Today on Project Gutenberg #25

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

Sonny by Rick Raphael

With a title as short and nondescript as “Sonny,” it’s all too easy to overlook this short story at first. But the transcriber’s note at the beginning of the PG text tells us that this story was originally published in the April 1963 issue of Analog Science Fact and Fiction, a well-established sci-fi writers’ magazine that’s still going strong today. And if that doesn’t tip you off to the fact that there’s more to this story than meets the eye, then this quote from the beginning should do the trick:

Of course, no one actually knows the power of a thought. That is, the milli–or megawatts type of power.

The “Sonny” of the title isn’t actually named Sonny. He’s Jediah Cromwell, a nice young man from rural West Virginia who’s just been drafted into the Army. He’s devoted to his home and his ma, but duty calls, and so away he goes. At first he doesn’t quite fit in with the other new soldiers — he gets cursed at by the sergeant “just for not knowing the Army insisted on a body wearing shoes no matter what he was doing” — but he soon begins to make friends and earn the respect of his colleagues. They’re particularly impressed by Jed’s ability to hit the same spot on the target twenty times in a row during shooting practice…the exact same spot. Jed doesn’t really get why this is such a big deal: all he did was just “think the bullets” at the target. It’s just as easy as sending thoughts all the way back home to his mother. If only the electricity didn’t go out all over camp every time he did so, along with the engines and the phone lines and the radio…

It might take you a little while to get your bearings with this story, especially if you don’t normally read sci-fi. But once you get settled in, this is a fun, quick and easy read. Rick Raphael, the author of this piece, excels not only at writing the dialogue but the dialect as well. Jed’s West Virginia accent is written out phonetically, but it never feels too hard to understand. It also makes for a good contrast with the dialogue of the other characters, which is written out normally. Raphael has a knack for giving distinct voices to each of the key characters: Jed’s lighthearted friendliness, the firm warmth of his mother, the curiosity and pragmatism of his Army friend Harry Fisher, the arrogant brashness of the sergeant.

Another thing Raphael does really well in this story is the slow reveal of Jed’s full power. At first, the tricks he pulls aren’t exactly earth-shattering: he closes his eyes to communicate telepathically with his mother, and suddenly the lights in the barracks all turn off. But then we get to see what he can do with a gun, and then we see what happens when he has to think a little harder to send his thoughts back to West Virginia:

Jed frowned slightly and stepped up his mental output. A half mile down range and a thousand feet up, an Army helicopter heading for a maneuver area, coughed and quit. The blades went into autogyro as it sank quickly to earth.

Vehicles all over the post came to a spluttering stop and office lights and refrigerators went off.

“What did you say, Ma?” Jed asked. “Seemed like you got sorta weak.”

“‘Tain’t me.” Ma snorted. “Jest that nosy Miz Hawkins. She’s gotta listen in on everybody’s private talk up in these hills, seems like.” There was the feeling of an indignant gasp and then Ma’s thoughts came booming through. Jed relaxed and grinned. The chopper was almost on the ground when its engine caught fire once again and went surging up and forward. The surprised pilot fought to get control before he slammed into a low hill. Lights came back on and electrical equipment began running other than close to the range.

And yes, it’s not just Jed and his mother who can do stuff like this. Apparently most people in their home can. There’s something hilarious and delightful about the thought of little old ladies in Appalachia using powers out of an X-Men comic just eavesdropping on each other or letting each other know that the department store doesn’t have that fabric with the red flowers you wanted, would blue flowers be alright?

And like any good science-fiction story, this one runs on simple, solid logic. The further away Jed is from his mother, the more power he has to use to communicate with her, hence the lights going out and helicopters falling out of the sky. “Ma once said she reckoned us Cromwells could mind-talk with the Empereer of all Roosha if’n we had to,” Jed tells his friend Harry. ” ‘Course, we’d be straining our heads a mite fer all that distance ’cause Ma says Roosha and England is a heap further from Bluebird Gulch ‘n even Madison. Or Fore McGruder, I reckon.”

So what would happen if Jed Cromwell tried to send a message from Bluebird Gulch all the way to Russia? Or the other way around?

…Well, I guess you’ll just have to read “Sonny” and find out.

I highly recommend taking the time to look at this one. It shouldn’t take you more than half an hour to read, and it’s a fun, creative piece of mid-century sci-fi that builds its way up to some thrilling theatrics. You’ll have a good time.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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