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“Karat Cake”

“Karat Cake” Table of Contents

Some Review Editors discuss the structure and meaning of “Karat Cake.” The discussion takes the form of a debate.

[Review Editor 1] A solid, fun read with a tidy finish. I cut some slack on inconsistencies, and on an ending that was a bit rushed.

[Don Webb] Is the ending “rushed”? Well, yes. It is true that Solly, Stevens and Lohman appear suddenly, out of nowhere, but so does everybody else at some point in the story. That’s consistent with the style; the action proceeds at almost a breakneck pace. The characters are always on the move, and almost every part opens in a new location. However, parts 16 and 17, which together comprise the conclusion, are set in the same place.

By part 16, readers will have become quite accustomed to witnessing abbreviated transitions or none at all. But the ending may seem compressed in other ways. As we shall see in the rest of this debate, it really isn’t.

* * *

[Review Editor 2] A double bucket load of highly imaginative, thoughtful adventure on a higher plane. Well blended at the conclusion. As Challenge 663 raises the question of Dippy’s origin, I had the same thought: could the character have been integrated into the story a different way? And “Everything has a purpose”? Not sure I agree with that premise, but it’s okay in a fantasy world.

[Don W.] Could Dippy be integrated into the story in a different way? Probably not. Dippy has a “work visa,” and Frank accepts him as typical of his kind.

Could Dippy be human? No, we’d get bogged down in trivial arguments about cultural realism. This is one case where a space alien is practically indispensable. As an alien, Dippy is a caricature of the human Other, and Frank’s initial distaste for Dippy’s appearance and customs parodies human racism. But Dippy helps Frank overcome it. He’s a “documented immigrant” and a skilled mechanic.

Frank also discovers that Dippy’s theology is quite human. In part 17, Dippy says, “In a purposeful universe, everything has a purpose.” Put another way, if existence means anything, everything has a meaning. That’s why, in the same place, the Lord Razhdha-ka echoes an ancient authority: “I am with you always.”

The opposite, of course, is nihilism, namely spiritual suicide. If Frank Williamson had felt life was meaningless, he needn’t have bothered to do anything. He could have stayed home and abandoned Hildy to Lohman, the economy to Ouroboros, and the world to disaster. We have to be very careful how we define our universe; whether we know it or not, any choice makes all the difference in the world.

We hear twice: “In a purpose-filled universe, there is purpose in everything. It does not matter if we are unable to discern it.” Where does Dippy first say that? In part 1. The moral comes full circle; the premise is also the conclusion. It’s both alpha and omega at the same time, which is a definition of faith.

* * *

[Review Editor 3] The machine that produces Shmeat and gold also produces the environment-destroying Interdimensional Free Fall Events (IFF’s).

[Don W.] Shmeat and gold are produced by the same machine, but gold can be mass-produced only by removing the safeguards that prevent the IFF’s. In effect, the machine can operate with or without a conscience. With it, the machine can feed people; without it, the machine produces gold alone and thereby wreaks havoc.

* * *

[Review Editor 3] The following dialogue raises questions:

“I thought this was going to be so easy,” he said. “I’d steal the files, whiz on over to D17, sell my stuff to Nutrisynth, and live the life of Riley until I turned into a little old reprobate. Instead, I butchered myself, nearly got myself killed a dozen times over, nearly got you killed, nearly got Dippy...”

He fell silent, eyeing the Tellurean curiously. “You know, Dip,” he said, “all this time, I never asked where you were going. I just grabbed you and headed west.”

“The direction was of no consequence,” Dippy replied. “Goodness me, all that mattered was the journey, friend Frank.”

“I hope you realize that makes no sense,” Frank said. “I saw your data card. You’re here on work visa.”

“And I have done my work.”

“Which was what?”

“Why, you, Frank.”

“Dippy, what are...” Frank froze. As he stared into Dippy’s serene face, he perceived a change. There was no difference in the Tellurean’s expression. The eyes, the blue forehead, that goofy smile — none of that was any different from before, and yet Frank discerned an indescribable quality he hadn’t sensed previously. It was as if he were staring at Dippy’s identical — though more immense — twin.

“Dippy, I don’t—” Frank began.

“Your sacrifice is admirable. To forgo the self for the sake of others is among the highest of deeds.”

But why the sudden transformation and redemption through sacrifice? Does Frank have any choice in the matter, given the dire consequences? Rich or poor, wouldn’t Frank suffer from the cataclysmic IFF’s just like everyone else?

Compare Frank to Pinocchio. Pinocchio earns his reward: he is reborn as a real boy with a conscience because he abandoned his life of crime and sacrificed himself to save Geppetto. In contrast, Frank gives up money he might not live to enjoy.

[Don W.] Does Frank have an epiphany, a sudden moment of enlightenment? Not exactly; his evolution is gradual. He starts with a utilitarian conclusion, at the end of part 1: “For the first time in days, Frank began to feel at ease. [...] He decided to re-examine his feelings about Tellureans.” By part 12, Frank has not only shed his old prejudices, he has learned to speak Tellurean and understands Tellurean theology, which, as we have seen, is also summarized by Razhdha-ka in part 17.

In the end, what else does Frank learn? That he can be of use to others besides himself:

In the meantime, all he would have to do was provide some good or service they wanted.
He thought it over. What is it that I would want?
“Hildy,” he said, “do you know anything about running an egg farm?”

And there again, the story comes full circle from part 1:

The engine popped and sissed like an egg frying upon a rock.
Eggs, he thought. How long has it been?

What is Frank’s sacrifice? Is it a sham? Does he “give up money that he might not live to enjoy”? He says he expected to be able to live in comfort to a ripe old age. He might still be dodging IFF’s, but he assumed he could do nothing about them and that the risk was manageable.

Is martyrdom the only kind of sacrifice? That definition is impossibly narrow; neither Razhdha-ka nor even Jesus asks for that. Rather, “Karat Cake” illustrates in modern language the dramatized parable in Luke 18:18-30.

The Ouroboros director loses his life in the deluded pursuit of wealth that would only devalue itself. Frank risks his neck in pursuit of a fast buck. What sacrifice, then, does he make? Money for its own sake. Unlike the rich man of the parable, Frank reorders his priorities: he abandons his self-centered illusions in favor of productive labor.

“Karat Cake” is in its form a “story for our times.” If it seems to walk a tightrope between comedy and tragedy or between the realistic and the grotesque, we have only our own times to blame. But the story is ages old. Some of today’s readers — like the rich man — may find it difficult to understand but, as Frank has already said in part 12, it’s “Kinda simple, really.”

Responses welcome!


Copyright April 18, 2016
by Bewildering Stories

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