from science fiction by
Walter M. Miller, Jr.

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The Big Hunger

The Darfsteller


science fiction

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The Big Hunger

Copyright © 1952 by Street & Smith Publications, Inc.

I am blind, yet I know the road to the stars. Space is my harp, and I touch it lightly with fingers of steel. Space sings. Its music quivers in the flux patterns, comes creeping along the twitch of a positron stream, comes to whisper in glass ears. I hear. Aiee! Though I am without eyes, I see the stars tangled in their field webs, tangled into One. I am the spider who runs over the web. I am the spider who spins, spinning a space where no stars are.

And I am harpist to a pale, proud Master.

He builds me, and feeds me the fuel I eat, and leads me riding through the space I make, to the glare of another sun. And when he is done with me, I lie rusting in the rain. My metal rots with ages, and the sea comes washing over land to take me while I sleep. The Master forgets. The Master chips flint from a stone, leaving a stone ax. He busies himself with drums and bloody altars; he dances with a writhing snake in his mouth, conjuring the rain.

Then—after a long time—he remembers. He builds another of me, and I am the same, for like the Soul of him who builds me, my principle lies beyond particular flesh. When my principle is clothed in steel, we go wandering again. I the minstrel, with Man the king.

Hear the song of his hunger, the song of his endless thirst.

My principle lingered on the drawing boards, and in the dreams of men—men who said they were sick of wars and politics and the braying of collectivist jackasses. Others were sick of petty peace and cheapness and Independence Day speeches and incorporated jackasses who blubbered disgustingly about various freedoms.

They wanted the one Big Freedom. They built me again, these pale, proud bipeds, these children of an Ape-Prince who walked like a god. They packed themselves in cylinders of steel and wandering, riding starward on a heart-tempest that had once sung them down from the trees to stalk the plains with club and torch. The pod of earth opened, scattered its seed spaceward. It was the time of the great bursting, the great birth-giving. Empires shivered in the storm.

Sky chariots flung themselves upward to vanish beyond the fringes of the atmosphere. Prairie schooners of space bore the restless, the contemptuous, the hungry, and the proud. And I led them along the self-road that runs around space. The world seethed, and empires toppled, and new empires arose whose purpose it was to build the sky chariots.

There were those who remained behind. There were those who made Earth their business and stayed at home. Their tribes were numbered at two billion souls. And they were somehow different from the spacers. They liked to sit in their rocking chairs. They liked prettiness and a one-hundred cent dollar. They voted for the Conservative Party. They abolished centralization. Eventually they abolished government. And for the first time in anyone’s memory, there was peace on Earth, good will among men.

Sometimes a thoughtful old man would say: “Seems to me they’ve got as much right to live as we have. Seems to me all intelligent creatures have got a common denominator. God, maybe.” But he muttered it quietly, speculatively. Even if he believed it, he never objected to the swift ambush of the alien ship, nor to the razing of the alien city. For the biped stalked a new frontier. The ape tribe stole across a field where danger lurked. He was fresh from the branches of the trees, not wise to the ways of the plains. How could he risk offering peace to the shaggy beast who crouched in the tall grass? He could only weigh the odds—then strike or run away.



text checked (see note) Feb 2006

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The Darfsteller

Copyright © 1955 by Street & Smith Publications, Inc.

Hugo Award-winning novelette, 1955

“Theater,” they called it. Not the theater—as it was to the scalper’s victim, the matinée housewife, or the awestruck hick—but just “theater.” It wasn’t a place, wasn’t a business, wasn’t the name of an art. “Theater” was a condition of the human heart and soul.



They’d had it good together and bad together. Bit parts and beans in a cold-water flat. Starring roles and steaks at Sardi’s. And—love? Was that what it was? He though of it uneasily. Hypnotic absorption in each other, perhaps, and in the mutual intoxication of their success—but it wasn’t necessarily love. Love was calm and even and lasting, and you paid for it with a dedicated lifetime, and Mela wouldn’t pay.

“Nauseating, overplayed, perfectly directed for a gum-chewing bag-rattling crowd. A crowd that wants it overplayed so that it won’t have to think about what’s going on. A crowd that doesn’t want to reach out for a feeling or a meaning. It wants to be clubbed in the head with the meaning, so it doesn’t have to reach.”
“You’ve got portrayer’s integrity. You’re a darfsteller. A director’s ulcer. You can’t play a role without living it, and you won’t live it unless you believe it.”

But maybe that’s what the paranoid on the twentieth story window ledge thought about, too—the audience reaction. Wasn’t every self-inflicted wound really aimed at the conscience of the world?

As he stared at her, it began to penetrate that she was still capable of being the woman he’d once known and loved. Worse, she wanted to save him from being laughed at. Why? If she felt motherly, she might conceivably want to shield him against wrath, criticism, or rotten tomatoes, but not against loss-of-dignity. Motherliness thrived on the demise of male dignity, for it sharpened the image of the child in the man.

“Darling, you’re living ten years ago. I’m not, and I won’t. Maybe I don’t like the present very well, but I’m in it, and I can only change it in little ways. I can’t make it the past again, and I won’t try.” She paused a moment, searching his face. “Ten years ago, we weren’t living in the present either. We were living in a mythical, magic, wonderful future. Great talent, just starting to bloom. We were living in dream-plans in those days. The future we lived in never happened, and you can’t go back and make it happen. And when a dream-plan stops being possible, it turns into a pipe dream. I won’t live in a pipe dream. I want to stay sane, even if it hurts.”

“The tough part of it is—you’ve got to aim high just to hit anywhere at all. It can get to be heartbreaking, too—trying for the sublime every time, and just escaping the ridiculous, or the mediocre.”

“No matter how high you aim, you can’t hit escape velocity. Ambition is a trajectory with its impact point in oblivion, no matter how high the throw.”

He had kept his integrity maybe, but what good was integrity in a vacuum? He had the soul of an actor, and he’d hung onto it when the others were selling theirs, but the years had wiped out the market and he was stuck with it. He had stood firm on principle, and the years had melted the cold glacier of reality from under the principle; still, he stood on it, while the reality ran on down to the sea.



He’d been after intangibles, and the law was an earthy thing; it became confused when motives carried men beyond assaults on property or person, into assaults on ideas or principles. Then it passed the buck to psychiatry.
The signs of the times, and the signs of the timeless, and the cultural heartbeat pulsed to the rhythm of centuries. He had resisted the times as they took a sharp turn in direction, but no man could swim long against the tide as it plodded its zigzag course into timelessness. And the sharp deflections in the course were deceptive—for all of them really wound their way downstream. No man ever added his bit to the flow by spending all his effort to resist the current. The tide would tire him and take him into oblivion while the world flowed on.
When you hung onto a piece of the past, and just hung onto it quietly, you only hurt yourself. But when you started trying to bludgeon a place for it in the present, you began knocking over the bystanders.

There were things of the times, and a few things that were timeless. The times came as a result of a particular human culture. The timeless came as a result of any human culture at all. And Cultural Man was a showman. He created display windows of culture for an audience of men, and paraded his aspirations and ideals and purposes thereon, and the displays were necessary to the continuity of the culture, to the purposeful orientation of the species.

Beyond one such window, he erected an altar, and placed a priest before it to chant a liturgical description of the heart-reasoning of his times. And beyond another window, he built a stage and set his talking dolls upon it to live a dramaturgical sequence of wishes and woes of his times.

True, the priests would change, the liturgy would change, and the dolls, the dramas, the displays—but the windows would never—no never—be closed as long as Man outlived his members, for only through such windows could transient men see themselves against the background of a broader sweep, see man encompassed by Man. A perspective not possible without the windows.



“It’s too late to find a permanent niche.”

“It was too late when you were born, old man! There isn’t any such thing—hasn’t been, for the last century. Whatever you specialize in, another specialty will either gobble you up, or find a way to replace you. If you get what looks like a secure niche, somebody’ll come along and wall you up in it and write your epitaph on it. And the more specialized a society gets, the more dangerous it is for the pure specialist. You think an electronic engineer is any safer than an actor? Or a ditch-digger?”

text checked (see note) Mar 2006

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Graphics copyright © 2003 by Hal Keen