What would happen if earth’s population grew exponentially, but dumbed down in the process to the extent that there weren’t enough people left to run the infrastructure, and the whole thing began to collapse? Well, the smart folks offered the dumb ones free, all-expense paid vacations to an uninhabitable planet. Population problem solved![2] Or what would happen if we were discovered by extraterrestrials, were admitted into their society and, in the process, became so multicultural that we lost track of our own?[3] Or what happens to a consumer culture if there’s a nuclear war?[4] Nothing good, for sure. Or what happens to consumerism, and our economy, if people learn to live outside or without their bodies?[5]

[Yes, yes, I know about these stories, and they are provocative. But folks can look them up, along with your previous discussion, by following our footnotes. So are you going to repeat yourself? If so, I think we’re done.]

You know better than that. Of course I have something new. It’s a little story by Richard Matheson called Shipshape Home.[6] And it plays directly into the paranoia theme.

As I’ve said before, Matheson was an interesting guy. He made his initial impact in sci-fi, but moved on to terror and fantasy fiction early in his career. He wrote some notable early books, including I Am Legend, a story about the last man alive in a world of vampires, and The Shrinking Man, a story about a man who, well, shrank down to nothing after being exposed to nuclear radiation. But today probably most people remember him for his work in movies and TV. The two early novels were picked up for theatrical release, and later he worked with Roger Corman, the director, and wrote scripts for The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and many other series. He’s also scripted a number of independent and made-for-TV movies. According to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction[7], the dominant theme of his work is paranoia.[8]

Anyway, today’s story opens with a young couple, Ruth and Rick, discussing their new apartment. Apparently they really lucked out; they scored a 5 room place, completely furnished [with a TV, no less] at a very cheap price.[9] The only problem was that the price, maybe, was really too cheap. And the janitor was really creepy. He had eyes like Peter Lorre[10] and stared at them, from time to time, almost with anticipation.

At least, that’s what Ruth thought, and she had some agreement on that score from the neighbors, Marge and Phil. So one day Ruth went poking around the building and found engines installed near the laundry room. “Fire engines?” asked Rick. No, engines under the basement, she said. So she took Rick down to the place where she saw the engines, but guess what? There was a wall where the door to the engines had been. Then the janitor appeared; “Lose something?” he asked; and the couple beat a hasty retreat.

Rick, of course, wasn’t convinced that there was really anything there, under the building; but he was willing to keep an open mind, more or less. Then Ruth came to him and said, “The janitor has three eyes.”[11] The third eye is in the back of his head; he parts his hair so that normally you can’t see it.[12]

Rick didn’t believe that, either, but he was concerned enough to discuss the matter with his neighbor. Phil’s reaction was a surprise; he also was getting creeped out by their building, and the circumstances; and he said, if you go down to the basement again, to look for engines, ”come and get us.” Marge had said the same thing, that the janitor has three eyes.[13]

A day or so later Ruth went back to the basement, followed by Rick, and this time they found the engines, and Rick saw the janitor’s third eye. The janitor also saw them, as they fled back to their apartment. Later they talked to Phil and Marge about what had happened; Rick argued that the engines in the basement were big, and looked like the kind used to launch rockets. Conceivably engines like that could launch an entire building. So anybody with any sense should get out, as soon as possible.

Well, the two couples did that, with some difficulty,[14] They escaped their building before takeoff but found, when they looked about, that they hadn’t run far enough. The whole block was being launched. And so they catapulted into space and to an unknown, but no doubt hideous fate.

[Well, that’s a paranoid tale for sure. Mysterious forces surrounding a young couple, threats of dire but unstated consequences, and frantic efforts to escape that ultimately fail. That’s the basic plot line for lots of bad horror movies made in the last 20 years. But the characters in Shipshape Home aren’t really paranoid. To be paranoid one has to exhibit a “pervasive distrust and suspicion” of others without a sufficient basis or justification[15]. Instead, Ruth’s (and later Rick’s) worst fears proved to be all too true.]

I couldn’t agree more. Ruth and Rick weren’t paranoid; they were correct. But that’s because the author made them so. When Richard Matheson wrote this piece (or any science fiction), he had absolute control over the reality his characters faced.

But you see, in real life we can’t change reality with the stroke of a pen. Instead we have to work very hard to find out what’s really going on. Do you remember when we did that piece a while back on Erich Fromm, and his take on paranoia?[16] Fromm said that the paranoid, like the rest of us, has to face reality and interpret events. He can do that to a certain extent. But the problem with paranoid thinking is that paranoids have the same answer to practically everything. They can be right from time to time, just like the stopped clock is right twice a day; but most of the time they’re wrong.

The paranoid is at a loss in situations where there are a number of possible reasons why things happen. If he thinks everybody is out to get him, he’ll reject other, more benign explanations even though they might seem more plausible to sane people. That’s because paranoids can’t evaluate probabilities in the normal way.[17]

[I’ve heard some of this before, but there’s value in repeating it. We’re running out of time. Do you intend to pursue this line of discussion next week?]

Yes, I kind of interested in the interplay between reality, fiction and paranoia, and I have a sci-fi novel to help move the ball along.

[Yikes! A whole novel? Try to boil it down. Let’s keep these posts under 2000 words.]

I’ll try, but the subject is really interesting.

[1] The earlier blog was called Elemental Zoo. You can find those posts, about 140 of them, at http://elementalzoo.typepad.com/elemental-zoo/  The first one as dated in early January, 2010. We’ll talk about that one sometime.                                                                                                     

[2] See the blog of 03/08/2014, Marching Morons?, at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/marching-morons/

[3] See the blog of 03/14/2014, More from Galaxy, at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/more-from-galaxy/

[4] See the blog of 03/22/2014, A Third from Galaxy, at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/a-third-from-galaxy/

[5] See the blog of 06/10/2014, Kurt Vonnegut, at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/kurt-vonnegut/

[6] It’s from the July, 1952 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. We have the original here, so we’ll cite directly to it. See   07/1952 Galaxy at 85-101.

[7] This is as good a place as any to introduce you to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, a very good but somewhat opinionated reference. See Clute & Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martins, 1993) (hereafter cited as SF Encyclopedia at __). See SF Encyclopedia at Matheson, Richard (Burton), p. 786-787.  .

[8] Matheson passed away on June 23, 2013. Wikipedia has a reasonably good biography of him at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Matheson .

[9] See 07/1952 Galaxy at 87.

[10] Peter Lorre played the villain in a number of movies, both good and bad, in the 1930’s to the early 60’s. If you want to know more about him, go to Wikipedia and search Peter Lorre, or simply click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Lorre

[11] See 07/1952 Galaxy at 91.

[12] See 07/1952 Galaxy at 92.

[13] See 07/1952 Galaxy at 93.

[14] Locked doors, fire escapes and all that. See 07/1952 Galaxy at 97-100.

[15] See, e.g., Diagnostic Criteria from DSM-IV-TR (APA, 2000) at 301.0, Paranoid Personality Disorder.

[16] See the blog of 04/29/2014, Paranoid, at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/paranoid/

[17] See Fromm, May Man Prevail? (Doubleday Anchor, 1961) at p. 20. “As with every … patient, his contact with reality is exceedingly thin and brittle. Reality, for him, is mainly what exists within himself, his own emotions, fears and desires. The world outside is the mirror or the symbolic representation of his inner world.”