[originally posted here at Castalia House]
Referent, by Ray Bradbury writing under the shared pseud Brett Sterling, appeared in the October 1948 Issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.
The October 1948 issue ends on a bizarre note with another Ray Bradbury short (this time under the pseud Brett Sterling).
Referent features a boy in a sort of educational crèche colony; some sort of weird old-fashion boarding school in the distant future of 1997 is the mind-prison of young Roby Morrison until an alien visitor provides him with an opportunity to escape. But ultimately it’s really just a semantics puzzle and some commentary on the imagination of children which ossifies with age disguised as science fiction.
The alien being is a “referent”; without labels, it just is. Except whenever Roby labels the referent, he defines it and thereby limits its shape, potential and being. Shapeshifting and whining ensue. Eventually, young Roby runs away from his schoolmasters, and the schoolmaster, intent on finding Roby, imposes the label of Roby on the referent. The referent gets dragged back school, stuck in Roby’s form, while the real Roby hijacks the alien’s spaceship and escapes to freedom.
Being Bradbury, the writing is solid and amusing enough to keep this from being a total stinker, and the implications are not so odious as The Square Pegs, but after this, I’m glad to be done with this issue. It never quite got back to that fantastic peak which it started out on with Brackett’s The Moon that Vanished, and even with a few good stories throughout, there were plenty of valleys in this issue. At 180 pages, readers would certainly get their money’s worth, but I think it could’ve stood to be a little tighter. If That Mess Last Year, The Square Pegs, No Winter, No Summer, and Referent were axed, the issue’s average quality would go up substantially and you’d still be left with a pretty good “big ideas” magazine.