Future Media Short Story Review: Avram Davidson and Sidney Klein’s “The Teeth of Despair” (1961)

The third story in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future! In the wreckage of the 1950s Quiz Show scandals, Avram Davidson and Sidney Klein conjure a “secret history” of the real events.

Previously: Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” first appeared in the August 7th 1951 issue of The Reporter. You can read it in the February 1952 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas online here.

Next up: Brian W. Aldiss’ “Panel Game” first appeared in New Worlds Science Fiction, ed. John Carnell (December 1955). You can read it online here.

2/5 (Bad)

Avram Davidson and Sidney Klein’s “The Teeth of Despair” first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Robert P. Mills (May 1961). I read it in Science Fiction Oddities, ed. Groff Conklin (1966). You can read it online here.

I suspect most of you have seen Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994), a dramatization of the 1950s Quiz Show scandals. In the film, John Turturro, as Herbie Stempel, turns whistleblower after a three-month run on NBC’s Twenty-One where he was compelled to allow his opponent, Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren, to win. In the early weeks of Twenty-One, corporate sponsors of the program grew increasingly frustrated with the poor quality of the contestants. In response, the producers increasingly choreographed the rise and fall of America’s fact-regurgitating heroes.

Avram Davidson and Sidney Klein’s “The Teeth of Despair” (1961) was written in the subsequent period of popular fallout, plunging network ratings, a nine-month New York grand jury, and later congressional investigation. The story conjures a humorous “secret history” of the real events that doubles as a satire of academia.

Framed as a disclosure of truth after the shock following revelations of “corruption, nepotism, and anarcho-syndicalist infiltrations” (78), “The Teeth of Despair” recounts the machinations of poor academics at Ryland University, one of many indistinguishable liberal arts colleges in America’s hinterland. Subsisting on insufficient funds, reminiscent of modern adjunct faculty, Dr. Grew, recently fired from his “part-time job as a bus boy in a chow mein restaurant” (79), discovers the ability to manipulate the speech of a contestant on Get It While You Can. Mr. Grackl, who subsists on social security, attempts to answer a question worth thirty-three hundred dollars, and somehow, despite his obvious lack of intelligence, knows “Who designed the Brooklyn Bridge” (83). Flush with his strange triumph in feeding answers across the ether, Dr. Grew forms a cabal of scheming academics from all different disciplines–and they pull Mr. Grackl into their conspiracy. But love and fame are powerful things. And Mr. Grackl might have a surprise in store…

“The Teeth of Despair” appeals only as an artifact of a fascinating moment in time where perceptions of truth were shattered on live TV. Yes, it’s an occasionally humorous satire of the sad spectacle of grasping materialism piped into suburban homes across the American expanse. And academics are always fun kicking bags for writers of the era–if only they knew of the approaching adjunctification of modern higher education… It’s silly and occasionally funny but all too slight.

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33 thoughts on “Future Media Short Story Review: Avram Davidson and Sidney Klein’s “The Teeth of Despair” (1961)

  1. A Carol Emshwiller story appears in a magazine in which a depiction of her is featured on the cover! I would imagine she might be the writer to whom that happened most often, unless maybe Isaac Asimov …

    I do not remember that story, though of course I have read WHAT STRANGE STARS AND SKIES — I suppose perhaps that supports your rating! I’ll try to find it and read it again.

      • It’s curious that “My Sweet Lady Jo” has never been reprinted. I don’t remember it, though I surely read it in UNIVERSE 4. But Waldrop has published quite a few collections, and never reprinted that. Hmmm.

        “The Ugly Chickens” seemed a one joke story to me, but others seemed to love it. I’m spoiling the Davidson story, in a sense (though no good story can be truly spoiled), but it shares its central them/joke with Davidson’s “Full Chicken Richness”, which I like better. From your preferred time period, I might suggest “Mary Margaret Road Grader” or “All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past” for better Waldrop. Or his Utley collaboration, “Custer’s Last Jump”, though that violates my “collaboration” rule!

    • And, no, I have no idea who Sidney Klein might be. Reminds my of another Waldrop! — F. N. Waldrop, whose only credit is on Poul Anderson’s first published story. Sometimes those guys are friends of the author who, perhaps, shoot the sh*t about some clever story idea, to the point the author feels they deserve co-credit. As a general rule — though this is by no means a perfect rule! — I tend to discount collaborative stories except when the collaborators are an established team, like Kuttner and Moore.

  2. P. S. Should you add Emshwiller’s “This Thing Called Love” or Wilhelm’s “Baby, You Were Great!” to you Media series? I know you’ve already reviewed them, but they seem to fit very well.

    A different take, worthwhile I think, would be Isaac Asimov’s “Dreaming is a Private Thing”. Or for that matter, several of the stories in Blish’s anthology NE DREAMS THIS MORNING.

  3. I was actually about to recommend “The Nuptial Flight of Warbirds” and “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” — good suggestions, Mark!

    “You’re Another” is indeed strikingly nasty!

    And “I See You” is a favorite of mine. I have a list of Time Viewer stories, actually … it’s on my blog somewhere though that’s really poorly organized. I need to see about fixing that. Anyway, here’s my list: http://rrhorton.blogspot.com/2020/09/stories-about-time-viewers.html

    Of course on of the greatest future media novels is THE CONTINUOUS KATHERINE MORTENHOE, by D. G. Compton (which Joachim has reviewed, as have I.)

    • I’ve also come across more Bradbury — “Almost the End of the World” (1957). TV and Radio disappear overnight — everyone attempts to keep sane by taking care of their yards, personal hygiene, fixing homes, etc. Yet yearn for earlier days…

  4. Funny that Kuttner should come up, he did a whole series of short stories involving the future of media in the future in his [http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pe.cgi?9875 Tony Quade] stories. Perhaps more adventure oriented than you would like, but the one that I read was fun. But, even at his worst, I’ve found Kuttner entertaining, so I’m biased.

    • Thank you! I’ll put them in my list. As they’re from the 30s (and 40s), I don’t have high hopes but part of the point of the series is to track fictions that fit the theme vs. only “the best.”

  5. I happened to just read this story, in an issue of F&SF I just bought (for the Emshwiller story, of course!) I have to say, I don’t think it’s as bad as you say. It’s certainly slight, and it isn’t really a very interesting exploration of SFnal media treatments — but it’s amusing enough, in its slight way. I don’t rate stories anymore (I used to) but I think I’d have given it a 3/5 on your scale.

    The Emshwiller story is better, to be sure.

    • It’s the goofy WHIMSY that rubs me the wrong way. Only some authors can pull it off… But yes, I group this with Oliver’s “The Subversives” – interesting only due to the fact that they’re reactions to the game show explosion in the 50s (and in Davidson’s case, the scandals that resulted).

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