“The Cage” by A. Bertram Chandler – Classics of Science Fiction

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Group Read 72: The Best Science Fiction Stories of 1957

“The Cage” by A. Bertram Chandler #07 of 20 (Read, Listen)

“The Cage” is a fun story, although I’m not sure I would have included it in a best-of-the-year anthology. It’s a puzzle story. Bertram Chandler had a theoretical problem he wanted to present fictionally. How does one intelligent species recognize another intelligent species? It’s a reasonable question, but how do you propose it in a story?

Chandler had to spend most of the short story setting up the problem. If humans arrived on another planet, we’d assume any intelligent alien species would recognize our abilities. Chandler needed to put humans into a situation where our abilities wouldn’t seem obvious at all.

Chandler begins his story by having the interstellar liner Lode Star go off course and land on a young planet with just primitive life forms. The ship must be abandoned when its reactor goes into a runaway chain reaction, and it eventually blows up leaving no trace of the spaceship.

On this planet it mainly rains. The planet’s ecology has evolved some trees and plants, a froglike creature, and lots of fungi. Some fungi provide healthy food for the humans, but other forms of the fungi eat all their clothes and metals, so the castaways end up buck-naked. They can’t even start a fire because of the constant rain.

That’s when another spaceship lands and captures the humans in nets and takes them to another planet. The humans are put into something like a zoo. Finally, the story gets to the problem: How do they let the aliens know they are an advanced intelligent space faring species?

I’ll let you read the story and find out for yourself. But puzzle stories are intended to inspire readers to think of their own solutions.

I thought the aliens would eventually recognize the humans speak a complex language. But I also assume the humans could have made sign language gestures. Their cage had the same environment as the rainy planet, so they couldn’t make a fire, or build anything.

Puzzle stories are rare in science fiction, at least memorable ones. I can’t recall any others at this moment. I vaguely remember a story where a spaceship couldn’t see outside. I think the crew were trying figure out if they were in orbit around a planet.

I asked Copilot to list science fiction stories that proposed a problem. None of the stories it offered are what I was thinking of as a SF problem story. AIs are impressive right now, but they don’t seem to understand science fiction. I guess I’m assuming Copilot is unintelligent because it’s unaware of science fiction plots. But then, Copilot might not recognize me as an intelligent being either.

When you read thousands of science fiction stories you realize just how hard it is to produce an outstanding story. “The Cage” is decent enough. I would have been satisfied if I had read it in the June 1957 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Personally, if I were an editor, I wouldn’t have selected it for any kind of anthology, but it’s been widely anthologized.

I keep waiting for us to discover another SF story with the impact of “Fondly Fahrenheit” or “Coming Attraction” or “Flowers for Algernon.”

James Wallace Harris, 3/26/24

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