Backlog Catch-Up // “Knock” by Fredric Brown

Hi, I’m Don and I have a problem — I can’t stop accumulating short story collections and anthologies. A few, I actually finish. Some I start and never get around to finishing. Others sit gathering dust. So I’ve decided that once a week I’m going to blindly pull a book from my pile, read one story, and talk about it.

This is a day late and I’m cheating a bit this week because this pick isn’t all that random.

From my list of Items From the Nerd Canon I’ve Missed But Dread Admitting Lest I Lose My Nerd Credentials, this classic short story I haven’t gotten around to reading before now, despite having owned FROM THESE ASHES for quite awhile.

This piece is renowned for having one of the shortest stories in sci-fi. You’ve probably seen this reference before…

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…

With the way it’s been presented out of context sometimes, you’d think that was the entire story. What follows after this quote is, for the time in which it was written (1948), a short subversive tale about a scientist avenging the planet Earth in the aftermath of an alien invasion. Subversive because Brown knows all the questions you’ll ask yourself at the start – What does “last man on Earth” mean? Where’s the emphasis, on last or on man? – and he toys with them. Subversive because Brown takes some jabs at some Golden Age of Sci-Fi tropes. This isn’t the story of a stereotypical pulp scientist action hero smashing the aliens with technical ingenuity and  inevitably getting the last woman on earth in the end. It’s about a quiet, homely brainiac who wins with his brainiac knowledge combined with psychological manipulation, and leaves it entirely to the last woman on earth to make the choice to repopulate the planet with him… you know, or not… whatever…

And in that case, maybe it’s not all that subversive at least by today’s standards. But I would still call it an early baby step toward progress.

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