“The Fly” by George Langelaan – Classics of Science Fiction


Group Read 72: The Best Science Fiction Stories of 1957

“The Fly” by George Langelaan #09 of 20 (Read, Listen)

“The Fly” by George Langelaan is far more famous as a horror movie than as a science fiction story, but it’s a novelette about a mishap with a matter transmitter, obviously putting it into the territory of science fiction. Judith Merril did include it in her collection of the best SF of 1957, but it’s mostly remembered in horror story anthologies.

I rewatched the original 1958 version of The Fly about a year ago, so it was reasonably fresh in my mind. While reading “The Fly” today I was surprised how well the film stuck to Langelaan’s original story. The film grossed reviewers out back in 1958, but since then it’s become somewhat of a classic. Back in the day, me and my school friends talked quite a lot about the movie version. I’m surprised the original story doesn’t get more recognition.

“The Fly” explores two common science fictional ideas, the matter transmitter, and the mad scientist. I thought the story was well told, but it seemed a bit archaic in its storytelling style. That might be because it’s a translation from the French. I often feel translated stories sound like they are from 19th century Europe. But then, that might be due to most of the translated stories I’ve read were from 19th century Europe. “The Fly” also feels a bit like Edgar Allan Poe to me too. Then again, it might reflect a storytelling style favored by non-English speaking writers. I don’t know since I use no other language but English.

I’m not going to repeat the plot of the story because it’s so famous, and if you haven’t read it, I don’t want to spoil it. Even the concept of a matter transmitter comes up late in the tale. Like many 19th century stories, “The Fly” takes a roundabout way to get to the point. It’s told after the action has happened. I have a theory about that. I believe old timey writers liked to tell stories with an “as heard by” structure. We used to believe that eyewitnesses were the gold standard of implying validity. Francois, tells the story about Helene, his sister-in-law, confessing she murdered his brother. The tale takes a winding path before it gets to the science fictional element.

Matter transmitters were made famous by Star Trek and its transporter. That show has dealt with transmitter mishaps too. But my all-time favorite matter transmitter story is Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys. It works out several fascinating aspects to the concept. Some of those aspects were later made famous in “Think Like a Dinosaur” by James Patrick Kelly. But there is one other story I’d like to mention, that’s a variation of the matter transmitter idea. In “The Four Sided Triangle” by William F. Temple, which uses a matter transmitter as a matter duplicator — an unintended side-effect to avoid in some matter transmitter stories. “The Four Sided Triangle” is a neat little love story that was made into a decent film.

André Delambre in “The Fly” is also a splendid example of a mad scientist in a science fiction. Like many Sci-Fi mad scientists, he works alone and invents something that should require all the resources of creating fusion power. Mad scientists and lone inventors now belong in the realm of fantasy, but there’s something heartwarming about mad scientists to folks who used to wear propeller beanies. I believe that appeal is why we had Doc Brown in Back to the Future. (The mad scientist is a popular idea in children’s stories still.)

In 2019, “The Fly” was reprinted in Promethean Horrors: Classic Tales of Mad Science. I thought that an apt title for anthologizing this story. Unfortunately, the table of contents was disappointing. I was expecting a big anthology full of mad scientist stories. That’s a shame because I would have bought a large retrospective anthology that highlighted the evolution of the mad scientist in science fiction.

I kept thinking about the classics of mad scientist stories and went looking for anthologies that might collect them. I found two.

I went ahead and took a chance on The Mad Scientist Megapack since it was only ninety-nine cents. The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination edited by John Joseph Adams is more money, $11.99 for the Kindle edition. However, there’s an audiobook version, and I might get that. I was disappointed that neither volume collected “The Fly.” If ever there was a mad scientist in science fiction, André Delambre is one. There is one story I know well in the table of contents to The Mad Scientist Megapack, “The Man Who Evolved” by Edmond Hamilton. I hope all the others I haven’t read are in that vein.

James Wallace Harris, 3/30/24

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