“Melancholy Elephants” by Spider Robinson – Classics of Science Fiction


Our Facebook group is reading and discussing all the Hugo award winning short stories and novelettes that we’ve haven’t covered in all our previous years. “Melancholy Elephants” by Spider Robinson is a 1983 Hugo winner that I have no memory of even hearing about before. It first appeared in the June 1982 issue of Analog and came in first in the Analog Readers Poll. But then, that’s the fun thing about Group Read 69, we’re discovering stories that should be remembered, or at least consider why they haven’t.

“Melancholy Elephants” is about extending the copyright lifetime. It’s set in the future, and powerful entities want to pass a bill to make copyright perpetual. Dorothy Martin feels this will be a threat to civilization and it’s vital that the bill be stopped. She goes to see a powerful senator she hopes to convince or bribe into killing the proposal.

Most of the story is infodumping about copyright laws. It talks about how there are limits to creativity and if fiction and music are locked down by copyright, it will destroy them. The story even gives examples, including Harlan Ellison and A. E. van Vogt suing movie companies and winning, and George Harrison unconsciously cribbing “He’s So Fine” to write “My Sweet Lord” by the Chiffons. In the future of this story, there will be powerful computer programs that test for previous use and reject copyright violations. Mrs. Martin’s husband committed suicide when he realized his latest and greatest work was inspired by music he heard in childhood.

I don’t see why this story won the Hugo and Analog Readers Award, but then I don’t remember any of the short stories it competed with either. Also, I disagree with Mrs. Martin’s conclusion. I don’t think long copyright terms keeps artists from innovating, but I do think it keeps some works from being remembered. For example, copyright keeps me from linking to a copy of this story for you to read.

What I found fascinating by “Melancholy Elephants” was how much the story felt like a Heinlein story. Spider Robinson was a huge fan and friend of Heinlein, and this story feels like he stole from Heinlein in the same way Harrison appears to have stolen from The Chiffons.

The story starts out with Dorothy Martin killing a mugger. She justifies it because she couldn’t be late with the meeting with the Senator, ruining her only chance of saving the world from a fate worse than death. “Gulf” by Robert A. Heinlein starts with the protagonist causally killing an attacker and justifying it by his righteous cause. And if memory serves me right, the same thing happened in Heinlein’s novel, Friday. Heinlein like to promote the value of his characters beliefs and causes by casually killing people. He equates the end justifies the means with these quick scenes. I always thought they represented massive egos believing their way of thinking puts them above all others.

“Melancholy Elephants” could have been done without the scene of Mrs. Martin killing someone and hiding the body under the car. It gave the story a repulsive beginning. The story really needed to be an essay, but Spider Robinson sells fiction, so he took the idea and fictionalized it much like Robert A. Heinlein would he wanted to promote his beliefs.

Mrs. Martin visits the Senator, who comes across like Heinlein’s Jubal Harshaw. The way she makes her case and the way the Senator makes his is exceedingly Heinleinesque At one point Mrs. Martin tries to buy off the Senator and he explains he can’t be bought off because he’s already been bought off and it would be unethical to go against the original deal. Heinlein was big on representing government as being corrupt and things got done by big egos battling it out. Heinlein loved to write scenes where his character persuades others on a particular super-vital issue. However, Heinlein’s scenes often come across as character promoting their righteousness, rather than logic.

In the end the Senator sees Mrs. Martin’s side of things and reverses himself, but the way he does it also reminds me of Heinlein characters when they do give in.

It’s ironic that “Melancholy Elephants” is about protecting a creative person’s rights to borrow from the art that inspired them because this story is obviously inspired too much by Heinlein.

James Wallace Harris, 3/5/24

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