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Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate old classics. For example, I have trouble with Robert A. Heinlein’s ‘Orphans of the Sky.’ Yes, I acknowledge that it is one of the first stories about a generation ship, inventing the idea that the inhabitants have forgotten they’re on a ship at all, and that almost any generation ship is (consciously or unconsciously) harking back to or reacting against this story. The thing is, I first read this story after I’d read many other iterations of generation ships, and I’ve seen so many inversions and variations of the setting (most memorably Stephen Baxter’s ‘Mayflower II’) that I can’t help but feel the Heinlein story is unremarkable for playing the concept straight.

I have no such problems with today’s story. In fact, it makes me even more impressed how well it holds up.

Over the past few decades in SF there’ve been many iterations of the idea that advanced technology (virtual reality, duplicators etc) allows you to act out any fantasy you like, even murderous ones, without real-world consequences. (I’ve talked about Will McIntosh’s The Fantasy Jumper, where this happens in the first few paragraphs.) The concept has some philosophical dilemmas embedded in it, and the inherent violence means easy excitement and transgression potential, so you can imagine why a lot of stories have played with it over the past few decades.

In contrast, Bradbury’s story came out in 1950. It’s about a man, George Hill, who knows his wife Katie is cheating on him with Leonard. He has therefore hired Marionettes Inc. to create a perfect replica of his wife for him to kill.

The concept is being played entirely straight. And yet the story works to powerful effect. In Bradbury’s crisp, unadorned style, it reminds you just how unsettling the core concept is. Indeed, George finds he can’t do it at first – she’s a perfect copy, her skin warm and soft – and what really disturbs him is that she speaks just like his wife:

 “Why did you come to see me?” She was not smiling.

“Please.”

“I insist. Wasn’t it about Leonard? You know I love him, don’t you?”

“Stop it!” He put his hands to his ears.

She kept at him. “You know, I spend all of my time with him now. Where you and I used to go, now Leonard and I stay. Remember the picnic green on Mount Verde? We were there last week. We flew to Athens a month ago, with a case of champagne.”

He licked his lips. “You’re not guilty, you’re not.” He rose and held her wrists. “You’re fresh, you’re not her. She’s guilty, not you. You’re different!”

“On the contrary,” said the woman. “I am her. I can act only as she acts. No part of me is alien to her. For all intents and purposes we are one.”

Punishment Without Crime by Ray Bradbury

Availability: print only

Word count: 3,600

First published: Other Worlds Science Stories, Mar 1950

Where to find it: The Stories of Ray Bradbury, collection, 2010, Knopf

Long After Midnight, collection, 2009, PS Publishing

Science Fiction Terror Tales, edited by Groff Conklin, 1970, Pocket Books

I Sing the Body Electric! And other stories, collection, 1998, Avon Books

Adapted as an episode of ‘The Ray Bradbury Theater’, starring Donald Pleasance
Adapted as a comic in The Ray Bradbury Chronicles vol 2

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