Science fiction is a genre with a unique danger—obsolescence. As advances in technology and our understanding of the universe change, this can create problems for stories later on. (For example, Asimov’s great short story “The Dying Night,” which relies on a particular understanding of the motion of the planet Mercury—one which we now know is incorrect.) It can become difficult for authors to maintain that sense of far future advances in science and technology, or even astrological conventions (for example, anything referring to Pluto as a planet—like Roger Macbride Allen’s Ring of Charon). While we aren’t yet up to the level of the Star Trek warp drive, the PADD system isn’t all that different from currently available cell phones. In fact, with new applications such as the location-aware browser Layar, it’s becoming more and more tricorder-like. Over 50 years of Hugo awards have come and gone, with major changes to the genre. With voting for the current round having recently completed, it seemed a fitting time to to take a glance back at the historical winners, and see how they have held up.
Fittingly enough, Allamagoosa is timeless, and should be as entertaining to today’s office worker as it was to kids in the 1950s when the story first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction over fifty years ago.
The plot follows an Earth military ship—the Bustler—as they’ve just arrived for some well-deserved shore leave. Unfortunately for them, their leave is abruptly cut short just as it’s begun when they receive word that they’re about to have an inspection and inventory—something the captain and his crew seem to dread even more than the thought of unknown alien terrors. The crew immediately begins painting and inventorying the ship, when they run into a problem—they’re missing the ship’s offog, whatever that is.
At first, a frantic search is made over the ship to locate the missing offog, made more difficult by the fact that no one seems to know what an offog is. When finding it proves impossible, the crew can either claim that the offog was lost, resulting in an inquiry as to why it wasn’t reported lost at the time and a probable reprimand for the captain, or they can come up with a more… creative solution. Anyone familiar with modern bureaucracy will appreciate the actions of the Buster’s crew, and sympathize when their solution ends up having unintended consequences.
What makes “Allamagoosa” work fifty years later isn’t the science fiction elements. The space ships, faster than light travel, etc. are ancillary to the plot, even though the tropes help the crew create their disastrous solution. Rather, it’s telling a classic story of man’s constant struggle against red tape. “Allamagoosa” is a fun read and appropriate for all ages, but will be especially appreciated by anyone who has recently spent time in a DMV, or making sure they had the correct cover on their TPS reports.