Break It Down Logically

Howard Schoenfeld’s short story “Built Up Logically” was published in F&SF in 1950, when Schoenfeld was thirty-five. Ten years before that, he spent almost a year in prison for being part of a group resisting conscription for World War II, a group led by David Dellinger, who would go on to a lifetime of anti-war protests. He protested against the American war in Vietnam, for instance and so became one of the Chicago Eight.

Dellinger—played by John Carroll Lynch in Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), who also played the Zodiac killer in Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and Marge’s husband Norm Gunderson in the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996)—spent three years in prison in the early 40s to Schoenfeld’s one. He could have been exempted from service as a divinity student, as were most of his group, but chose prison instead as a pacificist. In Schoenfeld’s account of their shared prison experience, Dellinger caused a stir on his very first day by crossing the colour line in the segregated mess hall and sitting with the black prisoners, for which he was of course punished. Dellinger’s background of privilege, a white man who went to Yale, is a big part of his story throughout his life. For instance, in 1969 the Chicago Eight became the Chicago Seven after the chaining and gagging of Bobby Seale (as Gil Scott-Heron puts it succinctly in “H20gate Blues”), the kind of treatment that Dellinger, as a white man, would not be subjected to. Over the years Dellinger became an elder statesman of protest, defanged through lionization. Here is how he was described in 1987:

For the past five weeks, Dellinger has been in a D.C. courtroom as one of 18 defendants in a First Amendment civil-disobedience case. The group was arrested last August while protesting nonviolently in the rotunda of the Capitol. It opposed what it saw as the government’s support of killing and violence by the contras in Nicaragua. On Feb. 12, he and his codefendants were found guilty on three counts: unlawful entry, blocking and impeding public space and unlawfully demonstrating in the Capitol. Dellinger and nine others will be sentenced in April. Last Monday, eight co-defendants were given suspended sentences.

At 71, Dellinger was the senior protester. He was also the most jailed—“oh, about 50 times, I guess, I’ve lost count”—and the most articulate.

From Yale to Jail”, Washington Post, 1987

Dellinger himself had something to say about that article in his memoir published a few years later under the same title.

To this day, I am more apt to mention the education I received in prison than the one I got at Yale. But that attempt at identification with some of society’s rejected can also bestow a different kind of unwarranted prestige. Having spent nearly three years in prison for the sake of one’s principles (and numerous shorter stays) is viewed in some circles as more impressive than it should be. So I point out that compared to most of the people I met in prison I was a short-timer. And for similar reasons, I have never kept count of how many times I have been arrested or in jail, a question I am frequently asked by the media and others. (One media writer wrote that I said “about fifty times,” but he made that up.)

David Dellinger, From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter, Rose Hill Books, 1993

Howard Schoenfeld’s account of the prison time he shared with Dellinger in 1940 as a conscientious objector took the form of an essay published in the newspapers later in that decade and eventually, in 1950—the same year as his F&SF story—reprinted in Prison Etiquette: The Convict’s Compendium of Useful Information published by Retort Press.

Schoenfeld in solitary, from Prison Etiquette.

Prison Etiquette was an anthology co-edited by Retort Press owners Holley Cantine and Dachine Rainer, anti-war activists and writers, themselves conscientious objectors and fascinating characters—more on them in a different essay. Rainer and Cantine had worked with Schoenfeld before: his F&SF story, “Built Up Logically,” was also a reprint, having been originally published in their anarchist journal Retort a year earlier, under the title “The Universal Panacea.” Retort didn’t pay contributors at all, so one hopes F&SF paid full rates for reprints back in the day.

Always thought this was a hideous cover.

There are some small differences in the text between “Built Up Logically” and “The Universal Panacea”. Here is an link to the full F&SF issue with “Built Up Logically” and here it is in audio, via a 2008 reading at the Slug of Time podcast; here is a PDF of the full issue of Retort that contains “The Universal Panacea.” The differences are mostly to do with drug references carefully excised in the F&SF version. This version has been anthologized numerous times—for instance, it appears in the 1973 Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian Aldiss, which, via a second-hand bookshop in Colombo sometime in the mid-90s, is how I encountered this story for the first time.

“Built Up Logically” is funny, twisty, and metafictional: the initial narrator-author Aspasia, who writes himself into the story twice so that he can get laid offscreen in the background “without interference from the censors” while continuing to narrate in his primary characterization, is engaged in an eventually deadly struggle for authorship of the story with Frank, who has a certain gimmick whereby he can invent things and make it so that they have always been part of the universe, such as rabbits and pianos, and eventually the universe itself.

More than the contest between would-be narrators for authorship, more even than Sally La Rue’s time machine that moves the whole universe forward in time so that everything always looks exactly the same and you’re not sure if anything real has happened—is there a better image of Progress—this is the part of this story that stuck with me for the last quarter-century or so.

The opening lines of “The Universal Panacea” (Retort, 1949)

The universal panacea in question is, explicitly, marihuana, as Schoenfeld puts it—so “The Universal Panacea”, in its original form, is less about narrative metalepsis and more about being extremely high, unless you consider those, not unreasonably, the same thing. The F&SF version excises all explicit mentions of weed, but without changing the line to make the edit make sense. For instance, it simply replaces reefer with cigar, like so:

“The universal panacea,” Frank said, lighting a cigar. “Have one.”

Opening line of “Built Up Logically”, (F&SF, 1950)

This tobacco-ized version never made sense to me. I was a smoker for some fifteen of the twenty-five years since my first reading of this story and it didn’t seem like a natural thing for a smoker to say. But it’s a very odd story, so I’d chalked this line up to another random oddity for a long time, only to discover that it does in fact make perfect sense in the original, much in the way that the mysteries of the universe resolve themselves when you’re high.

The thing with the rabbit is one such profundity that, however, does not seem to lose relevance upon sobriety. Everything—any object, any creature, any sufficiently complex part of the universe you care to point at—implies the rest of the universe. The universe, considered as the union of rabbit and not-rabbit: not just the space and time it takes up as a particular being, but its ancestry and evolution, the environment it requires and is adapted to, the cosmic laws and material histories that must be in place in order to rabbit.

I say any sufficiently complex part of the universe because it seems to be that such cosmic reconstructibility relies on a focal point (the rabbit, the piano, a poem, a prison) that is the way it is because everything was the way it was. So the universe you build depends on your choice of focus. The world you make depends on the seed you use as its absent heart. You could reconstruct a universe from a hydrogen atom or from water or a rock, but such a universe does not necessarily need to include a human civilization. You could reconstruct a universe from a bone flute and it would not include the history that postdates that object. A rabbit born well before this story was published—say, while its author was in prison—would be markedly different from a rabbit born after: the latter would carry in its body the mark of the bomb pulse, as we do.

Thanks to the lovely people on my Patreon for supporting this and other writings! If you enjoyed this, do consider signing up at