“The Only Thing We Learn” is a 1949 science fiction short story by Cyril Kornbluth. It is about a group of rebel ships that attack their home planet and provide proof of a recurring historical theory.
Non-Spoiler Summary In A Nutshell:
The story begins as a professor of Archaeo-Literature recounts his belief in the historical inaccuracy of one of his culture’s famous epic tales. He offers substantial proof that the history books are biased, and that if his students were able to travel to that time period they would see the real reasons for the fall of the Home Suns Empire. We are then treated to that very idea as the story shows us what really happened all those many years ago in one of the battles that provided a turning point for the professor’s empire.
“Young gentlemen of the Empire, I ought to warn you that this and the succeeding lectures will be most subversive.”
There was a little rustle of incomprehension from the audience – but by then the lectern light was strong enough to show the twinkling smile about his eyes that belied his stern mouth, and agreeable chuckles sounded in the gathering darkness of the tiered seats.
My Two Cents:
• The good:
- I love stories that make you ponder the politics of civilizations. “The Only Thing We Learn” kind of puts a damper on all the years of peace our generation has enjoyed. It is a good thing to stretch your mind and realize that few civilizations are immune to the effects of history.
- Although splitting the story into two completely different sections is a bit irregular, I kind of enjoyed seeing the story from two different perspectives. I think it’s better to see events unfold rather than listen to a professor explain them!
• The bad:
- There is a downside to having the story presented in two different sections though, and that is the confusion factor. It is kind of a mental jolt going from a university lecture to a military monitoring room.
• Page Count: 7
• Word Count: 3,567
Where you can find “The Only Thing We Learn”:
- This short story first appeared in the July 1949 issue of Startling Stories.
- “The Only Thing We Learn” is included in The Crash of Empire (Imperial Stars, Book 3), a collection of several short stories depicting the fall of galactic empires.
- You can read a free HTML version of “The Only Thing We Learn” at the Webscription web site.
Some Interesting Links:
- Jerry Pournelle’s introduction to this story was pretty insightful too.
- Thanks to Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings for pointing out this great little story.
Craving More Stories?
If you enjoyed this story then you might also like The Last Command, about an old war machine that is reactivated decades after being buried in a radiation-proof landfill, by Keith Laumer.