Mad Men, in Miniature

Sixty years ago this month, “The Tunnel Under the World” was published in Galaxy Magazine. This short story was written by Frederik Pohl, who would later become editor of the same magazine.

Pohl also made himself well known as a Writer Agent, representing many early science fiction writers, including his friend Isaac Asimov. In addition, Pohl was a founding member of the Futurians, a group of Science Fiction writers who wanted to incorporate left-leaning political themes into their writing, in an effort to lead sci-fi readers in that political direction – a philosophy that Gene Roddenberry would later employ in the creation of Star Trek. Pohl began his writing career in 1939 and continued writing until he passed away in September 2013 at the age of 93.

The story is set in third person perspective and we follow Guy Burkhardt through his day. It’s June 15th and Guy wakes with a screaming start. He had just had a vivid and terrifying nightmare. His wife, Mary, was already awake and downstairs fixing breakfast, so Guy heads for the shower to ready himself for the work day. At the breakfast table, Guy tells Mary that he had had a nightmare, but struggled to remember the details. Mary reveals that she, too had a nightmare. Together they unsuccessfully try to piece things together before Guy heads to work.

Guy stops to pick up a pack of cigarettes on his way to work and immediately begins noticing what was different about this day. The bus doesn’t have any of the regulars on board. Ralph, the shopkeeper at the cigar store is out for the day and a stranger is in his place. The stranger convinces Guy to try a new brand that he was unfamiliar with. On the rest of his way to work, he is suddenly aware of the advertising all around him that he would otherwise ignore. Jingles for Choco-Bite and a rather jarring ad for Feckle Freezers – both brands with which he was unfamiliar. He arrives at work to find Mr. Barth absent, but Guy needs Barth to sign some tax forms. It’s July 15th, the day that the tax forms are always signed. The secretary offers unhelpfully that he may be at the chemical factory, but Guy is unable to make contact with Barth for the whole day.

After work, Guy misses his bus but an acquaintance named Swanson catches up with him. He tries to strike up a conversation with Swanson, but the attempt just seems to depress Swanson into silence. Guy is beginning to get irritated by this day. Nothing is going as it should. Catching the next bus, Guy thinks about his day. You expect things to go wrong with your day – little things – but for Guy, all the wrong things were wrong, and that, he finds unsettling.

At home, he spends his time brooding about his day. Even when Mary invites the neighbours over to play bridge, Guy can’t help but be distracted by his day. He would later snap out of it and promptly fall asleep at the bridge table.

The next morning, Guy suddenly awakes from a terrifying nightmare with a screaming start. His wife, Mary, was already awake and downstairs fixing breakfast, so Guy heads for the shower to ready himself for the work day. It is June 15th. …Again.

Guy goes about his day, but as he does, he notices the things that are different again. This time, the oddities are even more glaring. Like a panel truck fitted with loudspeakers that interrupt his breakfast, blaring noise and sirens for attention before breaking into an obnoxious and unbelievably loud advertisement for Feckle Freezers. Guy tries to call the police to report the disturbance, but gets a busy signal. On the second try, the truck disappears as quickly as it arrived, taking its cacophony with it.

Guy’s day is full of strange events and odd happenings, and most of them seem to centre around new and unheard-of products of some sort or other. A new kind of drink at the cafe, a lunch engagement with a very attractive representative of Feckle Freezers who seemed all too eager to pay Guy’s bill to make amends for the noisy disruption at breakfast. She explains it as outside salesmen who got a little too excited about their freezers. The lunch comes complete with a more subdued but convincing sales pitch for Feckle Freezers. Guy agrees to buy one.

On his way back to the office, Guy runs across Swanson again, and tries to strike up a conversation with the same depressing result as yesterday… only it wasn’t yesterday, it was today. …but before. Back at the office, Guy finds again that Mr. Barth is not in to sign the tax papers as he does every June 15th.

Back at home, Mary is excited about Guy’s freezer purchase, but Guy manages to blow an electrical fuse when he attempts to turn on a light. Cursing his luck, Guy fumbles his way through the dark basement to the fuse box. Replacing the fuse and reconnecting the circuit, he looks around the basement only to find it is completely different. Not only are things arranged differently, it seems to be constructed entirely of copper!

Baffled, he makes his way to a sizeable boat hull that he had built and is now laying upside down on the floor. From the outside the boat looks fine, but a quick inspection underneath the upturned hull reveals that it is very much unfinished. It’s as if it has been replaced with a replica that someone wanted to look exactly like his boat. But why? Who would steal a boat from someone’s basement only to replace it with an unfinished replica? There is no reasonable answer. Questioning his sanity, he scrambles underneath the unfinished boat hoping to find a clue, when he suddenly feels a draining weariness and falls fast asleep.

Guy wakes with a start the next morning, still under the overturned boat. He scrambles through a quick inspection of his surroundings to find the basement as he had left it the previous night – the boat unfinished and the walls and floor made out of copper. He runs upstairs and flings openm the front door to retrieve the morning paper before his wife gets up to make breakfast. He picks up the paper and looks at the dateline… June 15th… Again. It was impossible yesterday, but it’s even more impossible today.

This time, he’s determined to get to the bottom of what’s going on and decides that he will live this particular June 15th very differently. That day, Guy finally makes contact with Mr. Barth and he figures prominently into what is going on, along with the chemical company they both work for, and all the strange and increasingly aggressive advertising he has been experiencing, along with miniaturization technology and cyborgs. How does it all fit together? Does Guy get out of his “Groundhog Day” merry-go-round? Read the book and find out, you still have half the book to go!

Do not expect to finish this story on a lunch break. This book is about a 1 hour to 90-minute read, depending on your reading speed. This short story is considered by LibriVox and Feedbooks to be in the Public Domain as there has been no evidence found that the U.S. copyright has been renewed, but please check the copyright status in your country if you are not sure.

Download the story in epub, mobi or PDF format at Feedbooks

Listen to the story read aloud by Phil Chenevert at LibriVox (Total playing time: 1:24:24)

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