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Literature / Spell My Name with an S

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First published in Star Science Fiction (January 1958 issue), by Isaac Asimov under the title "S as in Zebatinsky". This Science Fiction Short Story was inspired by people spelling Dr Asimov's name wrong.

Dr Marshall Zebatinsky is a physicist who has been bemoaning his dead-end job for years, so his wife convinced him to go to a numerologist for advice on what to do. The numerologist analyses his biographical information, and informs Dr Zebatinsky that changing his name to Sebatinsky will bring him the independence and notoriety he desires.

After he makes this change off-screen, the perspective shifts to Henry Brand, who is talking to Lieutenant Quincy, a young employee of Security, who finds it suspicious that Dr Sebatinsky would change his name. After doing some double-checking, they discover that there was a Russian physicist named Dr Zebatinsky as well. Their Dr Zebatinsky was working on an anti-radiation shield to defend against nuclear war. Prompted by this discovery, they decide to encourage secret development of gamma-ray reflection technology, too. Meanwhile, they move Dr Sebatinsky to Associate Professor of Physics at Princeton (a famous college).

Back to Dr Marshall Sebatinsky and his wife; he's very happy with the new job, and relieved that he wasn't being investigated as a subversive. He decides to revisit the numerologist and thank him for helping to achieve some small personal fame, but the office is closed, and has been for years. Ignoring the incongruity, he forgets about the business, and the perspective shifts again, now to a pair of Energy Beings, one of which used to be disguised as a numerologist.

In addition, this work was republished six times; Nine Tomorrows (1959), Galaxy (issue #64, September 1963), Sirius (issue #107, May 1985), The Best Science Fiction Of Isaac Asimov (1986), Robot Dreams (1986), and The Complete Stories, Volume 1 (1990).

"Spell My Name With an S" provides examples of:

  • Doing In the Wizard: Dr Zebatinsky goes to a numerologist, someone who can predict people's personal futures by using numbers. The numerologist insists on explaining that he's not using pseudo-magical techniques, instead following statistical analysis to predict the future. Extra twist! The numerologist isn't a human; he was an Energy Being trying to prove that it can manipulate global events on Earth with minor efforts.
  • Dramatic Irony: When Dr Zebatinsky changed his name to Dr Sebatinsky, government officials started checking into his background and ancestry to see why he had changed his name in that way. They were suspicious that he might be a "subversive", someone who is willing to work for enemy countries. After moving him to a college job, he tells his wife that his concern about being investigated as a subversive was obviously wrong, and it must have been the college using subtle methods to interview him.
  • Deflector Shields: Dr Kristow, of the Atomic Energy Commission, explains to Mr Brand, of a federal Security organization, that gamma-ray reflection could theoretically protect cities against nuclear fallout, which is the major threat in nuclear war.
  • Human Disguise: The numerologist is actually an Energy Being trying to prove a bet. They created The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday just to present the idea of Dr Zebatinsky changing his name to Dr Sebatinsky.
  • In Mysterious Ways: Two non-corporeal people, on a bet, manage to completely avert nuclear war just by convincing one man to spell his name with an S instead of a Z.
  • Kicked Upstairs: The security establishment can't find any real reason to suspect Zebatinsky, but they're sufficiently worried that they want to remove him from his current sensitive position. Their solution is to arrange for him to get offered a better job elsewhere.
  • The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday: Dr Zebatinsky was told by his wife to go visit a numerologist (a type of Fortune Teller) for advice. The numerologist suggests that changing his name to Dr Sebatinsky would help him achieve notoriety. After a couple of months, Dr Sebatinsky has been head-hunted by a famous college, so he returns to thank the numerologist, but the office is empty, and has been for many years. Then the point-of-view shifts, and we learn that alien Energy Beings using a Human Disguise pretended to be the numerologist to prove a bet.
  • My Nayme Is: Dr Marshall Zebatinsky decides, on the advice of a numerologist, to spell his last name "Sebatinsky", and the story tracks the various side-effects of that change. This story is the former Trope Namer of Inconsistent Spelling, but actually uses this trope instead.
  • Prescience by Analysis: Dr. Zebatinsky goes to a numerologist, who reveals that he isn't a Fortune Teller; he's a mathematician. Instead of analyzing the mystical significance of numbers, he uses computers, models, and statistical analysis to predict the future.
    "Given enough data and a computer capable of sufficient number of operations in unit time, the future is predictable, at least in terms of probabilities." — Haround, numerologist
  • Switching P.O.V.: The story changes perspectives for every scene, but always remains in Third-Person Limited. Dr Zebatinsky/Sebatinsky, The Protagonist, is present for less than half of the narrative.
  • Title Drop: Dr Sebatinsky doesn't really believe in the "prediction" made by the numerologist, but is satisfied with the results anyway. After telling people to spell his name with an 'S' for so long, he'd find it inconvenient to change back to being Dr Zebatinsky.
  • Wig, Dress, Accent: Dr Zebatinsky wears old clothes and a hat, neither of which he had been in for years, and left his prescription glasses in their case so that nobody recognizes him on his way to the numerologist.
  • World War III: Humanity is on course to destroy themselves with nuclear war, when a pair of Energy Beings get involved to prove they can avert worldwide nuclear holocaust by simply changing one person's name. The second one points out that yes, the first one won the bet... but they're both going to be in trouble when their boss comes back and the humans are still around. They immediately triple the bet, and the first one goes back to recreate the nuclear war with another subtle change.

Alternative Title(s): S As In Zebatinsky