Fantastic Transmissions E001 – It’s A Good Life by Jerome Bixby

Episode 1 of Fantastic Transmissions is about Jerome Bixby’s 1953 short story, It’s A Good Life. It’s A Good Life is the story of a young boy with horrific psychic powers who holds an entire town under his sway. We examine how Bixby’s style complements his narrative, compare the story to its Twilight Zone adaptation, and talk about the themes of totalitarianism and narcissism.

Podbean: https://bookshelfstudios.podbean.com/e/episode-001-its-a-good-life-by-jerome-bixby/

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/fantastic-transmissions/id1341102133#

Google Play: https://play.google.com/music/m/Dwv7eiu7klgkfhdae5cnhjtbeai?t=Episode_001_-_Its_a_Good_Life_by_Jerome_Bixby-Fantastic_Transmissions

The intro music is sampled from Clyde Borly and His Percussions, off the album “Music in Five Dimensions.” The rest of the musc in the podcast was created by Blue Dot Sessions. Their work can be found on the Free Music Archive under a Non-Commercial Attribution License. You can also find all their tracks at http://www.sessions.blue. Audio from episode 73 of The Twilight Zone is the property of CBS.

Fantastic Transmissions is a non-commercial project.

SCRIPT:

Tonight’s Transmission:

Welcome to Fantastic Transmissions, the podcast about the greatest science fiction and fantasy stories ever told.

Tonight’s transmission: It’s a Good Life, by Jerome Bixby.

Introduction:

You probably know this short story. Or at least, some version of it. It’s a Good Life was first published in 1953, in the anthology “Star Science Fiction Stories Number Two,” edited by Fred Pohl. This anthology featured some other sci-fi heavy-hitters, including Lester Del Rey, Alfred Bester, and Theodore Sturgeon.

Jerome Bixby, born in 1923, is the author of well over forty stories and television episodes. You might be familiar with his Stark Trek scripts, including Mirror Mirror, the first episode to introduce the goateed mirror universe counterparts. Bixby was never a much-lauded author. One biographer wrote that a “skeptical scrutiny of his works suggests he is an author incapable of genuine creativity, who is content to manipulate familiar story elements. But when he is on his game,” this biographer writes, “he can manipulate those elements with breathtaking skill.”

That skill is certainly on display in It’s A Good Life. It is a very different sort of story.  A nightmarish glimpse into a shadowy realm, where a god-child holds sway with ultimate power.

In 1961, It’s a Good Life was adapted by Rod Serling for his television program The Twilight Zone. The episode has been universally hailed as one of the all-time great twilight zone nightmares. We’ll talk about the differences between the two media in a bit.

Summary:

This story is a vignette. There is no arc; not really. Bixby opens a window, lets us gawk through, and then closes it again.

The story begins with a grocer, Bill Soames, making a delivery to the Fremont house. He passes little Anthony Fremont, who is busy making a rat devour itself from the tail inward. We meet Anthony’s Aunt Amy, whose mind Anthony has broken. When she complains about the heat of the day, Bill warns her frantically to not speak too loud – it’s a nice day, he insists. A fine day. A good day.

Anthony Fremont is a three-year-old boy with godlike powers. His thoughts shape the world around him. The day and night turn at his whim. He hears people’s thoughts, so they must mumble and jumble to avoid letting him hear their displeasure. Anthony likes helping people, making their minds feel better. But there’s no telling what form his help can take; he brought a woman’s husband back from the dead when he heard her missing him. So it’s best to tell Anthony that everything is good, that it’s fine, that nothing need be changed.

Anthony is a resident of Peaksville, which has been separated entirely from the rest of existence. There is no electricity in Peaksville, and the weather turns on Anthony’s call.

We spend some time with Anthony. He visits a little pool he created, a pool he created to serve as a haven and home for all sorts of little animals. He kills one little animal – sends it to the cornfield – when it tries to hunt a bug. Anything he kills, he sends to the cornfield. He makes a bird fly around and around, but loses interest, and the bird flies into a rock. He sends the rock to the cornfield, because it has displeased him.

That night, there is a surprise birthday party at the Fremont’s house for Anthony’s neighbor, Dan Hollis. The residents pass around what precious few gifts remain to them – a book, a record, a lone bottle of brandy. Dan Hollis gets a little too drunk on the brandy and begins to bemoan their predicament, blaming Anthony’s mom – you had to go and have him! Dan begins to sing. Anthony hates singing. Anthony turns Dan into something horrible, “Something like nothing anyone would have believed possible,” before sending Dan to the cornfield. This was a good thing, everyone assures him. A real good thing.

Everyone then gathers around to watch television, which Anthony creates for them. His television programs are just jumbles of awful shapes and noises, essentially unwatchable. But no one complains. It’s a good television show, real good. The story ends when snow begins to fall; Aunt Amy complained it was hot, so Anthony made it colder. We end with the line: “Next day it snowed, and killed off half the crops – but it was a good day.”

Analysis:

Comparison to The Twilight Zone:

Of course, most folks – myself included, for a long time – knew this story from the eponymous Twilight Zone episode. The “It’s A  good Life” episode is often cited as one of the greatest TZ stories of all time – if not one of the all-time great television stories. Rod Serling’s adaptation of Bixby’s story makes a few notable changes, though, so try not to mix the two up too much. Notably, television-Anthony is a normal-looking lad, a freckly boy with “blue, guileless eyes.” In Bixby’s story, Anthony is decidedly not quite human. He has a “bright, wet, purple gaze.” He has an “odd shadow.” And when Anthony was born, the attending physician screamed, dropped him, and tried to kill him. The other kids in town are told he is a “nice goblin.” This all belies some inherent physical monstrousness.

The aesthetics are one thing. It works better for television to leave out the special effects and makeup; Billy Mumy, who portrays Anthony, is convincingly creepy. But Rod Serling left out another important component of Bixby’s story: Anthony’s pond.

Anthony has created his pond, and created it as a gift for the little crawling animals. He likes the minds of animals, because they are simple, easily pleased. He gave them a stream, trees, a pond, caves. Safety. He wants to see them happy, and he wants to see his people happy too. It’s just that people have such strange minds, and they dislike him so, and sometimes that makes him unhappy.

We see his mindlessness in how he sends a rock to a grave in the cornfield – the rock, a non-sentient thing, still managed to “wrong” Anthony, just because Anthony accidentally ran a bird into the rock. He is three years old; his conceptions of right, wrong, and causality are still weak, mewling things.

This is decidedly different from the twilight zone’s Anthony. TV-Anthony is malicious. Malevolent. As Rod Serling puts it in the introduction: his mind is “absolutely in charge.” Book-Anthony, we might call him, is less intentional in his acts. More instinctive. Reactionary, you might say. Show-Anthony isn’t much better, far from Machiavellian, but he’s still more aware. More capable. It’s an interesting change, and one that, in my opinion, takes a little away from the story.

The last difference I want to talk about is Anthony’s television program. In Rod Serling’s screenplay, the family gathers around to watch Anthony’s TV show about halfway through the episode. In this version, the tv program is imagined as dinosaurs mauling each other in gory battle. This fits very well with the Twilight Zone version of the story. Anthony is more malicious, more actively violent in this version; the TV show, in Rod Serling’s story, is there to establish and foreshadow his glee at all things bloody and monstrous. But in Bixby’s short story, we don’t see Anthony’s television program until after Dan Hollis is transformed. It’s the last thing that happens in the story, aside from the snowfall. And the content is different. Bixby’s story describes Anthony’s TV show as a mess of color and sound, abstract but disturbing. The TV show serves a different purpose in the two versions of the story. For Rod Serling, it’s a way to establish, even foreshadow Anthony’s malicious glee. For Bixby, though, it’s the answer to a question: what’s going on in that brain of his? What’s happening in Anthony’s head? And at the end of the story, we get the answer. Nothing. Nothing comprehensible, anyway. Anthony’s mind is just a long scream, a primal horror that almost feels akin to something out of Lovecraft.

Writing Style:

Bixby’s style in the story is what I would call “targeted implication.” There are times when he really lingers on smells, sights, and sounds to evoke feeling in the reader. Anthony’s mom sits down to shell peas near the start of the story, and for two pages every bit of dialogue is punctuated with an italicized “lollop.” The sound of a pea hitting a pan. When Anthony goes out to the pond, Bixby treats us to some genuinely beautiful and evocative imagery.

“Out in the cornfield, Anthony walked between the tall, rustling rows of green stalks. He liked to smell the corn. The alive corn overhead, and the old dead corn underfoot. Rich Ohio earth, thick with weeds and brown, dry-rotting ears of corn, pressed between his bare toes with every step – had made it rain last night so everything would smell and feel nice today.”

Bixby goes on to describe in immaculate detail the beauty of Anthony’s pool – the animals that “rustled and scampered and chirped about,” the insects flitting “in the hazy soft sunbeams that stood like slanting, glowing bars between ground and treetops.”

These details make the later lack of detail even more suggestive. Take this description of Anthony’s tv program:

“They just sat silently and watched the twisting, writhing shapes on the screen, and listened to the sounds that came out of the speaker, and none of them had any idea of what it was all about. They never did. It was always the same.”

The description-less horror of whatever Anthony is showing them rings all the more true because of the detail we’ve seen earlier in the story. Bixby never won any awards for writing, but the writing here serves the exact purpose it needs to. The style complements the story, in other words.

By the way, when I say the story never won any awards – that’s only half-true. In 1970, a legendary science fiction anthology was released: ‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, 1929-1964, Volume I.” Why 1929 to 1964? Well, the intent of the anthology was to collect all the best stories written before the advent of the Nebula award, thus giving them their due credit. The contents of the anthology were voted on by the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America; the top fifteen stories were published in volume one. It’s a Good Life made the cut for volume one. It’s not a trophy, Mr. Bixby, but it’s not half bad either.

Totalitarianism:

It’s not hard to see the echoes of totalitarianism in this story. Anthony is a literal dictator – he dictates the place and order of everything in Peaksville. Without intending to, he forces the population to stunt themselves, almost like the citizens in Vonnegut’s classic Harrison Bergeron. They have to retreat into complete white noise to avoid his attention and potential ire.

They have no contact with the outside world, if any outside world still exists. Anthony creates TV for his people, and they have no choice in programming. They live in fear of literal thought crimes – if Anthony hears a bad thought, there’s no telling what he’ll do. They hold each other back, too. Peaksville’s residents constantly remind one another to avoid bad thoughts; constantly reassure one another that it is a GOOD thing, a FINE thing, whatever Anthony has done. When poor Dan Hollis gets zapped to the cornfield, we’re given the following description of his wife. A few men are:

Holding Ethel Hollis flat against the cushions, holding her arms and legs and putting their hands over her mouth, so she couldn’t start screaming again.

The citizens of Peaksville daren’t rebel – it’s been tried before, according to the story, and predictably failed. What rebellion could succeed against an omnipotent child dictator?

It’s possible Bixby wrote this story with critiques of the Soviet Union in mind. A central feature of the story is scarcity – the scarcity of luxury items and food alike. Central-planner Anthony fails to provide adequate conditions for growing crops. The conditions under Anthony’s rule might well have been inspired by Bixby’s contemporary exposure to stories of the Holodomor, the Soviet Famine of 1932-1933. This great famine began during the waning years of Stalin’s first five-year-plan; during the second five-year-plan, after the famine was over, in 1935, Stalin coined a now-famous slogan: “”Life has become better, life has become more cheerful.” In other words: it’s a good life.

Narcissism:

At least one writer has compared It’s a Good Life to the experience of living with someone who has narcissistic personality disorder. A woman named Joanna Ashmun wrote about this comparison on her website – halcyon.com/jmashmun/npd. NPD, of course, stands for narcissistic personality disorder. To quote Ms Ashmun:

“Substitute a big person for the arbitrarily vindictive little boy and this story also gives a general idea of how groups, including families, work when they are dominated by narcissists.”

This isn’t necessarily to say that little Anthony is a narcissist. He’s a three-year-old. Toddlers aren’t yet emotionally or mentally mature. If you try to apply the textbook definition of NPD to kids under ten, most of them will hit a lot of red flags. But the theme of the story, and its ideas – about a family living in fear of the tantrums of this power-wielding member – connect very well with the way tyrannical narcissists operate. The most interesting common element is the need for isolation of a captive audience. The narcissist has to wrap people around them; they need to be the star at the center of everyone’s solar system. So there can be no other stars, no chance that someone might break out of captivity. Much has been written, for example, about Fred Phelps, the man at the center of the Westboro Baptist Church, and the way he bent his whole family – and church! – around him, abusing them and brainwashing them with his brand of hate. Anthony might be just a three-year-old, operating purely on instinct, but the model is the same. Isolate the people of Peaksville. Make them rely on him for everything. Bend them to him. And obliterate anyone who dares think the bad thoughts. You don’t like Peaksville? Well, to the cornfield with you!

So, what is Anthony? Was he born narcissistic, broken, fundamentally wrong? Or is he really just any three-year-old kid in a goblin suit? Is Anthony a strange demon utterly unlike us? Or is he just all of us, all of us at age three, before we learned right from wrong?

A parable about the dangers of central planning. A cautionary tale about the risks of rampant narcissism. Or just a story about a kid picking the wings off flies. Whatever your take on it, you’d have to agree: it’s a good story. A fine story. A real good story, yes sir.

Outro:

Thank you for listening. Fantastic Transmissions is the work of me, Michael. You can find a transcript of this episode, the links I’ve mentioned, and with further episodes, at my website, www dot off michaels bookshelf dot wordpress dot com. There, you’ll find blog posts I’ve written and links to other podcasts and projects i’m involved with. Those include Bookshelf Studios, my YouTube channel where I used to make video game videos and now mostly do skits, and Maester Monthly, a song of ice and fire podcast of which I am one of the hosts. Fantastic Transmissions can be found on twitter at fan transmissions; so far, the podcast is on podbean, iTunes, and google play. If you enjoyed Fantastic Transmissions, let me know – via itunes review, direct message on twitter, or by beaming your signal directly to my extra-dimensional receiver.

Fantastic Transmissions is a non-commercial project; I do not plan on ever having ads on the podcast. If you would like to support my other creative projects, however, you can find me on Patreon at patreon dot com slash bookshelf studios.

The music you heard in the intro was sampled from Clyde Borly and His Percussions, off the album “Music in Five Dimensions.” The running music during the cast was all from Blue Dot Sessions; their material can be found on the free music archive, as well as at www.sessions.blue. All the audio from episode 73 of the twilight zone is the property of CBS.

Transmission ending. Michael out.

Links:

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It%27s_a_Good_Life

Narcissistic personality disorder analysis: http://www.halcyon.com/jmashmun/npd/goodlife.html

Author: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerome_Bixby

Weird Fiction Review: http://weirdfictionreview.com/2012/10/wfrs-101-weird-writers-13-jerome-bixby/

J Bixby bio: https://www.sfsite.com/gary/bixb02.htm

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