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Literature / Mimsy Were the Borogoves

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"Mimsy Were the Borogoves" is a science fiction short story by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore). It was originally published in the February 1943 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.

Millions of years in the future, a scientist builds a time machine and tests it by sending a box of children's toys into the past. When the box fails to return, he tries again with another box, which also fails to return, and gives up on the experiment. Both boxes appear on Earth — the second box in the late 19th century, and the first in 1942, where it is discovered by 7-year-old Scott Paradine.

Scott takes the box home, and he and his 2-year-old sister Emma begin playing with the toys and learning from them. Their parents, Dennis and Jane, take notice, but leave them to it. Eventually they become concerned and consult with a child psychologist, Rex Holloway, who surmises that the toys are teaching the children completely new ways of thinking.

The story inspired a 2007 film, The Last Mimzy.

Contains examples of:

  • Alice Allusion: It is revealed that the words in "Jabberwocky" come from a future language that only children can fully understand. The child protagonists of the story acquire a set of scripts of this language which, if properly comprehended, can construct the formula for a time-space equation enabling them to travel to the alien destination, which they are actually able to do. (Another scene in the story shows a young Alice Liddell — the real one — talking to Carroll while reading a different set of the futuristic scripts (presumably with a different purpose); she can only partially understand them, as she's around twelve now, and he can't comprehend them at all, but he says he'll use them in his writings...)
  • Alien Geometries: A set of toys from The Future wind up in the hands of a pair of present-day children, a brother and sister. Adults examining it soon realize that the various beads and parts move in ways that shouldn't be physically possible and conclude that they are educational toys meant to teach kids geometry. Present-day adults aren't mentally flexible enough to learn it, but the kids can. The father then walks into the kids' room to discover that they've figured out how to move hyperdimensionally, and he's horrified as they just walk off into nothingness and disappear.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: A scientist millions of years in the future sends two boxes of educational toys into the past. One of the boxes ends up in the major setting of the story—a small family's home in 1942 England. Scott and Emma, the family's children, begin to play with the toys and, thanks to their futuristic influence, gradually develop strange intelligences far beyond normal human capacity. The latter part of the story sees them trying to construct some sort of machine from the toys, but they can't complete or activate it. That gap is explained when, during a flashback, we see that the second box of toys ended up in the hands of an unnamed English girl in the late nineteenth century. She's unable to be fully influenced by the playthings due to her slightly higher age, but they still "talk" to her by telling her seemingly nonsensical stories and poetry. One day, she recites a few lines of one of those poems to a man who promises to write the whole thing, word for word, in the book he's writing based on her (supposedly) imaginary tales. She happily calls him "Uncle Charles," revealing that she's none other than Alice Liddell. The verse she's repeating is "Jabberwocky", and the apparently made-up words are actually an equation key to finish and power the time-space travel device. The story ends with Scott and Emma using "Jabberwocky" to complete their machine and vanish to parts unknown.
  • Bizarre Human Biology: The anatomical doll from the future, presumably of a future human, has different organs compared to a present-day human. This includes a shorter digestive tract, no large intestine or appendix, a difference in the aorta, and a network that goes throughout the body, is attached to the lungs, but is not a circulatory or nervous system.
  • Children Are Special: A post-scientist in the far future tests a Time Machine by sending two boxes of toys into the past; he loses track of them and considers the test a failure. The first box is discovered in the 20th Century, by Scott and Emma Paradine, who by playing with them, quickly begin thinking in a very different way. Their parents and other adults cannot comprehend the odd toys. It's explained that the children are not actually increasing their intelligence, but the toys are conditioning them to "non-Euclidean" reasoning; only a child's mind and way of thinking are flexible enough to accommodate or comprehend it because adults have lived their entire lives "conditioned to Euclid". Elsewhere (and, else-when) the second box is found in the 19th Century by young Alice Liddell. She can only barely understand the written material, being slightly older than Scott and Emma, but when describing it to her friend "Uncle Charles" (Lewis Carroll) he finds it interesting and says he'll include them in one of his works. In the main story, the two siblings not only figure out the scientist's original experiment, but why it failed, and construct a device to leave their space-time dimension. A copy of Through the Looking Glass is discovered by their parents, the odd title of the story (a line from Jabberwocky the missing piece used to complete the time-space equation. This is not to be confused with The Last Mimzy which is very loosely based on this original work.
  • Direct Line to the Author: This trope is applied retroactively to another famous series of books. In the story, a scientist millions of years in Earth's future sends two boxes of strange toys back through time, where they are discovered by children. The main plot centers on the box that lands in 1942 (contemporary time when the story was published); Scott and Emma, a brother and sister, find the toys and begin to display Troubling Unchildlike Behavior as they influence them. The toys compel the pair to build a strange machine, but they can't quite figure out how to make it work because they lack a key equation to activate it. The solution is presented when readers discover where the other box landed—"the latter half of the nineteenth century." There, an unnamed little girl hums a poem to herself, to the delight of a nearby adult taking care of her. He remarks that he will put the rhyme in one of the books he is writing, which are based on the stories the girl's "magical toys" tell her, although he has to change them immensely to make them understandable to others. The girl then refers to him as "Uncle Charles", revealing her identity as Alice Liddell—the poem is "Jabberwocky," and the stories are Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Alice herself is too old to be fully affected by the toys, but the books, and especially "Jabberwocky," are "the way out" and provide Emma and Scott the equation they need to activate their machine and vanish through time and space.
  • Literary Allusion Title: "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" is a title taken from the first verse of the surreal poem "Jabberwocky", the secret meaning of which is a plot point in the story.
  • My Little Panzer: A scientist from millions of years in the future working on a prototype time machine uses some educational toys as a test subject. They end up teaching some children how to vanish into Another Dimension.
  • Our Humans Are Different: A scientist from millions of years in the future sends an anatomical doll (among other things) back in time to 20th century Earth. The doll shows that future humans have significant biological differences from their 20th century ancestors.
  • Timeline-Altering MacGuffin: A scientist doing an experiment in Time Travel realizes that he doesn't have anything to send back, so he grabs some of his children's educational toys and sends them back to 1943 (when the story was written) where they educate a brother and sister how to move into another dimension, which they do before their father's horrified eyes.
  • Time Machine: Unthahorsten built a Box which could travel in time and sent it to the past. But it didn't return, so he built a second one and sent it to the past as well, but that one failed to return as well. This would probably be the end of the story, except he put toys in each Box.
  • Title Drop: At the end, Dennis Paradine discovers a page from Through the Looking Glass and recalls the verse on it, which includes the title of the story.
  • Tom Swifty: Alice, the one who had invokedinspired author Lewis Carroll, is a single scene character in this story who "thinks parenthetically" (and her thoughts are in parentheses instead of the more usual italics).
  • We Will Not Have Appendixes in the Future: The futuristic anatomical doll lacks an appendix, and a distinguishable large intestine for that matter. It also has at least one entirely new organ system, suggesting that changes were engineered rather than evolved.