Aristotle and the Gun
|"Aristotle and the Gun"|
|Author||L. Sprague de Camp|
|Genre(s)||Science fiction short story|
|Published in||Astounding Science-Fiction|
|Media type||Print (Magazine)|
|Publication date||February, 1958|
"Aristotle and the Gun" is a classic time travel and alternate history science fiction story by L. Sprague de Camp. It was first published in the magazine Astounding Science-Fiction for February, 1958, and first appeared in book form in de Camp's collection A Gun for Dinosaur and Other Imaginative Tales (Doubleday, 1963). It later appeared in the paperback edition of the collection published by Curtis Books in 1969, and the subsequent de Camp collections Aristotle and the Gun and Other Stories (Five Star, 2002), and Years in the Making: the Time-Travel Stories of L. Sprague de Camp (NESFA Press, 2005), as well as the anthologies Alpha Three (Ballantine Books, 1972), Space Mail Vol. II (Fawcett Crest, 1982), Analog Anthology#5: Writers' Choice (Davis Publications, 1983, Robert Adams' Book of Alternate Worlds (Signet Books, 1987), The Legend Book of Science Fiction (Legend, 1991), Modern Classics of Science Fiction (St. Martin's Press, 1992), Roads Not Taken: Tales of Alternate History (Del Rey Books, 1998), and Futures Past (Ace Books, 2006). The first stand-alone edition of the story was published in paperback by Positronic Publishing in April, 2013. The story has also been translated into German.
Speculating that small changes in history might have profound consequences on the present day world, scientist Sherman Weaver appropriates a prototype time machine to project himself back to the era of Philip II of Macedon. There he hopes to meet Aristotle. Believing that the influential ancient philosopher's lack of interest in experiment had retarded scientific progress through much of subsequent history, Weaver aims to nudge the savant in what he considers the proper direction - with the intention of creating a different Twentieth Century dominated by a super-science hundreds of years in advance of ours.
Weaver pretends to be a conventional traveler from India. Equipped with modern-day marvels, he attempts to demonstrate to his new acquaintance (Aristotle) the value of experimentation in the furtherance of knowledge. Weaver's task is complicated by the malicious mischief of Aristotle's students, the coterie of young Prince Alexander (subsequently Alexander the Great), and by being suspected as a spy for the King of Persia, against whom Philip is about to go to war. He is ultimately forced to defend himself with a handgun he has brought, and is on the point of being executed as a spy and murderer when he is snapped back into the present day when the effects of his time projection wear off.
Weaver finds himself in a world very different from the one he left – but not in the way he hoped. Aristotle, convinced that the tedious accumulation of experimental knowledge is beneath the dignity of civilized philosophy, and that it is a waste of time attempting to catch up to "India" in that regard, turns out to have come down strongly against the notion in his writings. The result is a backward present of petty states considerably behind Weaver's original timeline in technology. His own United States is not even a dream, its physical confines being controlled by various Amerindian nations influenced by but having long since thrown off any subjection to the civilizations of the Old World. Enslaved in one such state, Weaver is only delivered from endless drudgery after many years when his scholarly talents are finally recognized.
The narrative of the story is set forth by Weaver in a lengthy letter to an acquaintance curious as to his remarkable background, in which he concludes that he would have done better to leave well enough alone.
Critic P. Schuyler Miller called the story "even better" than de Camp's "A Gun for Dinosaur" in its recreation of Aristotle's Macedonia as seen through modern eyes, and its twist in the alternate time-track theme." Don D'Ammassa rated the piece one of de Camp's "best stories", and placed it among those "of particular note" among de Camp's "many memorable short stories." Roland Green, writing for Booklist, called it of "outstanding merit" and one of the author's "vintage short pieces." To Tom Easton, it "is a classic exposition of the time-travel paradox," and de Camp "always one of my favorite SF&F writers." Harry Turtledove called the story "a fine specimen of the for-want-of-a-nail story: a small change in the past producing enormous ramifications as the centuries roll by," with "things [not] so easy as the [protagonist] thought they would be ... a common theme in de Camp's work."
"Aristotle and the Gun" is one of de Camp's most notable works. Like his first significant work of alternate history, the novel Lest Darkness Fall (1939), the story posits a world changed as the result of time travel, and like his other major work in the field, "The Wheels of If" (1940) it reveals the long-term consequences of the historical change. The story's popularity has been demonstrated by frequent reprinting and anthologization. For de Camp himself, however, its publication marked the beginning of a lengthy departure from the science fiction field, and pointed the way to the historical novels of the ancient world he would write during the next ten years, beginning with An Elephant for Aristotle (1958), which serves as an interesting counterpoint to the present story. This development is indeed to some degree foreshadowed in the present story itself, with its meticulously researched depiction of the Classical Greek and Hellenistic milieu – for which de Camp clearly had strong interest and empathy, also when seen through the eyes of its own native-born denizens and without a time traveler in attendance. De Camp would write no more science fiction until 1977.
- Laughlin, Charlotte, and Levack, Daniel J. H. De Camp: An L. Sprague de Camp Bibliography. San Francisco, Underwood/Miller, 1983, pages 123-124.
- Laughlin, Charlotte, and Levack, Daniel J. H. De Camp: An L. Sprague de Camp Bibliography. San Francisco, Underwood/Miller, 1983, page 62.
- Laughlin, Charlotte, and Levack, Daniel J. H. De Camp: An L. Sprague de Camp Bibliography. San Francisco, Underwood/Miller, 1983, page 124.
- Aristotle and the Gun title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Miller, P. Schuyler. "The Reference Library." In Analog Science Fact - Science Fiction, v. 71, no. 5, July 1963, p. 87.
- D'Ammassa, Don. "Critical Mass." In Science Fiction Chronicle, v. 24, iss. 8, August 2002, p. 39.
- D'Ammassa, Don. "de CAMP, L. Sprague." In Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, Third Edition, Noelle Watson, Paul E. Schellinger, eds., Chicago: St. James Press, c1991, p. 192.
- Green, Roland. "de Camp, L. Sprague. Aristotle and the Gun and Other Stories." In Booklist, September 1, 2002, p. 170.
- Easton, Tom. "The Reference Library." In Analog Science Fiction and Fact, v. 123, no. 3, March 2003, pp. 138-139.
- Turtledove, Harry. "Introduction." In Years in the Making: the Time-Travel Stories of L. Sprague de Camp, 2005, p. 12.
- "Locus Online News: L. Sprague de Camp, 1907 - 2000"