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A long time ago, around the late 1980s or possibly the early 1990s, I read a science fiction story about a man hit with a drug that keeps resetting his short-term memory.

I remember the general plot, but I have no idea of the story title, the author's name, nor the book title for the anthology in which I read the story. (I'm sure it was a hardback volume which I checked out from a library, and I think it was a school library, but I don't swear to that. The story itself did not seem geared toward a juvenile audience; all of the characters were grown-ups.)

Here's some of the plot: The main character (third-person protagonist; not narrating the story) is an American, either a military officer or a trained spy (or some of each?), who is on a dangerous mission. The general idea is that the hero has deliberately been set up to be captured by the enemy. I believe there was a Cold War feel to it, with the enemy intelligence service reminding me of the KGB. However, I can't remember if such words as "KGB," "Iron Curtain," "Communist," "Soviet Union," etc., were explicitly mentioned, or if the story used other terms for the opposition.

The enemy agents had a clever new drug of which they were very proud. It sharply reduced the risk of a prisoner successfully escaping, because once he had a dose of it in his metabolism, he would spend the next few hours having his memory "reset," over and over, perhaps just a few minutes apart. Each time this happened, the subject would not be able to remember anything that had been happening to him lately (not since the drug was first injected, at any rate -- I don't remember if it retroactively blotted out some of his memory from before that moment), which would make it very hard to devise and carry out any sort of elaborate plan. It would also be very hard for him to maintain a convincing tissue of lies when under interrogation, if he couldn't remember what response he had given to an important question just five minutes ago! (I don't remember which aspect -- preventing escape or facilitating interrogation -- was considered more important by the people using the drug, but the general idea was to keep the subject off-balance, psychologically speaking.)

The kicker was that the hero had walked into this trap knowing exactly what drug his captors would be likely to use to soften him up. But it was a risk he had to take -- I think because he wanted to rescue some brilliant scientist who had already fallen into their hands -- and having himself taken to the same detention facility seemed like the best way to catch up with that other valuable prisoner. So his government had gone to a lot of trouble to carefully train him for this dangerous mission. Part of the elaborate preparation had involved helping the hero condition a new reflex into himself: "Whenever you suddenly blink and feel disoriented, as if time has passed when you weren't looking, remember one thing you must do immmediately: Look around!" (This was possible because the drug wouldn't wipe out what he had been doing days or weeks before it was administered to him.)

So after the drug is in him, at regular intervals a new scene will start with the words:

Look around!

(The old scene, of course, begins just a second or two after the previous scene ended.)

Then the hero glances all around himself and sees if, for instance, there's an immediate threat, such as a guard in enemy uniform who seems to have just been knocked down and now is scrambling back to his feet to go another round.

Somehow (I don't remember the tactical details), he manages to find the scientist and they escape the area, finally hijacking a military plane (I think) to fly them back to friendly territory.

All I can say about the author is that I really don't think it's one of the authors who are still remembered today as "Very Big Names of Twentieth Century SF." For instance, it wasn't a story from Isaac Asimov or Poul Anderson or Gordon R. Dickson. If it were, I am virtually certain I would have run across it again, sometime in the last few decades, in collections of their various short stories. And I never have. But if I can find out who wrote it, then I can find out if that person had any other published works which I might find reasonably entertaining.

As to the story itself, I suspect it was in the neighborhood of 30 pages long, give or take. Definitely nowhere near novel-length, nor even what I'd normally call a novella. I have a suspicion that the story was already many years old before I ever stumbled across it in a library -- probably first published sometime before 1970? (But I could be wrong about that.)

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    You know, I think I read this once. I must have forgotten its name... – Rogue Jedi Jul 21 '16 at 2:14
  • I may have read something similar to this in a short story collection. Do you remember anything about where you found the story? Was it in a book by itself, a collection, a magazine? – DCShannon Jul 21 '16 at 2:30
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    Great description of the story. – dmckee Jul 21 '16 at 2:42
  • To address a few comments at once: I know I read the book in a hardcover edition of an anthology (presumably a SF anthology) which I checked out from a library. (I think a school library, but I'm not sure.) I remember nothing about the name of the drug, nor the names of any of the characters. I see I'm not the only one who has equally vague memories of that story, which suggests it faded into obscurity a very long time ago and hasn't been reprinted in this century. – Lorendiac Jul 21 '16 at 22:35
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I tentatively answer that the story you are looking for is March Hare Mission by Ford McCormack which appeared in the January 1951 issue of Worlds Beyond magazine and subsequently in an anthology called Towards Infinity or Toward Infinity edited by Damon Knight. The fact that it appears with two very slightly different titles probably reflects British vs American spelling conventions.

I have not read this story (though now I have heard about it, I'd like to). But guessing that either its title might be "Look Around" or at the very least that phrase would be memorable to many readers, I googled the phrase

short story "look around" memory drug

and got this page from a Google Groups forum among the results.

In that page, dating from 2004, a forum member called Jeffrey Eernisse asks,

I've had such rapid assistance from this group in this past, it give me confidence to try a real stumper. Some years ago (mid-eighties, I think, so the story would be older than that) I read a short story about a man who was a secret agent or something, and who was sent in to a seemingly escape-proof prison with the mission of breaking someone important out. One of the tricks that made the prison escape-proof was that all prisoners where regularly given a drug that suppresses the ability of the brain to form new long-term memories. So this guy had to do the prison break on short term memory alone. One of the details I remember is that he had an implant behind his ear which, when scratched, would begin itching, which would let him know where he was in the process.

Any suggestions as to title and author, and especially, what story collection I could find it in, would be hugely appreciated.

In subsequent conversation a forum member called "GSV Three Minds in a Can" supplies the name and author, and two others called Jerry Brown and Fred Galvin confirm the multiple repetitions of the line "Look around".

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    Well done! That's it all right. You can read it at the Internet Archive. – user14111 Jul 22 '16 at 20:08
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    Great answer but rec.arts.sf.written is a usenet newsgroup, NOT a !@#$%^&* Google Groups forum. – user14111 Jul 22 '16 at 20:34
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    Thank you. I followed the link to the archive and read enough of it to convince myself that this is, in fact, the same story I was remembering from a long time ago; not just something else with a similar premise. So I've just now accepted this answer as being exactly what I needed! (The name "Ford McCormack" rings no bells whatsoever, but I'll dig around and see what else he wrote, way back when.) – Lorendiac Jul 22 '16 at 22:45
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    @Lorendiac His ISFDB page lists 4 short stories in the 1950s. His biographical note in Worlds Beyond does not say much. – user14111 Jul 22 '16 at 23:35

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