Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"Technical Error" (short story): A rather esoteric horror story

This story, first published under the title "The Reversed Man", relies for its facts on what I think is speculative physics - the existence of more spatial dimensions than 3 that we can perceive. Though there are theories galore, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever demonstrated their presence.

But it is a readable story, at least the first 90%.

Story summary (spoiler).
An electric power utility builds a new kind of very powerful generator. There is only one theoretical physicist in the employ of the company who understands the principles.

While commissioning the generator, there is an accidental short circuit - resulting in one technician getting momentary exposure to very intense field - electromagnetic field, & god knows what other kind of field.

After rescue, it is found in hospital that he has not suffered any serious damage, & will be discharged in a few days. Except for a curious phenomenon observed by one of the doctors - though he cannot nail it down to any kind of sickness in technician.

The doctor consults the theoretical physicist. The phenomenon is: everything about the technician, as well as the physical artifacts he was carrying like currency coins & a diary, have become a kind of mirror image of their original selves. The man thinks his left arm is his right arm; some tooth fillings in his mouth have moved from left to right; when he reads a newspaper, he finds the text arranged as if he is looking in the mirror; the diary he was carrying has its text switched to what it would have looked like if seen in mirror; text & pictures on the currency coins he was carrying have likewise reversed!

Physicist theorizes the possibility of a forth dimension having been momentarily opened at accident side, & the man simply "turned over" in that forth dimension! But he keeps this theory to himself - though he spends a lot of time quietly working on the details privately.

Since the technician is improving without any side effects, & relearning to live in his left/right transposed world, everyone forgets about it. Except when the doctor confronts the physicist again, a few days later.

Looks like the patient is starving. New theories are postulated. It seems, many foods are found naturally in two mirror image configurations, where human body can only use one! Doctor is keeping the patient alive by coordinating the manufacture of mirror image version, but it is turning out to be very expensive.

Since physicist has good reputation, he manages to ensure an extraordinary meeting of company board is called, & presents the costs of liability scenario. And presents the alternative - reproduce the same scenario & hope the forth dimension will do the magic. And gets the board approval to do this. Separately, the approval of patient & his family is also sought.

Unfortunately, the reproduced experiments succeeds more than anyone had bargained for!

Fact sheet.
Technical Error, short story, review
Author: Arthur C Clarke
Genre: Horror
First published: 1950
Rating: B

See also.

  1. A device that lets you move along a fourth spacial dimension also features in "Superiority".
  2. "What Goes Up" also has an industrial accident that opens up fearsome new vistas into forces unknown to mankind.
The story appears in the following collections.
  1. "Reach for tomorrow"
  2. "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke"
  3. "Across the Sea of Stars"

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