“Pythias” by Frederik Pohl
Card picked: 8♥ (It’s week 10 and I still haven’t drawn a club…)
Found at: East of the Web
“Pythias” begins with our narrator, Dick, in jail for the murder of his friend Larry. Dick tells us that the murder is considered particularly heinous since Larry had recently saved Dick’s life. You see, there was an incident in which terrorists stormed a government meeting and Larry jumped on a hand grenade, its pin pulled. Larry survived, only being knocked out for a day. That event reminded Dick of a theory that Larry once espoused:
“You claimed that the human mind possessed powers of psychokinesis,” I said. “You argued that just by the mind, without moving a finger or using a machine, a man could move his body anywhere, instantly. You said that nothing was impossible to the mind.”
Larry admits that he’s found the secret of telekinesis and that anyone can learn to do it. While Larry is demonstrating his abilities to Dick, Dick kills him, believing that such power could corrupt even a good guy like Larry.
I had to familiarize myself with the Greek legend of “Damon and Pythias,” which this story riffs on. In the legend, Pythias is accused of plotting against Dionysius in Syracuse and is sentenced to death. His friend Damon volunteers to be human collateral while Pythias goes to settle his affairs. Dionysius doesn’t believe that Pythias will return, but when he does, he’s so overcome by the gesture of true friendship, that he allows both to go free. Generally, this story is seen as one friend relieving the burden of another, which works out for both because…friendship!
I can see some of what Pohl intends with the title of this story. Dick is relieving Larry of his burden, even before Larry sees it as such. Larry’s happy doing silly things, like popping to the top of Mt. Everest, and occasionally being a hero. It hadn’t crossed his mind that he could use his power to rob banks or spy on people. It is almost immediately what Dick thought of. The story ends with Dick in jail, facing an inevitable death sentence. But Larry told him the secret of his psychokinesis…
Speculative fiction writer Fredrik Pohl had a career spanning 75 years. His novel Gateway (1977) won the big four of SF awards: the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Campbell. He edited the also award-winning Galaxy magazine. In the realm of science fiction, Pohl was considered one of the greats.