More About “Anti-Agathic”

Artwork for Charles L. Harness's short story "Fruits Of The Agathon" (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Dec. 1948)

From beneath the bushy V of satanic eyebrows, Rachs’ jet eyes seemed to shower sparks at him. As usual, that immobile face was incandescent, and Toring fancied he could almost hear the creaking of a carbon-arc in the brain of his superior. The Hungarian’s incredible energies frightened, rather than soothed patrons, and for years he had worked solely in the advancement of extra-sensory mechanics.
“Toring,” he clipped. “I want you to kill a man.”
[Toring] swallowed rapidly, and he was conscious of a dark silence in the room.
“I take it that the Council has finally approved your agathon program?” he asked the eyes.

Charles L. Harness, “Fruits Of The Agathon” (1948)

Browsing through the bibliography of Charles L. Harness the other day (as you do), my eye was drawn to a very early short story entitled “Fruits Of The Agathon” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1948). It was, in fact, only his second piece of published fiction after “Time Trap” (Astounding Science Fiction, August 1948). Courtesy of the Luminist Archives, my links will take you to copies of the two magazines in which these stories appeared. Unlike “Time Trap”, which has appeared in numerous collections over the years, “Fruits Of The Agathon” fell into obscurity fairly rapidly, and perhaps deservedly—it’s a complicated little story, chaotically full of ideas, which seems to start off in one direction, then changes course several times.

Harness was underrated throughout much of his lifetime. He specialized (as “Fruits Of The Agathon” demonstrated to excess) in idea-stuffed narratives of the kind James Blish called “intensively recomplicated”, featuring the sort of sprawling plots Brian Aldiss called “widescreen baroque”. Some day I’ll write about his first novel, The Paradox Men (1953), which features time travel, sword fights, colonies on the Sun, and a protagonist with a variety of talents indistinguishable from superpowers.

“Fruits Of The Agathon” features a device that can predict the date of someone’s death, but not the circumstances. The satanic Rachs, in my opening quote, wishes to exploit this knowledge for the greater good of humanity, by ensuring that the deaths of certain prominent citizens occur “under the circumstances considered most beneficial to the world”. That is, a carefully planned murder is carried out, rather than leaving death to potentially embarrassing chance. This “death plan” is called the agathon, and Harness helpfully opens his story with the etymology of his coined word, using one of those fake “Encyclopedia Exposita” entries with which science fiction writers often contrive a data-dump.

AGATHON: (From Greek, agathos, good, and thanatos, death.)

I won’t trouble you with the rest of the plot, which includes Freudian psychology, a mutually murderous family, extrasensory perception, telekinesis, and a set of artificial eyes which overheat after prolonged us.

The interesting thing about Harness’s agathon (for me, at least), is it predates James Blish’s use of the word anti-agathic, for a drug that prevents death, which first appeared in his story “At Death’s End” (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1954). Blish’s coining went on to become a science-fiction staple but (as I described in my original post on the topic) its etymology has always been a mystery, since agathic seems to lack a root relating to death. Instead, as Harness points out, the Greek agathos means “good”.

But Harness’s agathon pretty much elides the thanatos from which he claims it derives, so in his story we’re left with an agath- word that refers to death. Is it possible, then, that this is the origin of Blish’s idea that an anti-agathic would combat death?

It’s an appealing story, but there’s a sizeable fly in the ointment. As I pointed out in my original post, it took a while for Blish to settle on anti-agathic for his anti-death drugs. In his story “Bindlestiff” (Astounding Science Fiction, April 1950), he uses anti-agapic. The same word appears in “Sargasso Of Lost Cities” (Two Complete Science-Adventure Books, Spring 1953). In “Earthman Come Home” (Astounding Science Fiction, November 1953) it’s anti-athapic. Neither of these has any evident etymological connection to death. He only settled on anti-agathic in 1954, and later revised the text of his earlier stories to reflect that choice, when they were collected into the four novels of the Cities In Flight series.

So if we’re to invoke Harness as the origin of Blish’s usage of anti-agathic, we need a fairly convoluted scenario. Why would Blish have used a couple of similar words before eventually coming up with anti-agathic? Did he misremember Harness’s word, and only finally check back in 1954? But if so, why wouldn’t he have noticed Harness’s opening etymology of agathon (it’s right there on the title page of the story)? If he had noticed, he could readily have made the switch to the etymologically defensible anti-thanatic.

So. I’d love to claim that I’ve tracked down the origin of Blish’s word, but I’m afraid I’m unconvinced. I suspect we’ll never know where anti-agathic really came from.

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