Tom Williams


"No science fiction!"

One of my biggest mistakes as a creative writing instructor was asserting the prohibition above. Along with "no westerns, no vampires, no historical romances or fantasy stories," my syllabi, I felt confident, established the notion that students first learn the basics of storytelling before getting lost in the trappings of genre. Yet in every class I taught with such a syllabus a student made it her or his sole aim to show me the story that proved quote unquote genre fiction could rise to the level of the kind I championed: Faulkner, O'Connor, Morrison, Roth. I can't remember any of my students' choices doing anything but tiring me. All the Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein and their imitators just seemed inferior. But then I discovered Charles Johnson's "Popper's Disease."

It's not surprising, if you know Charles Johnson and his work, that he'd be willing to give a science fiction a go. His novels, Faith and the Good Thing, Oxherding Tale, the National Book Award winning Middle Passage, and Dreamer, all show a writer equally at ease with entertaining and enlightening, one capable of plots as deeply page-turning as they are densely philosophical. (His PhD from Stony Brook in the aforementioned discipline might be why). As well, "Popper's Disease" is part of a collection, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, that seems built on the premise that a short story collection should demonstrate the writer's range and dexterity (see John Gardner's The King's Indian, Reginald McKnight's Moustapha's Eclipse or Angela Carter's A Company of Wolves). A veritable primer on the various forms the short story can assume, The Sorcerer's Apprentice also features the much-anthologized fable, "Menagerie," a second person story, "Moving Pictures," and a story in dialect "Exchange Value," that rivals Hurston or Twain. When I first read "Popper's Disease," I told myself it had to be a parody, Johnson showing through his marvelous comedic sense the inevitable failings of the sci-fi genre. For starters, his narrator is African American, himself made alien for a number of reasons: he is a doctor living in Southern Illinois (a favored setting for the native Illinoisan, Johnson), married to a white woman (a Swede, no less), and, out on, of all things, a house call, when the story begins—a fact the narrator, Dr. Henry Popper, seems to take as great pains to establish the likelihood of as the entry into his world of an alien craft. Ha, I remember saying to myself, fiction snob that I was, obviously Johnson's up to something here.

But while parody is certainly at play in "Popper's Disease," it's not of science fiction. Chuck had to tell me where the parody is (one of my most treasured emails is the one in which the man I'd been calling Dr. Johnson told me "all my friends call me Chuck"); it's in the most realistic and easy going part of the story, the beginning, a genial echo of Kafka's "The Country Doctor."  What's more, when you get to the undeniably sci-fi turn of the story—a craft shaped like "two pie plates stuck together" (131)—it seems Johnson's almost faithful to the conventions of the genre.

For what follows—and I feel compelled to shout "Read it" instead of essaying further—can be read as an earthling's encounter with an alien. There is the description of the fascinating ship, the space creature and the technology mere mortals can scarcely comprehend. Mark this, though:  at no point does the language do anything but sizzle and crackle and require us lesser beings to keep an unabridged dictionary and encyclopedia handy; the prose is always in the service of the story but as worthy of the cost of admission as the plot. In many ways, this is what I find with all of Johnson's fiction: It requires you to engage word by word, line by line, only to become so charmed by the narrative's bends  that you race to the very last page. Yet in "Popper's Disease," you almost have to pause, just to catch your breath. I've never seen a spaceship interior, even on the big screen, as jaw-dropping as his. And in just a few lines he characterizes the alien's home in a way that makes me want for nothing but to live there. Johnson nimbly gets us through the story's three parts, endowing his astonishing narrator—as dazzling a feat as his alien and its society—with an authority that says, Don't stop, keep going. It's going to get even better.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the story is that the reader, though she knows that Dr. Popper is still inside the spacecraft while he assembles his "dossier," is likely to forget that this even could be called science fiction. For Chuck has taken what snobs like me call the "base metal" of sci-fi and transformed it into something more precious than we know.

That's right, I'm talking alchemy here. It's the only term that works with Johnson's fiction. In any of his books, you can point to the wonderful language, the characters sketched so well and so swiftly one's reminded Chuck got his start as a cartoonist, the plot twists telenovela writers would envy; yet it still seems impossible to find the moment where the story becomes more, much more, than words on the page. Reading "Popper's Disease" or "Moving Pictures"—or Dreamer or Middle Passage, for that matter—I wonder if those successful alchemists of old practiced a similar cunning. What was their dodge that caused the suckers to look away briefly before the lump of lead was transformed into gold? In "Popper's Disease," Chuck's dodge might be science fiction's oldest trope. A flying saucer story? No way even a MacArthur winner can do anything with that. Yet watch. Just watch. And wonder why at the end, the inevitable end, you feel as though this story's been feinting in every direction, yet arrives at the most human of conclusions, and delivers it with a blow that might topple the heartiest of souls.

Nowadays, my creative writing syllabi have no prohibitions. Write anything you want, I say. Write what you know, or, as John Gardner (Chuck's teacher, it should come as no surprise) said, Write the kind of story you like. But when the budding sci-fi author turns in his stack of tales of alien visits and intergalactic travel, I say, "You've got to see this." And it's "Popper's Disease" in my hands. It never fails to inspire.