WFR’s 101 Weird Writers: #13 — Jerome Bixby

Strange Survival in “It’s a Good Life”

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

Jerome Bixby (1923 – 1998) was an American short story and script writer who wrote four Star Trek episodes and helped write the story that became the classic sci-fi movie Fantastic Voyage (1966). He is most famous for the “It’s a Good Life” (1953), also made into a Twilight Zone episode and included in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). The Science Fiction Writers of America named “It’s a Good Life” one of the twenty finest science fiction stories ever written. References to the story have appeared in the Cartoon Network’s Johnny Bravo, Fox’s The Simpsons, and a Junot Diaz novel, among others. And, as regular contributor Desirina Boskovich ably demonstrates, the story has an enduring creepiness and complexity that has not been diluted over the years.

– Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”

***

Jerome Bixby was a prolific author of short fiction, publishing more than forty short stories throughout the fifties and sixties. Though he is mainly remembered for his work in science fiction, he also penned westerns. He wrote under a handful of pseudonyms: Harry Neal, Albert Russell, Thornecliff Herrick and others. He also wrote for television and film. He shared writing credits for the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, and authored four episodes of Star Trek, the most famous of which is “Mirror, Mirror,” based on Bixby’s own parallel worlds story “One Way Street.”

Audiences today might know Bixby by way of an independent film called The Man From Earth, produced by Bixby’s son in 2007 for a budget of just $200,000; the screenplay was the last project Bixby completed before he died in 1998. This exposition-heavy, one-set production focuses on a reformed Neanderthal who goes by the alias John Oldman and claims to be 14,000 years old. As Oldman reminisces about a lifetime stretching back through the entire human era, his claims are examined at length by a party of his academic colleagues, gathered in his living room.

The Man From Earth shares certain qualities with much of Bixby’s shorter work – it’s a one-act deal, carried by a single intriguing and slightly wacky idea. Convivial and good-humored, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. And it doesn’t shy away from terrible puns. (See “The Holes Around Mars,” another of Bixby’s better-known works. Ostensibly the tale of a geological anomaly of dubious scientific plausibility, “The Holes Around Mars” is essentially a lengthy set-up to an abysmal play on words.)

Many of Bixby’s short works feel like rambling stories told by some guy at a bar. You can’t tell exactly where they’re going, until that final punch line is delivered. Then the storyteller winks, downs his final swig of beer, and makes his exit, leaving you to wonder what that story was really about – and if it was even true.

But “It’s a Good Life” – the story that elevated Bixby from forgettable pulp scribbler to science fiction grand master – well, it’s different. If Bixby’s other stories began as tales told around the campfire, this one began with a cold sweat in the middle of the night. “It’s a Good Life” is a slowly building nightmare; each layer is a new realization of powerlessness and despair.

The story centers on Anthony, a psychic three-year-old who possesses the power to change the world with his thoughts. Anthony’s unfortunate family and neighbors do all they can to avoid attracting his notice. Mostly, this means living in a constant state of bland cheer, not just in word, but also in mind.

Because if Anthony got anything strong out of your thoughts, he might take a notion to do something about it–like curing your wife’s sick headaches or your kid’s mumps, or getting your old milk cow back on schedule, or fixing the privy. And while Anthony mightn’t actually mean any harm, he couldn’t be expected to have much notion of what was the right thing to do in such cases.

That was if he liked you. He might try to help you, in his way. And that could be pretty horrible.

If he didn’t like you … well, that could be worse.

Anthony’s exploratory ventures in world-modification are like those of child pulling the wings off a fly, or roasting an ant with a magnifying glass, or ripping a worm in two pieces just to see both halves squirm away. Except the whole world is his experiment, and no one has ever been able to tell him that torturing flies is wrong – at least no one has ever been able to tell him that for very long. He is a capricious, impulsive, impetuous child, with the power of a god.

The inhabitants of Anthony’s world are stuck in a place called Peaksville, a sort of pocket universe that Anthony thought them into the day he was born. The rest of the universe might be humming along somewhere just as before, or it might all be destroyed. All the residents of Peaksville know for sure is their complete isolation. Which means that their way of life, as pitiful and desperate as it might be, is no sure thing itself: soon Peaksville will run out of the resources it needs to survive. No matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.

 “Please don’t take my sunshine … away …” Dan’s voice faltered into silence. His eyes widened. He put both hands out in front of him, the empty glass in one, the record in the other. He hiccupped and said, “No–”

“Bad man,” Anthony said, and thought Dan Hollis into something like nothing anyone would have believed possible, and then he thought the thing into a grave deep, deep in the cornfield.

We never learn what exactly Anthony does to people, but somehow it doesn’t matter. The ugly details are left to the imagination, where they become even uglier, far more terrifying than anything Bixby could have put on paper.

Anthony’s punishments are swift and grotesque, and yet there is plenty of kindness in him, too. He wants to make the inhabitants of his universe happy; he just doesn’t really know how. He is tangentially aware that his subjects despise him – he is psychic, after all – and the part of him that is less goblin and more three-year-old boy experiences the pain of this rejection. We begin to feel pity for Anthony, too.

“It’s a Good Life” was published in 1953, which brings an additional context to our reading. One imagines perfect cul-de-sacs with fresh green lawns mowed by fresh-faced, slick-haired teenage boys. Mothers dressed in pearls and pink aprons, baking pies. New cars, newly built bungalows, new-fangled foods fresh from the factory. An idyllic lifestyle of conformity and conservatism and discretion, providing plenty of shadows where secret horrors lurk: alcoholism, domestic violence, child abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia, political persecutions, the threat of nuclear war – all the things they never showed on TV. It was a good life. Even when it really, really wasn’t.

Did Bixby intend this reading, or is it one that’s only accreted with time? It’s hard to say. But cultural commentary aside, “It’s a Good Life” is an expansive and flexible metaphor; it stretches to enfold a number of possible nightmares. Living with Anthony is like living with an abusive parent or spouse, for example; the story hints at the way families rearrange themselves to accommodate their most narcissistic and childish members. Or perhaps Anthony represents an abusive government, and his regime is totalitarianism in its most extreme form, where conformity is the only safe haven and even thought crimes are worthy of the strictest punishment.

Like a dysfunctional family or a fascist regime, the universe of Peaksville has become a sick system, and all members takes part in enforcing Anthony’s rules against each other. They must all come for “television” – Anthony’s favorite past time. They must play the piano, but never sing. Above all, they must remain relentlessly positive. They become one another’s jailers, constantly reminding each other to toe the line, and coping weakly with survivors’ guilt and guilty bargains: that sick and relieved inner voice that says Thank god it wasn’t me this time. Like when Anthony thinks Dan Hollis into something unspeakable:

[John Sipich] sat on the couch, with two other men, 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.

“It’s really good!” he said again.

Perhaps the real horror in “It’s a Good Life” is not only its resonance with the cruel and unpredictable universe we all inhabit, but its reminder of just how far we humans will go to survive. We’re incredibly adaptable, resilient even, but that strength comes with a price: there’s something in us that desires to exist at all costs, no matter how undignified that existence might be. The sick little lives of the residents of Peaksville are horrific, but they are lives, all the same. They still have their small moments of pleasure and relief. And no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse. So don’t rock the boat. Keep your head down. Make those devil’s bargains. It’s a good life – don’t you think?

4 replies to “WFR’s 101 Weird Writers: #13 — Jerome Bixby

  1. Metaphor for a dysfunctional family, a fascist regime, or … humanity’s conception of god?

  2. I was more familiar with the Twilight Zone episode than I was the short story, but I just finished the story and I can’t get it out of my head. I was wondering how much you know about Bixby. Was there any precedent for this story? Was there somebody who wrote something similar before hand or did Bixby come up with this story completely out of the blue? This is what I keep wondering. Modern writers tend to strip-mine the past and act as if they are writing something new or are inspired by some piece written before them. “Good Life” seems to be a complete original. Any idea whether that is true?

  3. Great article,
    I’m curious to know with who he wrote the script for the Fantastic Voyage. And where about I should look to find a copy of it? Thanks and keep up the good work

  4. Metaphor for god? Perhaps, but not the God of creation more like the god of cruelty and evil, a smiling Loki in the night, a tormentor, that serpent of old…