“Small World” by William F. Nolan – Classics of Science Fiction

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Group Read 72: The Best Science Fiction Stories of 1957

“Small World” by William F. Nolan #15 of 20 (ReadListen)

I’ve always loved post-apocalyptic novels about the last man on Earth, or at least, the last few people on Earth. I’m not saying I want everyone else to die, but if flying saucers hauled y’all all away, I wouldn’t complain. Ever since I was a kid, the thought of being the only kid in a deserted city was a fun fantasy for fueling daydreaming. The idea that I could roam around and survive by plundering anything I needed from abandoned stores and houses was deliciously appealing. I bet Henry Bemis implanted this idea in me via the 1959 episode of The Twilight Zone, when I was eight.

William F. Nolan imagines a man named Lewis Stillman left alone in Los Angeles after aliens invade in the August 1957 issue of Fantastic Universe. I remember when I first read this story I was genuinely surprised by the ending. If you don’t want me to spoil it, follow your chosen link above before reading any more of this essay.

In 1967 Harlan Ellison edited Dangerous Visions because he claimed science fiction writers couldn’t get certain kinds of science fiction stories published. I call bullshit on that idea. I think his hypothesis was wrong. Nolan produces a nice little gritty dangerous vision in “Small World” in 1957. Of course, he had to write a few thousand words of character development and setting to entertain us before he could pop the surprise.

Stillman hides out in the storm drains of Los Angeles avoiding the invaders. He only comes out at night, and has collected a nice arsenal of weapons, but he survives by going unnoticed. There have been several movies that used those famous storm drains, so I imagined scenes from Them as I read the story.

One night Stillman fondly recalls a three-volume set of medical textbooks that belonged to his father. Stillman had gone to medical school in southern California but had dropped out to become a laborer and work with his hands. Sitting alone in his hideaway, he remembered seeing those books at a used bookstore and decided he wanted to see them again. That night he arms himself and heads out. He finds the books, but they find him.

He was attacked not by aliens, but by children. The aliens had killed everyone over the age of six, so they cities were swarming with feral children. Picture Lord of the Flies. And the children would kill any surviving adult they could find. All along, Nolan had us believing Stillman was hiding from little green men, but he was really hiding from hordes of rugrats.

In the end Stillman starts shooting the tykes to get away. I pictured him blowing away Jerry Mathers, and little Billy Mumy and Angela Cartwright, as well as Jay North. Of course, I would have been the right age too in 1957 if I had lived in LA. Eventually, the children overwhelm Stillman and I assume he was torn apart. But he must have killed a pile of youngsters before they got him.

I wonder why Nolan wrote this story. It’s sick if you think about it, especially since I read it the first time after Sandy Hook. Was he just trying to gross us out? Or did Nolan secretly hate kids? Lord of the Flies came out in 1954, and that could have inspired him. The 1950s was full of public fear regarding juvenile delinquents, so maybe the story was symbolic. And the age group also applied to the early Baby Boomers, so maybe Nolan was trying to be prophetic.

Yes, Ellison was wrong. Science fiction writers often got dangerous visions published. Two of my favorites were “Lot” by Ward Moore, and “The Last Day” by Richard Matheson, both from 1954.

Also from 1954 was “The Good Life” by Jerome Bixby. Maybe it inspired “Small World.” I’ve always found that story too creepy, maybe Nolan was providing us psychological release for that story.

James Wallace Harris, 4/13/24

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