“One of the most harrowing chronicles of disaster that our age of anxiety has produced.”—New York Times Book Review
The Disappearanceby Philip Wylie
“The female of the species vanished on the afternoon of the second Tuesday of February at four minutes and fifty-two seconds past four o'clock, Eastern Standard Time. The event occurred universally at the same instant, without regard to time belts, and was followed by such phenomena as might be expected after happenings of that
“The female of the species vanished on the afternoon of the second Tuesday of February at four minutes and fifty-two seconds past four o'clock, Eastern Standard Time. The event occurred universally at the same instant, without regard to time belts, and was followed by such phenomena as might be expected after happenings of that nature.”
On a lazy, quiet afternoon, in the blink of an eye, our world shatters into two parallel universes as men vanish from women and women from men. After families and loved ones separate from one another, life continues in very different ways for men and women, boys and girls. An explosion of violence sweeps one world that still operates technologically; social stability and peace in the other are offset by famine and a widespread breakdown in machinery and science. And as we learn from the fascinating parallel stories of a brilliant couple, Bill and Paula Gaunt, the foundations of relationships, love, and sex are scrutinized, tested, and sometimes redefined in both worlds. The radically divergent trajectories of the gendered histories reveal stark truths about the rigidly defined expectations placed on men and women and their sexual relationships and make clear how much society depends on interconnection between the sexes.
Written over a half century ago yet brimming with insight and unsettling in its relevance today, The Disappearance is a masterpiece of modern speculative fiction.
“One of the most harrowing chronicles of disaster that our age of anxiety has produced.”—New York Times Book Review
Read an Excerpt
By Philip Wylie
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1951 Philip Wylie
All rights reserved.
A GENTLEMAN OF EMINENCE IS INTRODUCED AND A CURIOUS EVENT TAKES PLACE BY WHICH HE, AND OTHERS, ARE BAFFLED.
The female of the species vanished on the afternoon of the second Tuesday of February at four minutes and fifty-two seconds past four o'clock, Eastern Standard Time. The event occurred universally at the same instant, without regard to time belts, and was followed by such phenomena as might be expected after happenings of that nature.
To Dr. William Percival Gaunt, as to a large portion (if not a majority) of males, the catastrophe was not immediately, or at least not clearly, manifest; by him, as by multitudes of others, the ensuing incidents were understood only gradually.
It is true that he was watching his wife, Paula, but he was doing so absent-mindedly. For more than two hours he had been at work in the study of his winter home in the suburban environs of Miami, Florida—at work only in the flimsiest sense of the phrase. Several large books, many with a secondhand look about them, lay open on his desk. Amongst and around the books were slips of paper which bore notations in his large, plain script. Before him was a typewriter. In its carriage stood the upper halves of three sheets of paper, one white, one yellow, and a carbon between. Upon these, at the top left-hand corner, was the numeral 7, and the ending of a sentence evidently begun on page 6:
"... in consequence of which it may be said that the Hegelian position, the Taoistic opposites, 'Parallelism,' and the other dualistic theories, while rising from the same observed causes, do not reflect identical or even similar formulative attempts."
Beneath this was a space. After the space, Dr. Gaunt had typed:
There were several more spaces, then:
"The dopes won't get to first base with it!"
Beyond that, the paper was barren.
The partial sentence and the two deprecatory comments implied much about the man at the desk—a philosophical bent, for example. Dr. Gaunt was, indeed, a professional philosopher; in the past he had taught his subject at various universities. He was, moreover, what the American Magazine, in a long article, had termed a "successful" philosopher. The word was employed in its commonest connotation: Gaunt's books, when he wanted them to be, were very popular. In addition, a comedy concerning a philosopher, which he had written during the winter after his marriage to Paula, had run on Broadway for more than two years. It had also been purchased by a motion-picture company for a six-figure sum, toured lengthily on the road, and enjoyed a revival in 1946. Gaunt was well-to-do.
His colleagues regarded the term "successful," thus applied to a philosopher, with semipolite hilarity. They tagged him with it and referred to it whenever they could. Their mirth, however, was tempered—sometimes by envy of Gaunt's fiscal achievements, but more often by awareness that Gaunt towered in the realm of academic philosophy even higher than he loomed in the company of mortal men. Gaunt himself sometimes said his "headier" hypotheses were so hard to understand that even he had to read them over and over to recapture their meaning.
His intellect was richly endowed and versatile; unlike many brilliant men, he had achieved not only fame and fortune but, besides that, owing to his gregariousness and his tact, he had been of considerable use to his country in the recent war, sharing the councils of the military, administrative and scientific elect. Toward it all he showed a casual and often slangy indifference. That attitude, of never quite taking either his thoughts or other men's responses to them with absolute seriousness, was also plainly implied by the comments that interrupted the composition before him:
Prolix, he had said of his writing, and:
The dopes won't get to first base with it.
The work was a lecture intended for a fusty, highbrow seminar to be held in St. Petersburg in March. An abrupt realization that too much fustiness and too little brow height was going to limit the understanding of what he had already written had halted his endeavors shortly before three o'clock. He had not actually labored since that moment. Instead, he had worried, frittered and fumed—although, for most of the interval, he had presented the very image of genius wrestling in difficult speculation. The truth was other.
Gaunt had noted with a frown that his elder daughter, Edwinna (temporarily "living at home" after her second divorce), was persistently trying to sing the "Italian Street Song" from Naughty Marietta, a feat of which she was not quite capable.
He had observed that Edwinna's three-year-old, Alicia, was pattering unsupervised around the living room—and prepared his mind to hear something break.
Hester, the maid, was upstairs, running the electric waxer—a further frowned-at circumstance.
The philosopher had watched a mockingbird persecute two thirsty palm warblers when they had made pathetic forays on the birdbath.
He had lengthily examined a small scab on the tanned, roughened back of his left hand, wondering how he had come by the injury.
He had also entertained, one by one, a round dozen of the vague but nonetheless numbing worries that were the lot of intelligent persons in the period—worries that concerned "the Russians," the diminution of American liberties, hydrogen bombs, the distressful effect of civilization upon the so-called resources of nature, the growing gap between what education was supposed to accomplish and what it consisted of, the national debt and its intimate aspect of high taxes, the problem of the excessive cost of medical care, and the like.
He had gone to the kitchen for a drink of ice water, patting his granddaughter on the head benignly as he passed both ways.
So an hour had been spent, in dawdling.
He was thinking of his lecture again—of starting it over on, perhaps, a lighter topic—when Paula appeared.
She was freshly coiffured. Her figure, Gaunt observed pridefully, was as well proportioned as Edwinna's; Paula was, if anything, suppler and more graceful than her daughter. Her body knew more, knew it better, and showed both. His gaze went, as always, to his wife's hair; that too was youthful—radiantly so—and as red as the day, twenty-seven years before, when he had ordered her to stay after class for a reprimand and wound up by burying his fingers and his lips in the spicy opulence.
Paula had not minded.
On the contrary. Six weeks later, at a precocious nineteen, she had graduated; he and she had then signed the same marriage license.
Gaunt sighed and wondered why he sighed. Perhaps it was because he presumed it his business to analyze every scrap of thought or of emotion even though it gave rise to no more than the slightest exhalation. The notion vexed him.
Damn it, he thought, when a man is fifty-five and his wife is forty-six and when she looks like Paula and he feels as I do, a sigh is no more than minor prayer. It is a bead falling on a long rosary of passion and affection and good living. Let it go undefined! I loved the wench; the woman moves me still!
She moved him, then, differently.
She had been standing at the corner of the house gazing attentively at a gardenia that grew in a tub. It was a handsome bush with glittering leaves that here and there bore a blossom of incandescent white. A perfumed flower—and Gaunt had expected she'd choose one and put it in her red curls which, for the moment, were mathematically arranged. Arranged, he reflected, by some chatty pansy who knew how to fix female hair but not what it meant. But she bent forward and thrust her fingers into the earth among the gardenia's roots. Quickly she combed out several coral rocks and what appeared to be the casing of a very large insect. Next, she reached around a corner, picked up the end of a hose, bent again to turn the faucet and, digging with her fingers, watered the bush.
At that point, still smiling to himself, Gaunt gathered up the opening pages of his typescript with the intention of taking them out on the lawn and reading them to Paula. He rarely made a speech that Paula had not heard, at least in outline; he seldom sent off an article, or even a technical monograph, that his wife had not first read. Sometimes they did not agree about what he said or the way in which he said it. In such cases, Gaunt had formed a habit of sleeping on Paula's criticism; if it seemed valid the next day, he made changes; if his own attitude still held, he let the words remain.
Paula was especially sensitive to the levels of understanding in the varied audiences he addressed. That capacity, he knew, related to her aptitude for languages. He had been pleased and proud, but perhaps slightly patronizing, when she had continued, in the early years of their marriage, to study languages—ancient and modern, practical and esoteric: Sanskrit, Latin and Greek, Russian—and even, for a year, Chinese. His feeling was still indulgent; but he made use of her talent without apologies.
She could tell him whether or not "the dopes would get to first base" with what he had composed.
Besides, it would be pleasant to leave the study and sit in the sun, to smell gardenias instead of stale cigarette smoke, to talk to Paula instead of listening to sibilant anxieties in his own mind.
Also, his typewriter ribbon was getting dim and Paula would change it. Gaunt was not adept at such tasks. Whenever he undertook to replace a ribbon, he finished with his fingers inky, his hands shaky and his temper disheveled. He would then rancorously assert that the color film in his motion-picture camera could be changed without a hitch—a much more complicated proceeding. But, he would go on, after fifty-odd years of typewriters, no progress had been made in the matter of shifting ribbons. He then might rail against the Machine Age as a whole and all who took pride therein. If he had new auditors, he would describe other "obsolete booby traps in the American home"—his favorite being the "Rube Goldberg artifact" inside the tank of a flush toilet; man had learned to make airplanes, Gaunt would protest, but not valves. Paula could change his ribbon, with scarcely the smudging of a finger, before he'd got well into such a harangue.
He now grinned—glanced again at his wife—and abruptly put down the papers.
With the back of her hand, Paula had wiped at a tear. He saw her shoulders lift; she sniffled; she was crying.
She'd had a day—he knew that. A hard day. A day of those trivial unpleasantnesses which, taken separately, amount to nothing but, added together, form a weight that may depress the most buoyant spirit. She'd run over the list in the morning. It had included the dentist, the beauty parlor—which Paula disliked, a necessary argument over a bill with a bullheaded merchant in Coral Gables, and a session with the tax expert. Besides that—there was Edwinna. And Alicia.
Gaunt drummed on a pulled-out leaf of his desk for a moment, considering whether to comfort her. It was no time, in any case, to put his intellectual problem before her or to ask her aid in ribbon changing. Not that she would refuse to listen or to help—she would gladly do both—but that Gaunt's sympathy and affection caused him to discard all notion of adding his problems to hers. He watched a moment more and saw that she seemed to be diverted by the gardenia.
That supplied his answer. Paula was dealing with her small troubles and no doubt wanted to be alone, doing just what she was doing.
He looked at his work again—chagrined by his dawdling. The lecture would also be published, after he had delivered it. So, he decided, he might as well go on with it in the form he had chosen. If some listeners failed to understand, others might—and many of those who read it surely would.
He was aware of the noises all about him as he stared, unseeingly, across the palmettos and through the pines. But he accepted them and half understood why he allowed them to invade his workroom: they were evidence of his family—close by and in voluble being—and his family was the center of his existence. If he was sometimes distressed by the clamor, he was also, in another way, stimulated and consoled. That feeling came unphrased to Gaunt as he detached his mind from Paula and concentrated upon abstract philosophical ideas.
It was then that she disappeared.
He did not see her go, precisely. What he saw was that she had gone. He had assumed he was looking at her or, more accurately, at a point in space beyond her which included her. When she disappeared he did not say to himself, "Why! Paula's vanished!" He thought, instead, that he had been momentarily mistaken in the angle of his view and that she had stepped around the house.
At the same time, by a bit of good fortune he did not analyze, his daughter abandoned her experiment with light opera. The clear but not flexible soprano broke off in the middle of a note. And little Alicia ceased to patter about the living room—ceased suddenly, as if her staccato trot had taken her up on a soft staircase visible only to the young and accessible to them alone.
Silence did not follow. Hester's electric machine continued to hum upstairs and other, distant sounds replaced the stilled disturbances: the gardener's chopping at vine roots, the hammering of a carpenter in a house being built nearby and the far, lofty mutter of a private plane—caused, doubtless, by some student who took his lesson over a residential area where it would inconvenience, annoy (and thus attract the attention of) the largest possible number of persons. Nevertheless, the increase of quiet was appreciable.
He thought out new sentences rapidly and swiftly set them down, ignoring the two lines of rude self-criticism. His secretary would smile over the slang—and delete.
"What I have called 'opposites,'" he wrote, "rise from the reflection, in the psyche, of the 'oppositenesses' universally observable in nature. 'Oppositeness' is a rudimentary condition of existence. It is seen in myriad phenomena—none is properly seen without it. If heat be, cold is. If motion, rest. If height, depth. Thermodynamic process takes place between differences that are 'as if' opposites. Evolution is, again, a process involving paired opposites: what is, is destroyed, that what comes next may exist, to be destroyed for the sake of the ensuing form. That is the classic opposite: life and death—which, in turn, infinitely ramified and adorned with images, become the substance of love and hate in the mind and are transmuted to all the tropisms of the human soul, all ecstasies, all compulsions, and all the revulsions that the mind expresses as fears or in fear forms. All entity, including life, is found in states of tension between opposites. Progress—or evolution—is but motion amidst these states, toward order, toward integration, toward individuation. The individual mind reflects a certain sum of them and the more it is aware the greater the sum of opposites it comprehends. To say ..."
He stopped writing.
His household was, once again, interfering with his tranquillity although—as Paula had pointed out a hundred times—he might have shut the door to his study, and the windows besides, and installed air conditioning into the bargain, thus immunizing himself from the rackets for which he sometimes showed a peevish allergy. (His answer to that was to say he liked to work with an open door.) It was a stylized impasse of his demesne, a wasp in a peaceful room, a thimbleful of tempest where, in general, the landscape was calm. Paula understood it: he enjoyed the "feel" of having his family close; but she could never get him to admit as much.
Excerpted from The Disappearance by Philip Wylie. Copyright © 1951 Philip Wylie. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
Philip Wylie (1902–71) is the author of Gladiator and the coauthor of When Worlds Collide, both available in Bison Books editions. Acclaimed science-fiction writer Robert Silverberg is the recipient of many awards, including the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards, and the Grand Master designation from the Science Fiction Writers of America, the highest science-fiction honor available. He is the author of Lord Valentine’s Castle.
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