The End of the World as We Know It: A Literary Mystery

What do you do when a society is so affluent and bored that the narcissism of small differences rises to the level of existential threat?

First, you solve a mystery.

When Steve jobs died in 2011, I wrote a blog post, not unkind, about how he was affecting world domination by putting a computer in every pocket. It reminded me of a short story I had read in high school about a near-future in which the government scheduled population-decimating disasters. I loved it so much that I wrote a letter to the author — in 1984. By 2011, I could remember neither author nor title. All that came to me was the name Uta Hagen, but she was a famous theater actress and drama coach with no record as a fiction writer.

In 2018, I was contacted by a man, Len, who found my post and also remembered the story. He wanted to know if I had ever remembered the title or author. I had not. So, we started looking. I searched databases of science fiction anthologies. Yes, that’s a thing. I called old classmates. I asked all my writer and reader friends. I even hunted down the nun who had been my English teacher. She was happy to hear from me, sorry I no longer attend Mass, and urged me to vote in November, but she did not remember the story. Meanwhile, Len, Sherlock-to-my-Watson turned to Reddit. Reddit, which can dox a man before he has finished asking a Town Hall question, needed five MONTHS to hunt down this story, but they did it.

The story is Emergency Society by Uta Frith.

I had “Uta” right. Like Ms. Hagen, this Uta is also famous — and also not a fiction writer. She is a famous developmental psychologist. Among her many, many accomplishments, Dr. Frith was one of the first neuroscientists to recognize “autism as a condition of the brain rather than the result of cold parenting.” God bless her for that.

The famous scientist gig apparently came with enough downtime to take a creative writing class from Philip Strick, who was also famous — as a film critic — and liked to select his students’ work for the science fiction anthologies he edited.

Emergency Society appeared in the 1975 anthology, Antigrav, and my English textbook. I am able to share it here with permission of the author who, at 77, is active on Twitter. I love this about the modern world. In 1984, I wasn’t even sure where to send the letter I had written.

Read the story. It is very short. Three pulp fiction pages. It is not about population control, as I had remembered it. It is about populace control. A populace at odds with itself. Not unlike ours. And don’t forget where this mystery started. With Steve Jobs sliding a computer into every pocket. Read the story.

You can send Dr. Frith a little love on Twitter (@utafrith), or read another one of her science fiction stories, rescued from the bottom of a drawer in 2014 and posted on her blog.

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