Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Common Man by Mack Reynolds

Hover cars are not enough
The Common Man is a science fiction novella written by Mack Reynolds. It was originally published in the January 1963 issue of Analog Science Fiction–Science Fact under the pseudonym of Guy McCord. Reynolds was a prolific sci-fi author who published dozens of novels and at least a hundred short stories under several pen names from the early 1950s until his death in 1983. I have read about a dozen of his shorter works and have found them to range widely in quality from works of bold genius to the merely mediocre. The Common Man, unfortunately, falls into the latter category.

The story opens with three scientists knocking at the door of an unassuming middle-class home in the Midwest. When the homeowner answers the door, the visitors inform him that detailed statistical analysis has determined that he, Don Crowley, is officially the perfectly average American. That in itself, however, is not the reason for their visit. They tell him that they require a specimen of his utter averageness to act as the subject of an experiment. They are testing a formula that endows the recipient with a certain superhuman power, and they need to gauge whether it will work on the typical American man. After some coaxing, Crowley agrees to be their guinea pig.

This story takes place at some point in the future. We know that because Reynolds mentions hover cars. Other than that, however, the setting is no different than the world in which we live. This is not the only story in which Reynolds inserts a flying car into an otherwise nonfuturistic tale. It seems as if he was required to do this in order to get his stories published in science fiction magazines, because, in fact, a lot of his stories are barely science fiction. Often, they are just expressions of his political or sociological opinions, but the presence of hover cars conveniently makes them sci-fi. In this story, the science of the experiment factors very little into the narrative. It is soon revealed that the scientists are not seeking to find out whether the formula will work on Crowley; they already know it will. What they really want to know is how he will behave once he is endowed with the superpower. What sort of ethical choices will he make? The study is psychological, not physical. Instead of a guinea pig, Crowley is more of a rat in a maze.

This comical premise is funny at first, but it devolves into kind of a dumb gangster story. Reynolds offers his commentary on human nature, but it comes across as both preachy and half-baked. His most biting and cynical satire is expressed in the personal qualities of Crowley as a representative of “the common man”: a high school drop-out education, gullibility, bigotry, sexism, poor morals—in general, a complete lack of sophistication and civility. Later in the story, Reynolds backs off from this scathing criticism by introducing a plot element that negates much of what came before. This revelation is intended to be a surprise twist, but if feels more like a cop out.

You just never know what you’re going to get when you dive into a Mack Reynolds story. I won’t tell you not to read his work, but I do recommend that you don’t read this one. So far the best writings of his that I’ve read are the novella Adaptation and the short stories “The Business, As Usual,” “Gun for Hire,” and “Compounded Interest.”
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