The Improper Authorities
by Fritz Leiber

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Fantastic, November 1959

included in —

The Worlds of Fritz Leiber

June 2012

What goes up, and who to tell?

Just about from the beginning of science fiction as a nameable and recognized magazine field, the science fiction magazines have carried advertisements appealing to gadgeteers, inventors or would-be inventors, even to discoverers of new principles of mind or matter. Courses for careers in the new field of radio were omnipresent in the 1930s. Later, the first home computers were mail-order kits that you had to assemble yourself, and then program by carefully flipping an array of switches; they didn't do much, but they got a lot of hobbyists their first bits of action in the great torrent to come.

Somewhat short of revealing new realms of mind, as offered in some advertisements, were those suggesting new scientific principles; or that if you had discovered one, you should write to the advertiser for help in managing and promoting it. Of course, low-energy propulsion, anti-gravity, and perpetual-motion machines have their ongoing fascination. All easier said than done.

In a short story, "The Improper Authorities", Fritz Leiber has fun with one of these ideas. The protagonist, fixing a doorbell for his aunt, seems to have stumbled upon the discovery of the ages. The story opens:

As soon as Ronald Flecker fully convinced himself that he had discovered in his eccentric aunt's cluttered basement a small battery that stored the force of gravity instead of electricity — a battery that held in complete essence the power of fuelless spaceflight, levitation, and any number of lesser marvels — he sat down to do some very serious thinking.

As should anyone with a touch of imagination, tempered by a touch of caution. For as many projects are too big or complex for routine handling, so with ideas, inventions, discoveries, breakthroughs. A working anti-gravity device! Now, what to do with it?

I can't say much about the plot of a short story with revealing it all. Leiber develops the situation quite reasonably, his discoverer taking thoughtful steps of experimentation and disclosure, even as we would facing such a tremendous opportunity. "The Improper Authorities" is a fun story, and withal a thought-provoking one.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

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