When I was in my early twenties, I discovered this collection of James Blish stories. Pretty much all of them melted my brains. Especially the last story, “This Earth of Hours” which I still regard as a classic. The others in the collection are not as impressive, and many of them seem hopelessly obsessed with the cold war and an attack by Soviet Russia. However, during shelter in place, and this ongoing year and a half of limited contact, I was continually reminded of one of them: “To Pay the Piper.”

In the story, world war three has been fought with biological warfare: “the great fevers washed like tides around and around the globe, one after another . . . By the time it had ended, everyone who remained alive was a mile underground. For good” (Blish 77). And after a generation underground, everyone starts to go crazy: “There wasn’t a man–or woman or a child–of America’s surviving thirty-five million ‘sane’ people who didn’t have some [nervous] tic. Not now, not after 25 years of underground life” (Blish 79). Eventually, it reaches the point where civilians start to choose to go the surface and die from the plagues than remain underground. This new political movement’s slogan: “Let’s die on the surface” (Bliss 80)The medical espionage portion of the rest of the story is pretty lackluster, as is the ending, but the idea itself is interesting, horrifying, and maybe prophetic.

My guess–from the last year–is that it would take a hellva lot less than 25 years underground to drive most the population crazy. Probably more like 25 months. But maybe I just hate having to close all my blinds for zoom calls . . . 

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