13

This is a short story that I read in the 1990s in a hardback anthology I checked out from a public library. I think that it was one of those volumes that collected the highlights from one year's worth of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (But I could be wrong -- it's been roughly 20 years.)

Here's the basic plot:

  1. The first-person narrator is a full-time writer; I think a science fiction writer.

  2. One day, he suddenly realizes a "Secret" which holds the solution to peaceful, rational, successful resolutions of interpersonal conflicts among human beings. Not just occasionally succeeding, but consistently! He says something to the effect that normally, if a husband wants to go a hundred miles west into the mountains for a two-week vacation, and if a wife wants to go a hundred miles east to the seashore for a two-week vacation, the best that will happen is that they "compromise" by going, say, a hundred miles north, to some spot that neither of them are really happy with. (But at least one spouse has not "lost" while the other "won.") But, he asserts, by understanding and applying "the Secret" (if that's what he called it), the problem can be resolved in a way that makes everybody involved feel like a happy winner! (He doesn't say how, exactly, this would be achieved.)

  3. Presumably, widespread knowledge of the Secret would also put an end to warfare and other unpleasant things. But before he can do much of anything with his newfound insight into the human condition, some other guys show up at his door and ask to have a private talk with him. It turns out that our narrator is far from being the first person to have stumbled across this Secret. In fact, creative writers often make this intuitive leap. But several of the people who already understand the essence of the Secret are able to predict when and where it will be independently rediscovered. Then they close in to try to recruit (or contain) the person who has just acquired this knowledge. They have some strict rules about use of the Secret, which explains why it has never yet made it out into the news media and become common knowledge.

  4. The narrator is not willing to join their vow of silence, so they zap him with a drug (or something) which leaves his brain conscious, but temporarily unable to exercise control over the rest of his body. He can't talk coherently, he can't write anything down, etc. But he can see and hear what is happening. When the narrator's wife comes in and looks at him in concern, the visitors say that he's just had a nervous breakdown (or something similar; I'm not sure of the buzzwords they used). The narrator tells us something along the following lines: "Like every spouse of a professional writer, my wife had long been convinced that I was already teetering on the brink of lunacy, so what they were saying merely confirmed her worst fears!"

  5. The agents of the conspiracy bundle the narrator into a car and take off toward some sort of "private hospital" (or other excuse for a detention facility) where he gets his very own cell. I don't remember if there were any statements about intentions to do anything else with him after they had him under lock and key -- such as somehow brainwashing him, or eventually killing him and calling it natural causes, or whatever.

  6. I think the story ends with the narrator saying, in this secret manuscript he has been writing in quiet hours when no one else was watching, that now he is going to spell out the Secret for us, and then smuggle this manuscript out of the hospital somehow. He starts a sentence with some tantalizing words . . . and that's the end of it; he was never able to finish explaining how it worked!

  • Clearly not the same story, but I'm reminded of HHGTTG and the girl in the cafe in Rickmansworth: "This time it was right, it would work, and no-one would have to get nailed to anything. Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone, the Earth was unexpectedly destroyed..." – Daniel Roseman Dec 3 '16 at 9:23
  • I didn't think of that when I was typing out the post last night, but I agree with you that it sure sounds like she had found the same "Secret" that this other story was referring to. Until someone identifies this short story for me, I won't know which author got there first. (And, of course, each of them may have come up with the idea independently, or been inspired by some even earlier example from another author entirely.) – Lorendiac Dec 3 '16 at 10:46
  • 1
    I've read it, I have it somewhere, but I can't recall the name nor the author. I'll think about it. Your synopsis is quite accurate. – SQB Dec 3 '16 at 17:39
  • The problem with the secret solution is that it will put writers out of a job. The conspiracy to keep it a secret is made up of bestselling authors. – SQB Dec 3 '16 at 17:41
  • Also, the protagonist tests the solution by solving small problems around him. That's how the conspiracy find him. – SQB Dec 3 '16 at 17:43
11
+50

This rather resembles Cyril M. Kornbluth's "MS. Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie". Protagonist is a writer who one day discovers, well, the answer:

When The Answer popped into my head I thought at first it was an idea for a story—a very good story. I was going to go downstairs and bounce it off my wife a few times to test it, but I heard the sewing machine buzzing and remembered she had said she was way behind on her mending. Instead, I put my feet up, stared blankly through the window at the pasture-and-wooded-hills View we'd bought the old place for, and fondled the idea.

What about, I thought, using the idea to develop a messy little local situation, the case of Mrs. Clonford? Mrs. C. is a neighbor, animal-happy, land-poor and unintentionally a fearsome oppressor of her husband and children. Mr. C. Is a retired brakeman with a pension and his wife insists on him making like a farmer in all weathers and every year he gets pneumonia and is pulled through with antibiotics. All he wants is to sell the damned farm and retire with his wife to a little apartment in town. All she wants is to mess around with her cows and horses and sub-marginal acreage.

I got to thinking that if you noised the story around with a comment based on The Answer, the situation would automatically untangle.They'd get their apartment, sell the farm and everybody would be happy, including Mrs. C. It would be interesting to write, I thought idly, and then I thought not so idly that it would be interesting to try—and then I sat up sharply with a dry mouth and a systemful of adrenalin. It would work. The Answer would work. I ran rapidly down a list of other problems, ranging from the town drunk to the guided-missile race. The Answer worked. Every time.

He is caught by the conspiration that want to keep the answer secret, committed to an institution where he writes down the story in many parts on small pieces of paper that are smuggled out by inserting them into fortune cookies. The last piece reads:

THE ANSWER: HUMAN BEINGS RAISED TO SPEAK AN INDO-IRANIAN LANGUAGE SUCH AS ENGLISH HAVE THE FOLLOWING IN

and the story ends. Full text can be found at Project Gutenberg.

  • Thank you. I've always been fond of Kornbluth's work -- in fact, I just recently reread a paperback collection of some of his stories -- but I'd completely forgotten he had anything to do with this one. – Lorendiac Dec 9 '16 at 6:27
  • Yes, that was the one I had in mind as well. The detail of the fortune cookies had escaped my memory. – SQB Dec 10 '16 at 17:31

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