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I'm trying to identify a story that I first read in an anthology in the mid-1980s. Checked it out from a library in Indiana. I have a very vague idea that this story might have been credited to Gordon R. Dickson -- but don't bet the farm on that. Approximately 35 years later, I could easily be wrong, and I haven't noticed it in any of the collections of Dickson stories which I have purchased and read within the last twenty years or so.

Plot Points

  1. The story is written in the third person, but with one person as the main viewpoint character from start to finish. Let's call him "Protagonist." I think he has been traveling alone, in a small spaceship, and somehow ends up stuck on a primitive planet which was populated by humans. Descendants of a "lost colony," perhaps? I don't remember that for a fact, but I know it was obvious that Protagonist had never heard of these people and their cultural peculiarities before, and they didn't seem to be familiar with any offworld cultures, either, so it seems likely that they were completely out of touch with the other human-inhabited worlds. I'm almost certain that these local humans did not have any form of space travel, and possibly they did not even remember that such things as spaceships had ever existed.

  2. Protagonist walks into a nearby town and begins trying to make friends. There appear to be two categories of people in this town, wearing very different clothing styles. It takes him some time to realize he is seeing two separate cultures who are oblivious to one another's existence!

  3. I don't recall the exact excuse that was finally established, but this was not just an affectation. All members of Culture A are somehow psychologically blind to Culture B's existence, and vice versa, even though they all live in or near the same small city. Protagonist probably wonders if everyone is pulling an elaborate practical joke on him at first, but finally realizes that he is literally the only person who can consciously perceive members of both cultures at once. Once he's convinced of that fact, he deduces that the typical native must still possess a subconscious awareness of the physical location of any nearby members of the other culture, because Protagonist notes he doesn't observe members of the two cultures frequently colliding with each other in doorways, or failing to squeeze past each other in the middle of a busy street, or anything along those lines. (Also, one presumes that this subconscious awareness prevents two people of different cultures from accidentally trying to sleep in the same single bed at the same time, or sharing the same bathtub? Although I doubt the author bothered to explicitly mention those scenarios.)

  4. One of the cultures seems to be very authoritarian, with Protagonist being questioned by a character whom I vaguely think of as being "the head of the local Gestapo" -- although I'm pretty sure that was not the exact wording used by the author. Naturally, Protagonist's efforts to persuade this guy that there is another culture living right there in the same town with him are futile.

  5. When Protagonist gets to know some members of the other culture, he finds that culture is more religious (or at least philosophical -- I don't remember if they explicitly worshipped a god or group of gods). Overall, however, they seemed to be more cheerful and easygoing in various ways than what I am calling "the Gestapo culture."

  6. Protagonist figures out, somewhere along the line, that just by making certain superficial changes to his appearance -- such as what sort of clothing he is wearing, or changing his hat, or something along those lines -- he can swiftly become "invisible" to members of one culture, while suddenly becoming "visible" to all the people in the other group! Naturally, once he gets the hang of this little trick, he starts making deliberate use of it, switching back and forth at certain times, as part of his newly-formed Master Plan for getting out of this place. I don't remember just what the plan was, but I think there was something he needed to obtain which would make it possible for him to fix up his spaceship well enough to let him fly far away.

  7. At the climax of the story, Protagonist does something which messes up the mental programming so that the two groups can suddenly perceive one another as numerous citizens of both cultures are standing in what I seem to recall as "the town square" -- a large open space meant for public gatherings. Perhaps spraying paint on them? Or damaging some sort of high-tech device which was constantly transmitting some sort of mind-altering signals to tamper with the local residents' perceptions? I still can't remember; I only know he deliberately did something which shattered the old status quo.

  8. There's a happy ending. Protagonist is still alive and well as he makes his escape, although I don't know how happy the typical member of either of those two cultures would have ended up feeling after things settled down.

Rejects:

  1. I'm certain that the town in question is not Ampridatvir, a community which operated along similar lines. Ampridatvir was the setting for a portion of Jack Vance's book The Dying Earth, but I only read that book many years after I first ran across this story I'm trying to identify.

  2. Much more recently, China Miéville's award-winning novel The City & The City explored a similar situation with the "twin cities" of Besźel and Ul Qoma, but that novel was published in 2009, and thus has nothing to do with the story I had previously encountered in the 1980s.

Does anyone recognize this one?

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    I read the Selective Obliviousness tvtrope and found this: A short story (author, title forgotten) from the 1950s or 60s has a space traveler land on a planet. He encounters a village with two populations, where persons of one population are oblivious to anyone in the other. They dress very differently, so the main character can distinguish between the two. Representatives of both populations see him because his dress is ambiguous. There is at least one hint that the obliviousness is pretended: Children sometimes interact with children from the opposite population. – jo1storm Feb 9 at 6:54
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    Parents often find an excuse to spank those children. The main character resolves the issue by turning on a ray that causes everyone's clothes to melt. I hope it helps somebody else. – jo1storm Feb 9 at 6:54
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It is a Gordon R. Dickson story. It's Perfectly Adjusted. Originally published in Science Fiction Stories in 1955, it has only been reprinted in a couple of rather obscure anthologies so it's not an easy story to find.

The protagonist is a knowledge trader called Feliz Gebrod. The opening paragraph tells us:

The fictional hero, who whips up a necessary invention on the spur of the immediate moment, is frequently cursed by his true-life counterpart, sadly embound and restricted by reality and his own human limitations. Probably none, however, has cursed so wildly well as did a certain knowledge trader by the name of Feliz Gebrod, on that unfortunate occasion when, halfway from the strait-laced world of Congerman, a Mark III plastic converter he had thrown together from memory, ran wild and vaporized most of his hat.

Having given us this clue in the first paragraph it's fairly obvious where the story is going. In the closing paragraphs Feliz uses his Mark III plastic converter to melt everyone's clothes when they are all gathered in the town square, and deprived of their clothes the people can immediately see each other:

A MARK III plastic converter is a very handy little tool when operated on low power with caution and restraint. With its governor operating properly, it can be set to soften, weld, cut or shape cast plastic (of which clothes are made) with the greatest of ease. But with its power stepped up, its governor removed, and with a general broadcast head that allows it to radiate in all directions, what it does instead of casting plastic is practically what Kai believed had been done to her at one time. In short, and for all practical purposes—it disintegrates the cast plastic.

Therefore, at one moment in the square of the city there was a horde of dressed people standing staring at Feliz; and in the next, in fact in the merest fraction of a second, there was only a horde of people. For a moment they held their positions, like startled statues; then the realization of their nakedness struck home, with results that would have gratified Satan himself, let alone the barrel-chested stepson of his spirit who stood at that moment in awesome nudity beside the switch he had just pulled.

...

But, in addition and worse than that, was the fact that now, with no means to distinguish, their conditioning began to break down; and the horrified onlooker in the square, a split-second after realizing his own nakedness, looked around to recognize the fact that he was not only surrounded by other naked people, but there were twice as many of them as there had been the minute before. And in the instant of this last and most horrible realization, the crowd in the square melted into a seething, howling riot of humanity all fighting to escape in different directions,

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    This seems excessively destructive and shows poor regard for others, even for a stranded Earthman. Does the story mitigate how heinous this sounds in any way? – Ross Presser Feb 9 at 15:56
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    @RossPresser No, Feliz is not a nice chap. – John Rennie Feb 9 at 15:57
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    Thank you; that's obviously it. Nice to see I was actually right about the Gordon R. Dickson connection. Before posting the question on here, I'd done a little Googling for his name plus certain key words or phrases, but failed to come up with a hit, and thought I probably had misremembered. – Lorendiac Feb 9 at 23:28
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    Chekov's Disintegrated Hat! – Kate Gregory Feb 10 at 18:55
  • Portions of Jewels of the Dragon by Allen L Wold match this too, at least the two societies, a little, barely... maybe – lsd Feb 10 at 23:38

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