7

Another lost story with a memorable fragment. A man is held captive in an authoritarian country. He was once an important man but has fallen out of favor, and he will be executed at a time of his captors' choosing. As it turns out, they give him days to think, and he has many conversations with the man he presumes will be his executioner. The waiting is itself a form of torture. Perhaps they do not know the full details of his crime and are waiting for him to incriminate himself.

The science fiction element of the story is that this is a variation on the Unexpected Hanging Paradox, in which a prisoner thinks that he has deduced that he cannot be executed without the captors' violating their own schedule. In this case, the prisoner begins by believing that he was guilty, but eventually convinces himself that he was innocent. Now he is certain that he will never be executed. When he expresses this, his captor smiles and prepares to shoot him. "When you are innocent, then you are guilty," says his executioner.

I very likely read this in an English-language science fiction anthology in the 1960s or 70s.

  • 1
    Martin Gardner wrote extensively about this paradox, but the bibliography from The Unexpected Hanging And Other Mathematical Diversions does not include a work of fiction that matches this description. – Buzz Jan 16 at 23:34
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    Yes, I remember reading about this in his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American, March 1963. My dad had a subscription and kept the issues for many years, so I could have read it long afterward. Thanks for looking up the bibliography. – Invisible Trihedron Jan 16 at 23:58
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6

End Game by J. G. Ballard.

The story starts:

After his trial they gave Constantin a villa, an allowance, and an executioner. The villa was small and high-walled, and had obviously been used for the purpose before. The allowance was adequate to Constantin’s needs—he was never permitted to go out and his meals were prepared for him by a police orderly. The executioner was his own. Most of the time they sat on the enclosed veranda overlooking the narrow stone garden, playing chess with a set of large well-worn pieces.

The executioner is called Malek. The story ends:

They went out onto the veranda toward the French windows. Outside the cold morning air whirled in frantic circles around the small stone yard, the leaves spiraling upward into the dark sky. To Constantin there seemed little point in going out into the garden, but Malek stood behind him, one hand on the latch.

“Malek.” Something made him turn and face the supervisor. “You do understand what I mean, when I say I am absolutely innocent. I know that.”

“Of course, Mr. Constantin.” The supervisor’s face was relaxed and almost genial. “I understand. When you know you are innocent, then you are guilty.”

His hand opened the veranda door onto the whirling leaves.

| improve this answer | |
  • J. G. Ballard. Of course. As soon as I saw the name Constantin, I knew this was the right story, but the rest of the wording is just so. My thanks! I read this first in SF: Authors' Choice (1968) and later in other collections. Ballard's story was first published in magazine form in June 1963, not long after publication of Martin Gardner's column on the Unexplained Hanging Paradox in March 1963. Magazines could appear a month early, so these dates can't be taken literally, but I wonder if Ballard was thinking of this paradox when he wrote. – Invisible Trihedron Jan 17 at 14:16

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