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Literature / Flies

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This Short Story was first published in The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction (June 1953 issue), by Isaac Asimov. This is a Science Fiction tale where a cybernetic researcher fresh out of college manages to quantify the ability to sense emotions purely from observing Body Language.

Dr John Polen, our narrator, is attending a twenty-year Class Reunion with two of his friends from college; Kendell Casey and Reverend Winthrop. Polen has spent his time working in the field of cybernetics, under the assumption that emotion is the common bond of life, and analyzed brainwaves and Body Language. He hides his ability to read the emotions of people and animals from his old friends, seeing their unconscious hatred boil away at each other. Casey is always followed by flies, so he went into research for E. J. Link at Chatham to find chemicals to kill the pests. Despite his company getting great progress, he's unable to eliminate their habit of following him. Unlike the other two, Winthrop went into religion, and Polen notes that religion has failed to give him the purpose in life he always wanted.

"Flies" was republished several times;Science Fiction Terror Tales (1955), Fiction (issue #33, Aug 1956), Nightfall and Other Stories (1969), Urania (issue #569, June 1971), The Supernatural In Fiction (1973), The Eureka Years (1982), Masterpieces Of Terror And The Supernatural (1985), Sirius (issue #115, January 1986), The Best Science Fiction Of Isaac Asimov (1986), and The Complete Stories, Volume 1 (1990).

Can be read here.

"Flies" contains examples of:

  • Beelzebub: The three friends discuss the pun inherent in the Hebrew Mythology corruption of "Ba'al zevuv", meaning "Lord of the Flies". Winthrop suggests that Casey is cursed by Beelzebub, and that's why he's always pestered by houseflies. Polen tries to research the emotions of the flies, realizing that the flies are following Casey out of religious reverence; he really is their god.
    "It amounts to a pun," said Winthrop. "The ancient Hebrews used it as one of their many terms of derision for alien gods. It comes from Ba'al, meaning lord and zevuv, meaning fly. The lord of flies."
  • Character Narrator: This story occurs in third person, but from Dr Polen's perspective, complete with his Jade-Colored Glasses and memories of the past.
  • Class Reunion: John Polen, Kendell Casey, and Winthrop are meeting together for their twenty-year college reunion, trying to fit together the way they used to, despite all three of them having become more cynical and jaded than they used to be. We get Flashbacks to events taking place ~twenty years ago, as the characters reminisce about their past.
    They were trying to snuggle into the cast-off shell of twenty years back, each of them. Squirming and cramming and not fitting.
    Damn, thought Polen fretfully, why do people attend college reunions?
  • The Empath: When they were in college, Polen believed that emotion is the common bond of life, rather than reason or intellect. They went into cybernetics and analyzed brainwaves and Body Language until he could read the emotions of people and animals just by looking at them, even flies! However, seeing the unconscious violence roiling away underneath empty platitudes and white lies affixed Jade-Colored Glasses to him permanently.
  • Featureless Plane of Disembodied Dialogue: Despite taking place during a college Class Reunion, which would imply a large crowd of hundreds of people, the only description is of the three characters. The flashbacks are expected to take place in different rooms, but there isn't any description to differentiate them from each other, or from the present day.
  • Flashback:
    • The first flashback is to over twenty years ago; when the trio discuss Beelzebub and establishing flychology by analyzing the emotions of Casey's flies.
    • The second flashback is to about eighteen years ago; when they discuss animals having religion and Polen is starting to become miserable because of his empathic abilities.
  • Flies Equals Evil: Casey is always being followed by flies. Winthrop suggests, not entirely jokingly, that it's a punishment for his irreverence. When Polen investigates why, he discovers that Casey is essentially Beelzebub in human form.
  • Fridge Horror: invoked The horror element in this story is extremely subtle. Casey wants the flies to leave him alone and is willing to kill them to make them do it. What does that suggest about the relationship between humanity and its god(s)?
  • Humans Are Cthulhu: Taken to its logical conclusion — Casey can't figure out why flies constantly circle around him, joking that he must smell like a lady fly in heat. As it turns out, they believe he's a god punishing them for their sinful ways. This is one of the few stories Isaac Asimov wrote that qualifies as horror, especially considering the Aesop he's leading up to.
  • Jade-Colored Glasses: The viewpoint character, John Polen, remembers when he started trying to analyze the Body Language of various animals in order to better understand emotional language. Seeing the dissonance between people's words and emotions has driven him to extreme cynicism.
  • Last-Name Basis: Although we know Polen and Casey's first names (John and Kendell), only Winthrop's last name is used within the work.
  • No Antagonist: There is no enemy to face, there isn't even any sort of conflict resolved. While the flies bother Casey, it isn't malevolence (it is reverence). The three friends have drifted apart after twenty years of little-to-no contact.
  • One-Word Title: "Flies"
  • Stopped Caring: Polen has become so jaded by his ability to see subconscious emotions that he tends to isolate himself from other people and withdraw from contact with living creatures.
  • Stop Worshipping Me: Casey is always being harassed by flies; he keeps trying to find better ways to kill them off, but they just keep coming back. Polen and Casey discuss Polen's research on animal behavior and emotion, which Casey gently mocks, joking that if the research succeeds, Polen should become a fly psychotherapist because there are a lot more flies that could potentially be made happy than people. Polen keeps secret the fact that his research has already succeeded, and that he knows the reason why flies are drawn to Casey: they worship him as a god. Although he doesn't know it, Casey is Lord of the Flies.
  • Token Religious Teammate: While Polen and Casey went into scientific research, their friend Winthrop went into seminary. Twenty years later, he's now Reverend Winthrop (but still missing a sense of purpose).