Birthday Reviews: Fredric Brown’s “It Didn’t Happen”

Birthday Reviews: Fredric Brown’s “It Didn’t Happen”

Playboy, 10/63
Playboy, 10/63

Fredric Brown was born on October 29, 1906 and died on March 11, 1972.

Although Brown has been nominated for four Retro Hugo Awards (twice in 1996 and twice in 2018), he was deemed deserving of renewed attention and received the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award in 2012. In addition to writing short fiction and science fiction novels, Brown also wrote numerous mysteries and his novel The Fabulous Clipjoint earned him an Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel. His story “Arena” was adapted into the Star Trek episode of the same name, and several other stories of his have been adapted for television and film, including a cinematic version of Martians Go Home which should be avoided. Brown occasionally collaborated with Carl Onspaugh, Fritz Leiber, and Judith Merril, although his most frequent collaborator was Mack Reynolds.

Brown first published “It Didn’t Happen” in the October 1963 issue of Playboy. It was reprinted in the Playboy science fiction anthology Transit of Earth in 1971 and in 1973 was included in Fredric Brown’s collection Paradox Lost and Twelve Other Great Science Fiction Stories. The story showed up in subsequent Brown collections The Best of Fredric Brown and From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown, as well as the Wildside Press megapack #33, focusing on Brown. The story has been translated for French and Dutch editions of Paradox Lost and into Italian, by Giuseppe Lippi, for an original Italian collection by Brown called Cosmolinea B-2.

“It Didn’t Happen” is one of those stories which has always stayed with me. It is about Lorenz Kane, who has become convinced that he is the only person in the world. In Kane’s view, everyone else is simply a manifestation of his imagination. Kane’s viewpoint is put to the test when he shoots and kills a stripper who rejects his advances and finds himself in jail awaiting trial. Despite this, he still thinks he is on the right track. As he explains to his attorney, he began to think other people didn’t exist when he accidentally killed a girl on a bicycle and when he reported it to the police, she had completely vanished. He tested his theory by murdering someone, who similarly seemed to have ceased to exist.

Kane relates his theory and his guilt to his attorney, who listens intently, not dismissing any of the craziness Kane brings up. The fact that Brown includes scenes of the attorney apart from Kane indicates that Kane’s theories are incorrect and that he is not the only person who actually exists. Kane’s discovery that killing the stripper has consequences also indicates to Kane that he is wrong, but rather than assume his subconscious is punishing him for murdering her, he simply revises his solipsist theory of existence.

The story is a discussion and rumination on an ontological consideration, yet Brown manages to make it memorable, not only for the theory it presents, but also for the way Kane’s attorney responds and the eventual revelation of the reality of the situation. Although not as well-known as some of Brown’s other stories, such as “Arena” or the novel What Mad Universe, “It Didn’t Happen” is memorable and deserves more recognition.

Reprint reviewed in the collection From These Ashes, by Fredric Brown, edited by Ben Yalow, NESFA Press, 2001.

Steven H Silver-largeSteven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Webinar: Web Sites” in The Tangled Web. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7. He has been the news editor for SF Site since 2002.

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James McGlothlin

Agree with you your assessment of this story. I think most people reading the summary of “It Didn’t Happen” would think it sounded like a Philip K. Dick story. But Dick often cited Brown as an influence.

Thomas Parker

It’s common to think of Brown as a jokester, but a lot of his seemingly light stuff depicts a nightmare world.

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