The Best Science Fiction Stories Ever Written: “Melancholy Elephants” by Spider Robinson

WHO WROTE IT: Spider Robinson, born in 1948 in The Bronx. “Spider” isn’t his real first name; it’s a nickname his friends gave him after he got tired them calling him “Robbie” (the shortened form of his last name) and asked them to call him something else. Not even Wikipedia knows what his real first name is, which in my opinion just makes him cooler. After a heavily Catholic primary education, Spider earned a Bachelor of Arts in English in the 1960s. While still in his 20s, he spent several years living in the woods, “deliberately trying to live without technology,” which makes me think he must have been a fan of Henry David Thoreau at some point. In 1971 he got a job guarding sewers in New York, and unsurprisingly turned to writing to get himself out of that line of work. He penned a short science fiction story, “The Guy with the Eyes,” and sold it to Analog Science Fiction in 1973. (Fun fact: the story takes place in a dive bar called Callahan’s Place, a fictitious watering hole that Robinson would continue to revisit and develop well into the 21st century.) He’s been penning award-winning science fiction ever since, despite a heart attack in 2013 that nearly killed him. Nevertheless, he’s still plugging away at his latest work, Orphan Stars.

Spider Robinson Melancholy Elephants science fiction Andrew Timothy Post
Atta boy, Spider!

WHERE IT WAS PUBLISHED: “Melancholy Elephants” was published in 1982, also by Analog (which had, for some reason, taken to calling itself Analog Science Fact & Fiction in the early 80s). The story won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1983.

Andrew Timothy Post science fiction Spider Robinson

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: A woman, the wife of a late songwriter, tries desperately to convince a powerful senator to block the passage of a law that would render copyrights infinite.

Yeah, yeah, I hear you. You’re probably saying “Wait, what? That sounds boring. That doesn’t even sound like science fiction. How the heck did it win a Hugo Award?”

To which my answer is, and ever shall be: read it and find out.

It’s not boring at all, not the way Robinson wrote it. Au contraire, it had me on the edge of my seat. It answered a big question about humanity’s future that I hadn’t even thought to ask. Such as…


What happens if copyright laws are extended indefinitely? Like, forever?

There’s an old saying: “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

In 1983, just a year after Robinson wrote “Melancholy Elephants,” the very first TCP/IP wide area network went live. A year after that, Macintosh computers hit the shelves. The Information Age was born. Suddenly, novels, poems, manuscripts, letters, and other written materials which heretofore had only been accessible in libraries were available online, instantly, for free. So was music, and movies. As we moved into the 21st century, copyright became a humongous issue. (We all remember how much trouble Napster got into, don’t we?)

After a lot of wangling, our copyright laws are pretty straightforward. Depending on the nature of authorship, works of music, poetry, literature, etc. are copyrighted for the duration of the authors’ lifetime, plus 70-120 years. My grandchildren will probably live to see every single Beatles song enter the public domain. Crazy, huh?

But in Spider Robinson’s story, that’s not the case. Influential lobbyists are trying to pass a perpetual copyright law, meaning that artists’ works (songs, poems, stories, novels, scripts, etc.) would be copyrighted for all time. The powerful senator in “Melancholy Elephants” therefore cannot understand why Mrs. Dorothy Martin, the widow of a great songwriter, is begging him to help her stop the law from passing. Doesn’t perpetual copyright help artists?

Well, no. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t. George Harrison got into a heap of trouble when the lawyers decided his song “My Sweet Lord” bore a little too much resemblance to “He’s So Fine.” Then Yoko Ono was accused of ripping off “Makin’ Whoopee” for her song “You’re My Angel.” John Lennon’s estate was sued by Chuck Berry’s estate over “Come Together,” and after that (as Mrs. Martin explains to the mummy-faced senator), the “Plagiarism Plague” really took off.

The simple fact is that there are only 88 notes that human beings can comfortably hear, and there’s a finite number of ways in which those notes can be combined, and if we are to extend copyright into infinity…we’re going to run out of music. And that, unfortunately, means a slow death for humanity by cultural self-strangulation.

Case in point, Mrs. Martin’s late husband. He’d thrown out half of his most recent compositions for being too derivative. On the occasion of his 40th wedding anniversary, he had written his wife an impassioned love song, rich and unique and personal and intimate, one that pleased her and tickled him pink to have written. He submitted it for “copyright clearance” (a necessary measure in the world Robinson imagines, where the Plagiarism Plague and stringent copyright laws have necessitated the creation of a board of review which vets and approves all new works of art and literature and music). Mr. Martin’s passionate love song fails to pass; it is revealed that the tune had been popular in Mr. and Mrs. Martin’s childhood. Mr. Martin promptly burns all his remaining compositions and tapes and then commits suicide.

WHY I THINK IT’S GREAT: In case the preceding paragraphs weren’t enough to get you hooked, Robinson is a superb writer. He has an excellent command of the English language, a vivid way of portraying his characters, and a good grasp of suspense. You really do feel, as Mrs. Martin explains why she firmly opposes perpetual copyright, that the fate of humanity is at stake.

I love “Melancholy Elephants” for three reasons:

A. It’s well-written and suspenseful (and has a clever title, too…elephants never forget, geddit?);

B. It discusses an aspect of future human culture I never in my wildest dreams had ever considered, and discusses it inventively and thoughtfully (like a good science fiction story should); and

C. It doesn’t just treat its subject distantly and academically, but gives it a personal touch. You really root for Mrs. Martin as she desperately tries to convince a powerful politician (whose palms have already been greased by the opposition) that he needs to change his mind. You get invested in the story as, in your imagination, you envision the slow, agonizing death of human art and culture at the hands of misguided lawmakers. Like all great science fiction, it’s an intensely human tale.

This was supposed to be an intensely human image.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: If you’re a science fiction writer like me, you probably have trouble coming up with ideas. Or maybe you have lots of ideas, but there isn’t hardly a one of them that isn’t derivative. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been brainstorming sci-fi stories, jotting down notes on a piece of paper, only to rip the paper to shreds or ball it up and throw it in a wastebasket because it sounds too much like a story I’ve read by So-and-So. You’ll identify intensely with Mr. Martin’s struggle to come up with something original and his ceaseless worries about copyright infringement. There’s a line from this story that’s stuck with me to this day:

“There hasn’t been a genuinely original idea in science fiction in over fifty years.” 

I find it astounding that Spider Robinson had the sagacity to point this out and the audacity to do so in a story that arguably IS genuinely original.

WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT: Right here, on Spider’s website. Enjoy!