Flash Review: The Little Black Bag by Cyril M. Kornbluth

This highly amusing and cynical short story hits all the right buttons.  It contains a future that may be funny for some and terrifying for others.  It has a highly emotional redemption arc.  And a crime and punishment element so exquisitely fulfilling that I can hardly think of a better ending to a story.

In the future, mankind descends into a terrible downward spiral.  The morons are vastly outbreeding the intelligent people, and in five or so centuries the Earth would be full of people with the memory limit of a goldfish with Alzheimer’s.  A small cabal of super-intelligent people is still trying to nudge humanity in the right direction, though, as well as maintain technological progress.  The problem with mankind’s dumbing down was not initially evident, as the loss of intelligence was offset by the improvement in technology.  And so, even when people with doctorate degrees can hardly read and can’t remember where they parked their car, they are able to conduct surgeries and treat patients, thanks to easy-to-use multipurpose medical bags, full of artificial intelligence.

One such doctor sends his medical bag by mistake to our present and quickly forgets about it.  It is found by Dr. Full, a former doctor who was forced to retire in disgrace and turned to heavy drinking.  He scams the tenants of a poor quarter for money to fuel his thirst.  But when the bag appears in his room and he successfully treats a little girl, he begins to hope that he could start helping people again.  Unfortunately, he is blackmailed by the girl’s sister, Angie, who realized the bag isn’t his and threatens to report him to the police.  She first tries to sell the bag, and when there are no takers, she forces Full to partner with her to run a clinic.  Full not only recovers from alcoholism, but becomes a highly respected doctor, able to help all his patients.  However, he is an idealist, and so he decides to present the bag to the medical council upon his retirement.  Angie has different plans.  She wants to use the bag to provide the much more lucrative plastic surgeries.  A fight between the two of them ensues, and Angie kills Fuller with a tool from the bag.

Angie’s first customer is a lady who doesn’t trust her with the sharp instruments.  Angie shows how harmless they are by stabbing herself with a scalpel, which misses all her vitals and seals the wound.  She then draws a scalpel along her neck, knowing that the scalpel’s intelligence would prevent any harm to her.  Unbeknownst to Angie, an alarm sounded in the future when she used one of the bag’s instruments to kill Full.  The future technician disables all advanced features just before Angie slits her throat.

I won’t be the first or the last one to draw parallels between this short story and the movie Idiocracy.  I can’t claim Black Bag had any influence over the movie, but I wouldn’t be surprised.  Especially the initial scene in the movie, which illustrates how the morons are outbreeding the smart people, very strongly evokes the humorous and compelling description of the same in the Black Bag.  The main nuance that didn’t get into the movie, though, was the advancement in technology that offsets the decline in intelligence.  This is so true for today’s society that it’s actually scary.  I won’t point fingers at anyone but me.  When I started writing, I used a Consul typewriter.  Later, on a computer, I used a MS-DOS-based text editor with no spell check, and from that point on the technology pf text editors just kept improving.  For the past three years, my English Dictionary, Thesaurus and Writer’s Reference Manual have been collecting dust on my desk, because the text editor I use can do all their functions much faster.  Imagine this on a global scale, and you’ll soon realize how technology is supplanting our brain processes.  No, I don’t feel dumber, but someone who is dumber than me could write this article just as well…

But I digress.  The dumbing down element may be the most obvious and memorable part of the book, but in its core, this is a redemption story of an old alcoholic who only needs a little external push to pick up his career.  Full may have resigned in disgrace, but he would genuinely care about others if he wasn’t drunk or hungover.  His rock-bottom is very vividly described, and so his restoration to a successful medical professional is very satisfying.  Even his naivety at the end where he projects his worldview on Angie, is believable.  As a reader, I was cynical enough to realize Angie would be a problem, but I could also understand Fall.  After Angie indeed became a problem, her punishment was swift, highly ironic, and fully deserved.

This story has everything: humor, an enthralling future world, a redemption arc and punishment for a crime.  It is extremely relatable to the current world, the characters are believable and the prose stood the test of time.  It truly is a classic that can be read and enjoyed by all fans of science fiction.

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