Throughout 2022, I’ll be reviewing short stories. Some of these may be classics, others forgotten. The two things that all will have in common is that they are part of my personal collection and they will be selected through a randomization process. What works and authors I look at will be entirely selected by a roll of the dice.
“Minister Without Portfolio” was Mildred Clingerman’s debut short story and first appeared in the February 1952 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is the sort of short story which occasionally appears, but not often, but perfectly captures the time in which it was written.
Mrs. Ida Chriswell is a widow living with her son and daughter-in-law, and, in fact, living in some fear of her daughter-in-law. Not particularly worldly, she has few hobbies aside from crocheting, apparently has few friends, and little interest in the world around her. As the story opens, she is going out to try her hand at bird watching at her daughter-in-law’s insistence, although Ida points out that her inability to see color, reflective, perhaps, of the drab existence she has, will limit her enjoyment of the pastime, which she isn’t actually interested in. Her daughter-in-law’s insistence and her own desire not to rock the boat, results in Ida heading out to an empty field to watch birds, or at least pretend to watch birds while she sits by a tree and crochets.
When the large, hideous, floppy hat her daughter-in-law gave her flies away in the wind, Ida chases after it and comes into contact with a group of men who happen to be in the meadow. One of them places a strange metallic hat on Ida’s head and they proceed to have an apparently innocuous conversation, with Ida particularly taken by a young boy named Jord.
Clingerman’s story is one in which the reader is well aware of what is happening long before the main character does, and in fact, Ida is so oblivious to her surroundings that she never really figures out what is happening. Eventually, she trades pictures with Jord and goes home to her family.
When she arrives home, it is to bedlam. All the news reports are filled with stories that aliens have visited earth and determined that they would spare the Earth because they found a single sane woman who talked to them about cooking, needlework, home, and religion. Even after Ida showed Jord’s picture to her granddaughters who commented on the green skin, Ida failed to make any connection between her encounter in the meadow and the events in the news.
The story is sweet in its simplicity and naiveté with a clear connection to the Biblical story of Sodom, in which God agreed not to destroy the city if ten righteous men could be found there. In Clingerman’s story, the humans, who do not know they are being judged, will be spared if the aliens can find a single “sane” individual.
However, Ida doesn’t come across as particularly sane (or insane, for that matter). She comes across as an innocent, unaware of the world around her and not particularly caring about anything that happens in that world that doesn’t directly impact her. While the story is a light diversion, the fact that Ida has practically no volition of her own or awareness of her situation undermines the impact of the story and Clingerman’s style isn’t humorous enough for the story to be considered a satire or parody.
For all its light weight, the story has been reprinted seven times in English (twice in Clingerman collections) as well as translated into Italian, French, and Japanese. In his introduction to the story in The Science Fiction Century, David G. Hartwell notes that the story has a Twilight Zone-like feel and that Ida seems like she would be more at home in a story in The Saturday Evening Post than the traditional science fictional heroine.
Steven H Silver is an eighteen-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, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology is Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.