“The Doorstop” by Reginald Bretnor – Classics of Science Fiction


“The Doorstop” was first published in Astounding Science Fiction, November 1956. You can read it on Archive.org. It is story #16 of 22 for The Best SF Stories of 1956 group read. “The Doorstop” was a selection in both the Merril and Asimov/Greenberg anthologies devoted to the best SF of1956, but the story hasn’t been widely anthologized otherwise.

I believe Reginald Bretnor is most famous for his Ferdinand Feghoot pun stories. He wrote three books about science fiction, and besides writing a fair number of science fiction short stories, also liked to write about weapons and war. See his ISFDB entry.

“The Doorstop” is a pleasant mood piece about a country doctor discovering an alien artifact, one his wife bought to use as a doorstop. The story doesn’t have much of a plot, mainly a discussion by scientists and military men, a cliche for science fiction stories and movies, especially in the 1950s. However, what stands out in this story is the doctor’s state of mind. Dr. Cavaness stands between the old world where stars were romantic lights in the sky, with life having a certain order, and a new paradigm, something much different, even threatening and horrifying. (I’m reminded of the Fredric Brown title, The Lights in the Sky Are Stars. I might need to read it.)

Writing “The Doorstop” in 1956, I can imagine Bretnor worrying about all those ordinary people who were about to experience the sense of wonder that science fiction readers and writers cherished. He recognized the mental state of the world was changing, and imagined for many, it might not be wanted.

My friend Mike emailed me his notes for the story, and he was quite taken with it — as was I.

On the surface, the plot of "The Doorstop" is very simple. 

Ellie, the wife of Dr. Cavaness, buys a doorstop: "Oh, that. I got it today from Mrs. Hobbs. It's...well, it's a doorstop."
Cavaness soon realizes that the doorstop "...was no simple artifact. Alien to him and strange, it was a mechanism, a machine."
Cavaness takes the doorstop to Ted Froberg, "...an electronics engineer working behind the ramparts of Security." Froberg reveals the doorstop "...wasn't made in any country here; it wasn't even made on Mars or Jupiter. It's from the stars."
But there is another story to be considered, an existential drama that unfolds in the mind of Dr. Cavaness. He desperately longs for an ordered existence, a carefully circumscribed life. His mind is comforted by the "...pages of the past, pages of friends and fishing trips, or midnight calls to childbirth, hypochondria, surgery--pages of precious trials and triumphs and routines. That was his life, the busy hours, the days succeeding days, the months, the seasons, the gently moving years, all encompassed by his family, his patients, and his town."
He clings fiercely to his English garden world and calls "...on God to drive the mystery out, extinguish it..." Cavaness poignantly prays:
"Voicelessly, in a despairing language without words, he prayed to a parochial God to make this all untrue, to wipe it out, to let his world remain as it had been. Oh God, preserve these small peripheries against all things incomprehensible; I am my world; its limits limit me; allow the stretches of eternity, the darknesses, to stay unreal; oh, God, deny this living proof that life unthinkable teems in those depths and distance, that they exist--"
Finally, when it's made clear to Cavaness that the doorstop is alien, "...he stared straight ahead--facing the majesty of God, facing a new maturity for man, facing the open door."
What Bretnor doesn't reveal is what comes next for Cavaness. Does he accept the new reality, or does turn away and retreat into his walled city?

I like that “The Doorstop” is about a coming change in our group mind and questions the genre I grew up with and love. It’s not a particularly well-written story, yet I like it quite a lot. But that fondness is for the story’s central insight. I wonder how many people now would like to go back to a pre-SF world where we didn’t think about aliens, an infinite multiverse, and all the other insights science fiction has given us, to when the universe was only as big as The Old Testament?

James Wallace Harris, 1/3/24

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