Ed Emshwiller—known affectionately as Emsh—is one of those names that only fans of classic science fiction and fantasy will probably be familiar with, but within that community the artist held some prestige. He is most known for doing pulp magazine covers and interior art, particularly for Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. When one thinks of sci-fi art of the 50s and early 60s, it is probably Emshwiller’s style that comes most readily to mind.
David R. Bunch was a science fiction and satirical writer who is best known for a series of short stories set on Moderan, an Earth analogue world where everything has become largely mechanized, including the people of Moderan themselves, and those people live inside giant computerized structures called Strongholds which are at perpetual war with each other. Bunch wrote dozens of these stories, most of which have been collected in the Moderan volume and in various science fiction anthologies. One of these stories, A Little Girl’s Xmas in Moderan, was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (though it was retitled A Little Girl’s Xmas in Modernia, probably due to some copyright conflict with the name Moderan). It became the cover story for that issue, with cover art from Emshwiller.
It is a strange story told from the point-of-view of a kindergarten-age girl—known only as Little Sister in the story—one of the few citizens of Moderan who hasn’t yet become a cyborg and thus retains her full humanity. Bunch contrasts her nicely against her father, who is almost entirely machine at this point and, although fully sentient, has essentially lost touch with what made him human in the first place, including being a father to his two children. The entire family—father, mother, son and daughter—each live in their own house with robot servants to attend their every need.
The Moderan series was an early representative of the New Wave of science fiction, which completely revolutionized the genre, but today Bunch and his Moderan stories have mostly been forgotten. One interesting aspect of Little Sister is that she spends much of the story completely naked, even in though it is the dead of winter. I suspect this is to remind the reader that she is, indeed, fully human. Like artists who use nudity symbolically to communicate the child’s vulnerability, Bunch utilizes Little Sister’s nudity to show that human beings are vulnerable, even emotionally, and yet, in comparison to being fully mechanized, this vulnerability may be preferable, because at least it is still human.
I am including here both the magazine cover and the original illustration. Unfortunately, the latter is not quite as high quality as the former, but it should be sufficient.
Apparently there are other Moderan stories which feature these characters, including one called A Little Girl’s Spring Day in Moderan (which, unfortunately, is not included in the Moderan collection). As a treat for you all, I am going to include the full text of the story in this post! Enjoy!
A Little Girl’s Xmas in Moderan
by David R. Bunch
It was in Jingle-Bell weather that Little Sister came across the white yard, the snow between her toes all gray and packed and starting to ball up like the beginnings of two snowmen. For clothing she had nothing, her tiny rump sticking out red-cold, and blue-cold, and her little-jewel knees white almost as bones. She stuck up ten stiff fingers, and she said, “Daddy! Something is wrong at my place! Come see!” She lisped a little perhaps and did not say it all as precisely as grownups, because she was just past four.
He turned like a man in the bottom third of bad dreaming; he pointed two bored eyes at her. Damn the kid, he thought. “What the hell deal has Mox got us into now?” he said. And he sang the little rhyme that made the door come open. Then as she stepped toward him he saw the snowballs on her feet. They were melting now, making deep furrows in the green rug spread across his spacious thinking room. The tall nap, like flooded grass now along little canals bending away from her feet, was speckled white here and there with crumpled paper balls. His trial plans and formulas peeped out like golf balls.
Coming back across the iron fields of nightmare that always rose to confront him at such times, he struggled to make the present’s puzzling moments into sense. Damn the kid, he thought, didn’t wipe her feet. All flesh, as yet – her own – and bone and blood, and didn’t wipe her feet. The snow melts!
He motioned her to him. “Little Sister,” he began in that tired dull-tinny voice that was his now, and must be his, because his larynx was worked all in gold against cancer, “tell me slowly, Little Sister. Why don’t you stay in your plastic place more? Why don’t you use the iron Mox more? Why do you bother me at all? Tell me slowly.”
“Daddy!” she cried and started to jig up and down in the fits that he hated so, “come over to my place, you old boogie. Something needs fixing.”
So they went across the big white yard to her place, past Mother’s place, with her snow-hurt limping and naked, and him lumbering in strange stiff-jointedness, but snug in a fire-red snuggie suit of fine insulation with good black leather space high-tops. Arrived at her place he whistled at the door the three sharp notes. The door moved into the wall and Mox the iron one stood sliding the iron sections of his arms up into one another until he had only hands hanging from shoulders. It was his greeting way. He ogled with bulb eyes and flashed his greeting code.
“What would you have done,” her father said, “if I had not come with you? You brought no whistle for the door.” Three sharp notes sprang at him from the normal holes of her head, and the heavy door rolled softly out of the wall until it shut them in the gay red-carpeted room with a Xmas tree – the father, the naked little girl and the iron Mox. And she was impishly holding the whistle between her teeth, grinning up at him. “I had it all along,” she said and dropped the whistle into the tall red grass of her room’s carpet.
She wiped the waning snowballs from her feet and sidled her icy-cold rump over toward the slits where the heat came through the wall, soft and perfumed like an island summer. Her knees turned knee-color again and her rump became no longer vari-colored cold. It became the nicest of baby-pink little-girl rumps, and she stood there a health-champion of a little miss, all flesh and bone and blood – as yet – pointing at an angle toward the ceiling. “The star!” she said. “The star has fallen down.” And he noticed that she was pointing toward the tree.
“What star?” he started to say, across the fog that always smelled like metal in his mind these last few years, and then he thought, Oh hell, she means the Xmas star. “You came across all that yard,” he asked incredulously, “to annoy me with a thing like that, when Mox – ?”
“Mox wouldn’t,” she broke in. “I asked him and asked him, but he wouldn’t. It’s been down since the fifteenth. You remember when those dumb students went home in their jets early and fast and broke the rules and shook the houses down. BOOM! and the star fell down. Just like that. Well, he’d just do silly when I asked him, like you just now saw him, just shake his arms up into his shoulders and ogle. Pretty darn dumb, if you ask me.”
“But what about your mother?”
“I asked her when I was over to her place, over a week ago. But she’s been too busy and tired. You know how Mama is, always having that plastic guy rubbing parts of her, that she says hurt, and jumping on the bed at any little thing. Sometimes I think that guy’s in love with Mama. What’s love?”
“What?! What’s love? Should I tell you, did I know? Love is – is not an iron ceiling on a plastic . . . But – oh, never mind! Hell! – How’s her star?”
“Twinkle twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are, up above the world so high, like a mama in the sky. Heard that on the programs advertising diamonds.”
“Just answer the questions. How’s her star?”
“Up real shiny, last I saw. But heck, Mama probably never even looks at her star, because that plastic guy – ”
“And Little Brother’s star?”
“Humph, Little Brother! Beat his star up about a week after we put ’em up. Said it was just what he needed for the rear end of his space tube. You know how Little Brother is about space.”
“And so yours is the only star that has fallen. Mother’s is still up, though she doesn’t have time to look at it, you think. Little Brother took his down in the interest of space. Yours just fell.”
“Daddy, where is your star, Daddy?”
He looked at her, and he thought, Damn these little girls. Always so much sentiment. And so schemy, too. He said, “I had Nugall store my star away. It’s somewhere with the tree, in a box. It interfered with my deep thinking. I’ve got to have entirely a bare room, so far as Xmas trees are concerned, for my deep thinking, if you don’t mind.”
For just a moment he thought she was going to get the sniffles. She looked at him, float-eyed, her face ready to buckle and twist into tearful complaint. But she held and stared at him more sternly, and he said, “Sure, I’ll fix the damned star for you. Drag me a chair over. And then I must rush right back to my place.” (Dangerous, this being together so much. And so old-fashioned. And besides, he had been really cooking on a formula when she burst in.) So he stood on the chair she dragged to him, and he fixed the frosti-glass star to its hook in the iron ceiling and he adjusted the star until it was almost impossible to tell that it wasn’t attached to the green plastic tree. Then he whistled at the door.
Just as he was passing through the opening, leaving, he felt something tug at a leg of the fire-red suit. Damn! It was she again. “What now?” he asked.
“Daddy!” she piped, “you know what, Daddy? I thought, what if we’d go over to Mother’s and Little Brother’s places, since it’s Xmas. And you’ve got on your red suit. Isn’t this a very special day? I’ve been hearing on the programs – ”
“No,” he said, “it isn’t a very special day. But if you want to – and you’d probably do a fit about it if you didn’t get to – come on.” So after she had put on a green snow suit, they trudged across the white yard, a strange study in old Xmas colors, and they stopped first at Little Brother’s place, who was just past five.
Dressed in a pressure suit and sturdy beyond all sense, from the weight lifting and vitamin taking and breakfast-of-champions eating, he wanted to know what the hell all the nonsense of a visit was about so early. And he let them know that Nogoff, his iron man, was taking care of everything at his place very well, thank you. Then he strode about in his muscles, sturdy beyond all meaning, and he showed them the new jet tube part he had hammered out of the star, and they left pretty soon from his surliness. On the way over to Mother’s place Little Sister suggested that she thought Little Brother thought too much about rockets and jets and space. Didn’t Father think so? Father agreed dully that maybe he did, he didn’t know, but really, could one ever think too much about rockets and jets and space?
As they walked along, over the yard to Mother’s place, she kicked up snow and chortled and laughed and told off-color jokes – she had heard them on the programs – almost like a normal little girl should. Father tracked dourly through the unmarked snow under the featureless gray sky and thought only how all this nonsense of walking so early was making the silver parts of his joints hurt, and before he’d had his morning bracer, too. Yes indeed, Father, for the most part, was flesh only in those portions that they had not found ways to replace safely. He held on grimly, walking hard, and wished he were back in his hip-snuggie thinking chair where he worked on Universal Deep Problems.
At Mother’s place they found her having one of her plasto-rubs from the plastic man, who did truly act a little odd about Mother. Do you suppose he wasn’t really all machine but was a man who had been replaced part by part until it was impossible now to tell where the man left off and the robot plastic began? Father worried about it for half a second and then dismissed it. So what if he was? What could he do to Mother? And what if he did, what would it matter? Mother – new alloys now in almost all the places.
Little sister yelled MERRY XMAS! at the top of her good flesh lungs, and Mother turned through the waist only, as though on a swivel in that portion, and Father coughed dry in the metal of his embarrassment.
“’Twas Little Sister’s idea,” he mumbled. “So sorry, Marblene. I guess Mox hasn’t been watching her programs right, her insisting on Xmas trees and all this year, and now the idea of a visit among the folks of the family. I’m sorry, Marblene.” He coughed again. “So out of date.”
Mother blazed at him from her very plain blue eyes that were almost all ‘replaced’ now. It was clear that she wished to continue her rub with the plastic man as soon as possible. “Well?” she demanded.
“That’s all,” he mumbled, “if Little Sister’s ready.” Then for some silly reason – he couldn’t explain it afterwards, unless it was because he wasn’t all ‘replaced’ yet – he said a silly thing, something that would obligate him months hence. “Do you – I mean, would you – I mean, could I,” he stammered, “could I see you a couple of minutes, maybe at Easter? Our places are just across the yard from each other, you know. Maybe when I’m all ‘replaced’ I won’t be able to walk.” He hated himself for pleading.
She airily tossed her left hand, and fluttered those fabulous ‘replaced’ plastic fingers, and great rays of light shot and quavered and streamed from rings of ‘moderne’ diamond. “Why not?” she said resignedly. “What’s to lose? If Jon’s through in time – ” Jon was her plastic man – “we’ll talk a bit on Easter.”
And so it was done, and over, and soon they were again outside in the yard. “I guess I won’t have to walk you back will I? You have your whistle, don’t you?” he said.
“No,” she said. “I dropped it in the red rug. I just remember I did. I heard it. It squished down in the wet. While the snowballs were melting. Maybe I could come to your place!”
Damn these little girls, he thought. So tricky. Always scheming. He’d have to start having her ‘replaced’ as soon as he could after Xmas.
“There’s nothing of interest at my place,” he hastened to say. “Just my hip seat and my thinking space and Nugall.” He didn’t see any use to tell her about Nig-Nag, the statue woman who wasn’t quite all metal, that he kept under the bed until he needed her so much that he had to . . . there were some things that you just didn’t tell a daughter, not until she was much older or well on the road toward being all ‘replaced.’ “Tell you what we’ll do,” he said. “I’ll walk you back to your place and I’ll whistle at the door and you can go in to Mox. Your star’s all fixed and everything. You’ve had quite a Xmas!”
So they walked back through the iron-cold snow to her place, under a sky that was rapidly thickening in a day turning black. And as her door glided open he felt so relieved that he stooped and kissed her on top of the head, and he tapped her playfully a little on her good flesh buttocks as she passed through the plastic entrance. When she was gone he stood there thinking a little while outside her house. Like an old man in the starting third of a good dreaming, he stood nodding, prompted perhaps by things from a time before the time of ‘replacements,’ wondering maybe if he had not paid some uncalculated and enormous price for his iron durability.
While he stood thus idly musing, a light high and wee came up suddenly – from eastward, from toward the coast airports – and moved fast down the murky sky toward him, gaining speed. Soon the countryside all around recoiled from a giant blow as the barrier burst. He heard Little Sister behind him scream and beg for him to come back, and he knew without looking that her star was off its iron hook again. Like some frightened monster eager to gain its lair he dug in harder with his metal feet and lumbered off across the yard to his place, anxious to rest again in his hip-snuggie chair, desirous to think further on Universal Deep Problems.
The light, unswerving, went on down the sky, high and wee, like a fleeing piece of star, like something for somewhere else in a great hurry.