The Last Letter
by Fritz Leiber

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1958

included in —
A Pail of Air

The Worlds of Fritz Leiber

October 2010

Sorting: fast, precise, and delicate

Fritz Leiber's science fiction short story "The Last Letter" is well-written as we confidently may expect from Leiber, a satire with a straightforward plot, pleasant and funny. As an imagineer myself, I find particularly interesting the juxtaposition of the date of the story's composition versus its setting:

On Tenthmonth 1, 2457 A.D., at exactly 9 A.M. Planetary Federation Time — but with a permissible error of a millionth of a second either way — in the fifth sublevel of New-New York Robot Postal Station 68, Black Sorter gulped down ten thousand pieces of first-class mail.

This breakfast tidbit did not agree with the mail-sorting machine. It was as if a robust dog had been fed a large chunk of good red meat with a strychnine pill in it. Black Sorter's innards went whirr-klunk, a blue electric glow enveloped him, and he began to shake as if he might break loose from the concrete.

He desperately spat back over his shoulder a single envelope, gave a great huff and blew out toward the sorting tubes a medium-sized snowstorm consisting of the other nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine pieces of first-class mail chewed to confetti. Then, still convulsed, he snapped up a fresh ten thousand and proceeded to chomp and grind on them. Black Sorter was rugged.

Notice that this is a 500-year projection into the future, from one of science-fiction's most creative cultural imaginations. Mail handling is entirely automated, with sub-sorters and other specialty machines backing up Black Sorter. Further, it develops shortly that the "first-class" mail of this future era is entirely advertising.

This isn't such a stretch, as we see it from our viewpoint, as of this writing, of about one-tenth of the interval allotted by Leiber. Both the postal automation and the domination of mail by advertising are making such good progress that a single century overall should take us to the state of "The Last Letter", insofar as printed-paper "mail" survives.

I don't mean to hold Leiber to his predictive year or even century, because I suspect he grabbed it out of thin air. But surely this is one of the cases where science fiction's view of the rate of change is turning out to be quite conservative.

Having personally seen at Hughes Aircraft a card-sorting machine the size of an automobile hiccup and mangle a couple of hundred punch-cards in the blink of an eye, I find the vision of Black Sorter shredding mail wholesale to be quite apt. Fritz Leiber's little satire is funny and pointed, with some surprises along the way, showing that in some ways the future is gaining on us faster than we expected.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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