Short Story Review – Edmundo Paz Soldán – Doctor AN (trans. Arthur Dixon)

There’s no way to defend yourself, said the doctor. What I’ve done is very bad. I warned the officials when they assigned me the project. We’re all wrong, and karma will come for nus all. But, luckily, it’s all over.

Outside of Stanisław Lem and perhaps Isaac Asimov, I haven’t really read any science fiction short stories.  The challenge must, I imagine, be immense.  In a short story already the author must create a whole world, but when that world is, also, set in the future, with strange new technology to explain, and sophisticated concepts to convey?  Pity the writer!

Often such stories are wrapped tightly around a particular idea.  Sometimes this idea is an extension of a technology or challenge we have today, and sometimes the story is a springboard to ‘what if’ ideas like identity, purpose, morality, etc.  The big stuff.  The important things.  Science fiction is unafraid.

Edmundo Paz Soldán doesn’t seem to be afraid, either.  In this story, he tackles the concept of what an individual should do when they have created something monstrous.  We’ve seen this in our times, when Fritz Haber’s great leaps in chemistry helped pave the way for the creation of Zyklon B.  How can one live with oneself after that?  In Haber’s case, he also greatly improved the overall quality of humanity via his same insights into fertilisation, so perhaps the scale is balanced … or perhaps such a scale can never be balanced, and the weight of a single human is enough to topple the measuring system entirely.  Perhaps the world can – should – turn on the unjust death of a single individual.  Is it reasonable to murder a child to ensure the works of Shakespeare are written?  Is it valid to gas a family to feed a thousand families?  It’s difficult to ask, let alone answer, such questions.

In Doctor AN, the eponymous doctor has created a drug he terms ‘honey’, which is remarkably adept at killing humans, though it leaves animals alone.  And aliens, which it seems there are wherever this story is set.  The science fiction setting is unclear, touched on via the margins in terms of odd terminology, strange asides, new words.  This doesn’t detract from the story, instead adding to the chaotic confusion of Doctor An’s last day, and hinting more broadly at where, in the end, his decision has come from.

Paz Soldan’s story is difficult to read in places, and must have been challenging for Arthur Dixon to translate.  Consider the following:

Real stubborn, the woman had said. And fokin brilliant, di. As if a concept, somethin that seemed simple, he could hold it down for nus, as if he couldn’t go on without exploring its complexity. At first I thought he was kinda dense. I was wrong. The capacity ta wonder at things the world accepts as normal tends to show up n’a superior mind. He proved he’s on anotha level when he discovered those unexpected effects of serotonin conversion. It’s a shame SaintRei kept him from continuing. Den the countermand came and they gave him a riskier project, who knows why. Curious that radical ideas come out of someone so conservative. A defender of the statuquo.

We have dialect, a strange name, a merged word, and sophisticated medical terminology – all in a few lines.  Or this:

When Doctor An arrived in Megara, forty-five minutes later, the shan who had given him a ride that morning was being admitted to the hospital. She was driving the hipu through the city when a trickle of blood ran out of her mouth. She felt surrounded by a toxic cloud that covered her bodi and reminded her of all her scars, those she had and those that were to come.

At any rate, Doctor An knows he has created a monster, and this story is his attempt to clean it up.  We don’t know that, so the mounting violence throughout the piece is odd, confusing, and it’s initially hard to place Doctor An as either a hero or a villain.  At the end, too, when everyone involved with its creation is dead, it remains difficult to properly determine how Doctor An should be perceived.  Is he a horrific individual because he was able to create such a weapon?  Or is he saintly because he murdered everyone involved in order for it never to be disseminated?  It’s hard to say, and this question makes up the defining question of the story.

I am not a genius, and have not had to shoulder such a burden.  Few people are and few people have, which is probably to the good, but this story attempts to show the last hours of a genius who has made a decision regarding the (un?)intended output of his formidable intellectual power.  Haber, mentioned above, suffered from believing himself a war criminal, suffered from experiencing his wife’s suicide, suffered from isolation and his eventual death of a heart attack.  But he thrived, too, as an important and lauded man, and even won the Nobel.  What cost, genius?  Haber provides a key, and Doctor An, too.

Doctor AN is a short story by Bolivian writer Edmundo Paz Soldán, and was translated by Arthur Dixon.  You can read the story online at Latin American Literature Today.

Author Edmundo Paz Soldán
Title Doctor AN
Translator Arthur Dixon
Nationality Bolivian
Publisher Latin American Literature Today

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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