Random Reviews: “BAXBR/DAXBR” by Evelyn E. Smith
Evelyn E. Smith was born in 1922 and in addition to her career as a science fiction author, which spanned from approximately 1952 until 1985, she also wrote romance novels using the name Delphine C. Lyons and also worked as a crossword puzzle writer. This latter job is very much evidenced in her 1954 story “BAXBR/DAXBR” (also “DAXBR/BAXBR,” its title should appear as two words that cross at the X).
The basic gist of the story is that George, Smith’s main character, often finds himself commuting in proximity to a man he doesn’t know, but things of as “the little man from the Planetarium,” since that is where their pathways often converge. On rare occasions they greet each other and the man has a strange accent that George can’t place, but that is generally the extent of their interaction.
On the day the story takes place, fate and a crowded subway car throw the two men together. While the little man reads some letters, George tries to ignore him, playing mental games with words in which he ideates a crossword puzzle based on the words he sees. During this time, his eyes happen to fall on one of the man’s letters and he sees a word he is unfamiliar with, “BAXBR.” Rather than assume the word was gibberish, a private joke, or something in code, George obsesses over it.
As it happens, both men find their way to the main branch of the New York Public Library, where their paths diverge. George finds himself searching for the word in the dictionary and, when he can’t find it there, tries to find it in dictionaries for several foreign languages, trying to get a clue for the word’s origin from the man’s incomprehensible accent. Even the reference librarian who tried to help George was unable to find the word.
At its core, “BAXBR/DAXBR” is a puzzle story, although one that has the deck stacked against George. Because the word is made up, something that is clear to the reader immediately, George won’t be able to solve the puzzle without outside assistance which may or may not be coming and which likely means reaching out to the little man for information he can’t get otherwise. For the reader, the suspense comes from waiting to find out what the word means and what that knowledge will mean for George.
“BAXBR/DAXBR” isn’t a particularly deep story, but it does allow Smith to combine two of her interests, science fiction and crossword puzzles, and in the process give some background into the creation of crossword puzzles to the reader. For anyone who solves crossword puzzles, the insight into the mind and process of someone who writes them (not George, but Evelyn Smith), It adds a nice layer to a story which is relatively slight, if entertaining.
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.