A Most Ambitious Experiment is the title of a science-fiction short story. The link is Unit 10C in Solutions Upper-Intermediate, but I think the lesson can be done with any B2 or B2+ group learning about books or short stories, different genres, especially science fiction.

Eastoftheweb.com is an excellent site for teachers or learners of English when they are looking for authentic texts to read. You can browse the site for short stories according to genres, subgenres, the length of the story, or specify if you are looking for something contemporary or a classic story, and many more aspects.

So, this is what I did with my students:

1.Pre-reading activity:

I put the students into mini-groups with the help of slips randomly taken with the names of some genres. They worked in those groups for the rest of the lesson. First they had to guess the genres of some short stories on the basis of the titles. After group discussion we compared the ideas in plenary.

Next, I revealed that we were going to read the last item on their lists: A Most Ambitious Experience by Mike Krath.

2. Reading

I chose to make my students read the short story in parts and discuss it bit by bit as it gets a bit complicated and I also found it a good source of conversation as the short story lends itself tos peculation, guessing and discussion.

So we started with reading just two extracts and discussing the main points of the story, e.g. why Robert wanted to travel to the future. Any comprehension question is appropriate here, the main aim is to make students understand what they are going to read about. The first extract was the following:

“Now,” Robert told his wife, “I am going on a long trip. You won’t see me for years, but I will come back and see you.”
“Where are you going?”
“I am going into the future. I am sure you will be angry when you see me, but it won’t be for long, because once I have seen you, I will then vanish again and you will see me standing in this very spot exactly five minutes from now.”

and having discussed it the second extract followed:

Robert’s wife was puzzled.
“I am curious what our 401k will do if I invest in certain options and leave them,” he said. “I’ve decided to go twenty years into the future and see the outcome.”
“What if you can’t come back?”
A slight pause – then, “I hope I made the right choice.”
“What do you want for dinner?”
“I wouldn’t make anything for me now, but, five minutes later, I will tell you what I want.”

Having understood and discussed everything students read the first part:

Robert left for the basement. His wife, still confused, but knowing that Robert was a puzzling man, went to the kitchen to make dinner, with or without her husband’s request. She was quite unsure what to make of all of it, but, after a few minutes, she quickly forgot the conversation.
Later in the afternoon, Robert’s wife walked over to the basement door and knocked. She waited. She knocked again, and, again, nothing. Finally, she opened the door and walked down to the laboratory. Robert was nowhere to be seen. She hadn’t heard him come up. Where had he gone?
When supper was ready, and the light outside turned a dim color, Robert’s wife called out his name, but no one answered. The house was quite still.
“I don’t like this,” she thought. “He’s never been late for dinner before.”
Robert’s dinner grew cold, and his wife placed it in the oven to keep warm hoping he would notice it when he came back. In the morning, Robert’s plate was still warm in the oven. He had never touched it. His wife looked for him once again and called out his name, but it was to no avail – he wasn’t in the house.

At this point the groups discussed some questions:

  1. Why wasn’t he back in five minutes?
  2. How long did he leave for?

The next, a bit longer part followed:

     After several days, Robert’s wife contacted the authorities and told them what had happened. They searched the house for clues, but all they could find was a slightly discolored spot on the basement floor.

     “Did he say anything before he left?” they asked.

     “I’ll be back in five minutes,” she said.

     After the authorities had left, and after several more days, weeks and months, the case was officially closed. Robert was missing, but since no foul play could be determined, it was decided that he had just deserted his wife. Robert’s wife was not pleased.

     Years passed, and Robert’s wife was able to secure a job that kept her living slightly above poverty level. Day after day, while working, she cursed her husband for leaving her. She would never forgive him. Never! Her face became more wrinkled and the pretty smile she once wore turned into a permanent scowl.

     Finally, twenty years to the day her husband had left, Robert’s wife was sitting at the kitchen table when she heard a noise coming from the basement. She immediately got up in fright. Who was down there? She heard footsteps slowly walking up the stairs and – finally – the door flew open and there, before her eyes, was none other than Robert. He didn’t look any different than when he had left.

     “You!” she managed to say.

     “Okay, what’s the value of our 401K?” Robert asked.

     “Where have you been?”

     “That doesn’t matter. What matters is the value of our 401K. I need to know if I invested wisely or not.”

     “You left me twenty years ago with nothing to live in and expect to find anything left of the 401k?”

     “You spent it all?” Robert asked. “Oh great – that’s just great. I’ll be right back.”

     Robert turned and went down into the basement.

     “Robert? Robert, where are you?” Robert’s wife said but suddenly saw a brilliant blue flash of light and then nothing. Robert had vanished once again.

     Robert’s wife went back to the dining table. She sat down and tried to think of what had happened. Her mind was muddled. She couldn’t think.

Questions for group discussion:

  1. When did they meet again?
  2. Why did Robert ask the questions?
  3. Why did he leave again?

The next part was shorter:

The 401k had been – had been – she thought – left untouched when Robert had first left, but now – she was beginning to remember different things. The 401k had been placed in a trust. A trust where she couldn’t touch the money for twenty years. Then, she remembered that when the authorities had informed her that Robert had deserted her and was never located, that she had him declared legally dead so the trust would be legally hers without waiting for twenty years.
Another flash of light in the basement, more footsteps, and Robert walked into the kitchen.
“The value?”
“I told you I spent it.”
“I put it in a trust.”
“I had you declared legally dead.” Robert’s wife said.
“Oh bother,” Robert said. “I’ll be back again.”

Questions for group discussion here:

  1. What happened to the money?
  2. Why did Robert leave now?

The next part of the short story:

A flash of light and Robert’s wife was again confused.
“Did I say spent it? Spent what?” she thought. She had tried to obtain some money after Robert had left her. When she had gone to inquire how much was in their 401k, she had found out that Robert had withdrawn the money and had hidden it somewhere – but where?
Another light and Robert was there in the kitchen again.
“Do you know how much you put me through? You left me nothing to live on.”
“This will all be a bad dream,” Robert said.
“If it wasn’t for some gold coins that I found buried in the backyard, I would never have survived.”
“You found the gold coins?”
“So that’s where you hid the money!” Robert’s wife said. “Good. I’m glad I found it and spent it all!”

The same questions can be discussed in the groups as the ones after the previous part.

After the following paragraph, the students had to predict what was going to happen. They managed to come up with the most imaginative ideas – this was my favourite part of the lesson! So, the paragraph:

Robert went back into the basement and disappeared. His wife sat still for awhile expecting him to appear, but he never did. She got up and went to cook. She thought of her husband and tried to remain bitter against him. She suddenly couldn’t think of what would make her bitter. Deserted her? He had never deserted. What an imagination she must have. As she opened a cupboard, Robert walked into the kitchen.

After the prediction activity I let them read the end of the story:

“Have you decided what you want for dinner?” she asked. “I haven’t started making anything yet.”
“Leave me alone, I’m not hungry,” Robert said and sat down at the kitchen table.
“What’s wrong?”
“Can’t you keep your grubby hands off our money for twenty years?”
“What?”
“You can’t let me leave you for a measly twenty years without spending everything we have, can you?”
“What are you talking about, honey? You haven’t been gone for five minutes and already something is troubling you.”
Robert looked at the wife of his youth.
What if he killed her? He could strangle her now, go into the future, see what the 401k did, come back a few minutes before, and live happily ever after.
“May I see that dish towel for a sec?”
Robert’s wife handed it to him, and, much to her desperate surprise, he tied it around her neck and choked her, all the while telling her, “Don’t worry, this is just an experiment.”
Robert went back down into the basement, and twenty years later reappeared in a flash of light.
“Who’s down there?” a man asked walking down the basement stairs.
Robert hadn’t thought of this. He looked for somewhere to hide, but it was too late. The new owner of the house had a rifle.
“Say your prayers.”
“Wait! I can explain!”, but it was too late. Robert was immediately shot and fell backwards quite dead – a most miserable end to a most ambitious experiment.

The End.

3. Post reading activity:

The students discussed in groups why Robert killed his wife and what his mistake was. After each group discussion plenary followed, very often the students themselves asked other groups about their opinions, and a very lively conversation followed. The last point would have been to present a group opinion about the whole of the story , but I didn’t have to ask them for their opinions as it was a natural outcome of the surprising ending.

It was a really enjoyable lesson about A Most Ambitious Experiment!