A few years ago, I got to meet George R. R. Martin at a convention. My “meeting” was absolutely forgettable for him. I was one of hundreds of people queuing to get his autograph. Still, I was one of the few people not dressed as characters from his A Song of Ice and Fire series or waving around one of those books. Other than “I’m so honored to meet you” and “Thank you”, I told him only one thing: that his Sandkings was my favorite science fiction short story. Subjectively, I wasn’t lying, but on an objective level, Microcosmic God, which popularized the idea of a pocket universe and inspired Sandkings and countless other works, is superior.
Kidder is a highly accomplished scientist who churns out one revolutionary invention after another. He is also incredibly introverted, preferring to live alone on a deserted island he purchased, and to communicate with the outside world only through his banker, Conant. Kidder is not a scientific prodigy, though. The secret to his success is a race of tiny beings, named Neoterics, whom he designed from scratch. His intent was to create a civilization of intelligent beings with a very short lifespan, and thus with accelerated development in science and technology. He keeps them in a terrarium, and presents himself as their god, killing large parts of the population whenever they displease him. When he wants a new invention, he tasks the Neoterics to develop it, and entire generations of these beings dedicate their lives to accomplishing this task.
As Kidder doesn’t have the need for money, Conant takes control of Kidder’s inventions on the mainland, and gradually he becomes the richest and most powerful man in America. He goads Kidder into developing a new source of clean energy, and when Kidder delivers, Conant has his goons invade the island and build a power plant to cover all American energy needs. He also weaponizes the energy to threaten the US government into relinquishing its power to him. Kidder realizes that Conant will kill him as soon as the plant is completed, and so he asks the Neoterics to create an impenetrable shield around the entire island. Conanct is cut off from his energy source and institutionalized by the government. Kidder presumably lives under the shield, which even after years of shelling by the US Navy did not budge. And the narrator is afraid what would happen in the future, when the Neoterics are released into the world.
This story strikes the archetypical nerdy science fiction reader on several levels. Most obviously, it presents a very novel idea of a civilization that is small, but evolving very quickly, and which is utilized to produce technological change for its owner or god. This has inspired countless other books, movies and other forms of media. Even science is grappling with this question, attempting to determine whether we are in such a pocket universe, as a virtual reality. The creation of the Neoterics is a little crude, and later popular media dropped this part, replacing it with already existing alien species or computer simulations, but the overreaching idea is as exciting as ever.
On a more subliminal level, the story is the personification of the fears and dreams of many science fiction fans of old, who were usually more intellectual than practical, and often were bullied rather than being the bullies. Kidder could be any one of them – someone who happened to do one thing right and then reaps the benefits of his work, but also a man who just wants to be kept alone and give the world his inventions for the sake of humanity. Conant is the bully, who wants to exploit Kidder, to the point where he physically threatens him to give up his lunch money (latest invention). He is also the bully who knows his own strength and the weakness of the victim, so he doesn’t show any need to control Kidder. This only adds insult to injury. In my much younger days, I could easily identify with Kidder and his plight, and this added an emotional level to the story.
Microcosmic God is not perfect. The technology is not all that well developed or explained and often just serves as a vehicle to drive the story. The impenetrable shield, for example, is never elaborated on. We don’t know how it was constructed, where the Neoterics found the material for it, or how they erected it when they couldn’t leave the confines of their little universe. The shield is only a plot element because of the implications Sturgeon explores, such as cutting off energy in addition to matter, or the failure to precisely communicate specifications. The fact that the shield saved Kidder from the outside world and the world from the Neoterics for the time being, almost seems incidental.
Still, this is a short story that should be read by every science fiction fan. It lays the groundwork for many more stories to come, and even an entire field of theoretical thought. Sturgeon’s genius was in recognizing a scientific theory way before scientists thought it to be plausible, and in presenting it in a way that plays on the emotions of the reader.
(As to why I still like Sandkings more on a subjective level, the creatures there took the final step in punishing their torturer and god. Deep down, this left me a little more satisfied.)