Tag Archives: Anglo-American science fiction

Frederik Pohl’s mass consumer (1): The Midas Plague

fig. 1. Interior illustration for ‘The Midas Plague’ by Ed Emshwiller, Galaxy Magazine, April 1954.

1.

There is something I find repellent about the idea of the book review. To my mind they rarely communicate more than the individual preference of the reviewer. Which is not to say that I believe we can find a single objective reading of any text, but rather that reviews—and here I am primarily thinking of reviews of fiction—rarely rise above the accident of opinion. If done well, the review can be a thing of beauty, a creative work in its own right. Even better, the critical review attempts to situate a text in the time and place of its composition and consumption, beyond the jaded whim of the reviewer. And perhaps best of all is the polemical review that treats the work at hand only as an opportunity to wade into the eddies of the historical present, with some combative advice on how best to remedy its dolorous state (preferably from an explicitly revolutionary perspective). Unfortunately, many reviews are rarely more than a hackneyed summary of the text with a vague judgment tacked on. But perhaps this is not the fault of any one reviewer but rather of the condition of reviews given the suffocating dominance of the mass market in book commodities. Today, the mundane truth of the review—whether hailing from blog or bespoke journal—is to be the handmaiden of the sales pitch, and little else.

Maybe this is why I feel less anxious and more relieved in reviewing old works—stories and novels past their publishing prime. Certainly, in the face of present turmoil I take comfort, after a fashion, in the relative stability of the recent past. ‘Stability’ here is strictly a temporal notion, in the sense that this time is over with, past, and complete (as it were), a relatively stable object of enquiry, even if this recent past was beset with its own instabilities and crises when possessed of the mantle of the historical present. Of course, in another sense the recent past is not done with to the extent that it remains with us: a constitutive element of the present insofar as it is an immediate condition of such. For example, the story I review below dealt with, in the 1950s, the then new reality of ‘mass consumption’ whose novelty has since metamorphosed into a mundane fact of the last half century of global capitalism. And perhaps here is where my review may play some critical or even polemical role: to defamiliarize ourselves from the suffocatingly commonplace by showing that what is apparently trivial or routine is anything but.

2.

Some months back I outlined a research project of sorts, what I called the science fiction spectacle. There, I wanted to draw attention to one thing in particular: the appearance in works of science fiction in the 1950s and 60s of what Guy Debord called variously ‘the spectacle’ or ‘the commodity-spectacle’. For now, it is enough to say that by this Debord meant the materialisation of a world view based upon and manifesting the rise to dominance of commodity production and consumption, first in Europe and the US and then the rest of the world. Since outlining this project, I have also been ruminating upon a related notion of Debord’s: the decomposition of culture. In my reading of SF, particularly Anglo-American SF between 1940 and 1970, I have been struck by how it formally recapitulates the progression of the European literary avant-garde of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Namely, we witness in SF of this time and place, the emergence of a self-reflective and recursive decomposition of the artistic object. By “decomposition” I mean, primarily, the literary “experiments” in the form and content of the short story and the novel. This can be seen particularly in the rise of the so-called ‘new wave’ in science fiction in the 1960s.

3.

So what has this got to do with Frederik Pohl?

“Finally, the review!”

Frederik Pohl, ‘The Midas Plague’ (Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1954)

In the 1950s Pohl became known for stories that ruminated on the changing nature of contemporary society, particularly with regard to the transformations in the modes of production and consumption—what some called back then the emergence of a “consumer society”. His best known—and perhaps the classic iteration of 1950s SF satire—is the novel he wrote with C. M. Kornbluth: The Space Merchants (1953), aka Gravy Planet, in its original serial publication (Galaxy magazine, 1952). In the novel, Pohl and Kornbluth ably illustrate what Guy Debord would later describe as the “incessant fabrication of pseudo-needs”[1] consequent upon the rise to dominance of capitalist production:

He extended a pack of cigarettes. | They were Greentips. I said automatically: “No thanks. I smoke Starrs; they’re tastier.” And automatically I lit one, of course. I was becoming the kind of consumer we used to love. Think about smoking, think about Starrs, light a Starr. Light a Starr, think about Popsie, get a squirt. Get a squirt, think about Crunchies, buy a box. Buy a box, think about smoking, light a Starr. And at every step roll out the words of praise that had been dinned into you through your eyes, ears and pores. “I smoke Starrs; they’re tastier. I drink Popsie; it’s zippy. I eat Crunchies; they tang your tongue. I smoke—”[2]

Like The Space Merchants, I consider Pohl’s The Midas Plague as an instance of the ‘science fiction spectacle’ (briefly discussed in section {2} above). Unlike The Space Merchants, The Midas Plague is not a good story. Its central conceit, the inversion of the wealth of mass consumer society, such that a rich person consumes less than a poor one, is at first sight satirically sharp. The set-up, which presents what was once known as the working class utterly dominated by the necessity to consume the vast panoply of goods churned out of the automated factories of a future welfare state capitalism, is biting. Lamentably, the more Pohl works to make this conceit believable, the more it becomes tiresome. Nonetheless, judging from the number of times it has been reprinted and translated, The Midas Plague seems to be popular with someone.

The critic and author Barry N. Malzberg noted in an introduction to the work that,

The audacious and patchwork concept underlying this story […] was Horace Gold’s [editor of Galaxy] and according to Pohl he had offered it to almost all of his regular contributors, asking for a story centred on the idea. The idea lacks all credibility, everyone (including Pohl) told him, and everyone refused to write something so patently unbelievable until, according to Pohl, Horace browbeat him into an attempt and Pohl decided that it was less trouble to deliver something than continue to resist. To his utter shock, the story was received by Gold and his readership with great glee, was among the most popular GALAXY ever published (or Pohl) and one of the most anthologized. Whether this demonstrated the audacity and scope of Gold’s unreason or whether it confirmed Gold’s genius (or both) Pohl was utterly unable to decide.[3]

I can only sympathise with Pohl’s confusion here. Sure, it is ably written, but any claim this satire has to incisiveness or wit is lost in its overlong and ramshackle telling. Judging from Damon Knight’s near contemporaneous review, few people other than Horace Gold seemed to think much of it:

This [story] is good for one laugh, or possibly two, but there is some-thing gaggingly irrational after a while in the spectacle of Pohl’s hero choking down more food than he can eat. The question, “Why doesn’t he flush the stuff down the drain?” comes up several times during the story, but Pohl never answers it, he only makes vaguely relevant-sounding noises and changes the subject. The alternate solution, that of putting robots to work using up all the stuff the hero is supposed to consume, comes thirty pages too late in the story, but is hailed by everybody as a revolutionary idea.[4]

Unlike Knight I am less concerned with the failed “realism” of the story. That realism is at issue in fiction is patent—after all, such realism or “naturalism” is the very hallmark of the one-time avant-garde radicalism of bourgeois literature. However, it is here that science fiction helps reveal the chief impasse of such literature, perhaps even more than the modernist literature that set out to call into question nineteenth century realism. As the saying goes, the map is not the territory: more so when the territory in question either does not yet exist; or when it comes to pass, will most likely never exist in the way it was imagined. Of course, this is not a problem for those that conceive of science fiction as merely the fictionalised present. In either case, we are back at square one. Either the realism of a fictional future is inherently problematic (just because… the future…), or the realism of the novel itself is problematic simply because as a literary artefact it is necessarily more than simply the reflection of the true state of things.

The realism, or not, of The Midas Plague is at issue because Pohl attempts to fashion a coherent, realist picture of the future. And very quickly, as Knight points out, this sham coherence unravels. For Pohl’s future to “work”, one must accept that the vast majority of its denizens are idiots at best. Indeed, I suspect that this says more about Frederik Pohl the jaded ex-Young Communist League member, whose despair at the present state of capitalist society is underwritten by his loss of faith in the capacity of the masses to understand or even desire to change the nature of the present social arrangement.

What would have been more interesting by far would have been something akin to what Pohl and Kornbluth attempted with The Space Merchants: to whit, an extrapolation of current trends. But in The Midas Plague it is precisely the science fictional gloss that gets in the way of Pohl’s satirical intent. Still, buried in the ponderous extent of The Midas Plague lie elements of a genuinely radical critique of capitalism:

It wasn’t so hard to be a proper, industrious consumer if you worked at it, he reflected. It was only the malcontents, the ne’er-do-wells and the incompetents who simply could not adjust to the world around them.[5]

Unfortunately, the genuinely biting and occasionally funny satire quickly fades under the burden of the stupidities of plot and character. As Damon Knight remarked in his review,

The story proper is just as dull as it ought to be, but Pohl has embellished it with some additional scenes that are better than it deserves—fine, zany drunk episodes, involving a couple of very sharp minor characters and some highly agreeable mock poetry and politics.[6]

Fortunately for us, Pohl had another go at the fictional critique of present trends. A mere nine months after the publication of The Midas Plague he returned with The Tunnel Under the World, broadly similar in its interrogation of the new arrangements (particularly with an eye to what Debord called “pseudo-needs”). This time, however, he hit pay dirt. Tunnel… is a vastly superior work, whose fictional premise and execution lives up to its critical bite.

I will return to discuss Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World in my next post.

fig. 2. Cover illustration for Galaxy, April 1954: ‘An Expedition to Eden’ by Ed Emshwiller.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, chapter 2, thesis 51

[2] Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, chapter 8.

[3] Barry N. Malzberg, ‘eForward’ to ‘The Midas Plague’, The Galaxy Project, Rosetta Books, 2011. In his memoir, The Way The Future Was, Pohl noted that The Midas Plague was one of only “two stories in my whole catalog which were suggested by someone else,” concluding, perhaps over-generously, that “it is a source of some chagrin to me that I like them better than most”.

[4] Damon Knight, ‘Infinity’s Choice’, Infinity Science Fiction, October 1957, pp. 108-109

[5] Frederik Pohl, ‘The Midas Plague’ (Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1954).

[6] Knight, ‘Infinity’s Choice’.

fig. 3. This has been a contribution to Vintage Science Fiction not-a-challenge.

A tale of science fiction and decomposition

fig. 1. Robert Rauschenberg or Richard Powers?

Over at science fiction and other suspect ruminations, Joachim Boaz has written about the excellent Walter M. Miller Jr short story, Death of a Spaceman (1954, aka Momento Homo). James Harris has also been inspired to blog about the same story at Classics of Science Fiction.

Joachim plants his flag firmly in the camp of recursive sf:

‘I am far more interested in the way “Death of the Spaceman” interacts with pulp science fiction— i.e. “drivel written in the old days” about the “romance” of space (16). Donny negatively contrasts his own experience with the stories that are told about the stars and adventure.

‘Miller doesn’t set about smashing it all with a bludgeon  (like Malzberg would at the end of the next decade), but rather presents future experiences as prone to the same moments of painful self-reflection as life comes to its end. He charts the emotional roller coaster that waffles between moments of calm and the growing tension/anger/helplessness…. and after Donny tells all his “rotten messes” to the priest (20), he comes to the realization that we make who we are, sins and failure and sadness and all.’

This is the key to Anglo-American sf in the 1950s and 60s.

I like the idea that Malzberg’s bludgeon is seen as the continuation and maybe even culmination of Miller’s more self-consciously literary crafting of pulp SF themes. Guy Debord spoke about the decomposition of the arts as their trajectory under the solvent pressure of capitalism and commodity relations. “From Miller to Malzberg” could be the title of a book dealing with the high period of the decomposition of Anglo-American sf: 1950-1970. Surely a timing to generate scholarly disputes by…

I am intrigued by the idea that SF recapitulates a trajectory followed by European poetry, painting and literature in and around avant-garde circles through the 19th and early 20th centuries—and find it suitably weird too, as if I am reading a science fiction account of a future history. I often like to imagine alternative versions, science fictional anticipations of the decomposition of SF, a vision of a bizarre and cracked future 21st century written in the 1950s. One of my favourites is Walter Miller’s story of a robotic theatre in the early 21st century. The Darfsteller is a peek foreseen of the society of the spectacle in diesel punk attire. See some of my related comments on the science fiction spectacle here.

Incidentally, I continue get a kick out of the fact that in The Darfsteller, Miller even got the timing of the emergent collapse of the old Soviet Empire right: the late 1980s!

fig. 2. Death of a Spaceman–illustration accompanying Miller’s short story of the same name, Amazing Stories, March 1954.

SF as decomposition.

In the early 1960s the Situationist International hailed the arrival of self-conscious decomposition in modern cinema (for more on the situationist notion of decomposition, see here). In passing they noted that the so-called nouvelle vague, Truffaut, Godard, et al, were not the source of this. By the situationists lights this cinema ‘new wave’ was more of a marketing strategy of mutual aid rather than an avant-garde project unified around a program (like the surrealists and dadas). Unlike contemporaries such as Godard’s mannered and derivative À bout de souffle, and Truffaut’s riff on Zéro de conduite, the situationists saw in Hiroshima Mon Amour by Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras a film of real import. Here was ‘the appearance in “commercial” cinema of the self-destruction that dominates all modern art’.

The situationists continued:

‘The film’s admirers do their best to find admirable little details wherever they can. Everyone ends up going on about Faulkner and his sense of timing […]. In fact, the reason they insist on the fragmented rhythm of Resnais’ film is so that they don’t have to see any of its destructive aspects. In the same way, they talk of Faulkner as a specialist — an accidental specialist — of the dissipation of time, accidentally encountered by Resnais, so that they can forget the time that has already passed, and more generally the literary works of Proust and Joyce. The timing — the confusion — of Hiroshima is not the annexation of cinema by literature: it is the continuation in cinema of the movement of all writing, and first of all poetry, toward its own dissolution’. (Cinema after Alain Resnais, Internationale Situationniste no. 3, December 1959)

I suspect that much of what passed for the ‘new wave’ in SF in the 1960s was akin to the corporate avant-garde of French cinema’s nouvelle vague. Like Godard and his band apart, the newness of the SF avant-garde was asserted more than signifying something truly new in the way dada and surrealism were new in 1916 and 1924. Nonetheless, one wonders what are the Hiroshima Mon Amour’s of SF, in which the ‘self-destruction that dominates all modern art’ appeared in ‘commercial’ form—but then, isn’t all pulp commercial? Here, ‘commercial’ is better translated as mainstream. I would argue that the Hiroshima’s of the sf new wave were books like Stand on Zanzibar (Zanzibar my love…), Dick’s Ubik or A Scanner Darkly, or Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo (to name only a few of the better known and hopefully uncontroversial instances of what I term the decomposition of science fiction). Stories like Miller’s Death of a Spaceman, or Cyril Kornbluth’s Altar At Midnight can be re-conceived as akin to avant-garde steps in the emergence of more self-conscious expressions of decomposition and self-destruction in science fiction (albeit often more self-consciously literary, in the practice of particular authors who aspired to make of SF a realm of artistic dignity and renown, such as Kornbluth). Any number of Philip K. Dick short stories and novels in the 1950s and 60s can be conceived thus, or works of other, lesser known writers (Wyman Guin and Kris Neville come to mind).

Where does this get us? And what the hell am I talking about anyway!? Decomposition? Avant-gardes? Science fiction? Are you kidding me!?

Dystopia as consumer will and science fictional representation.

By comparing the progression of Anglo-American SF in the 1950s and 60s to that of the avant-garde arts of 19th and 20th century, I equally want to draw attention to the way Debord and others conceived of this progress as in fact a limit or impasse rather than merely the expression of an experimental flourishing—even if it is also the latter. Indeed, the experimental nature of the SF new wave has often been overstated—mostly by its hucksters—considering that their experiments were in truth the application of a preexisting (anti) tradition of formal experimentation already thoroughly practiced throughout the arts of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Science fiction, born of capitalism and industrialism, is at best a herald of the coming future, no matter whether it is disaster or eutopia. Ultimately, SF has no place in the future it conjures. Like all literature and the arts, it shares in the estrangement and creation of the everyday. Unlike them, it foregrounds this estrangement, makes the true bizarrerie of the present explicit by drawing attention to its essential conditions and making them its materia prima: change and ephemerality.

To the extent that we still have SF—and it is an even larger part of contemporary culture than it was 60 years ago—is evidence not so much of the health of science fiction than it is an expression of our failure to build eutopia in the present. As I have argued elsewhere, SF invaded and submitted the utopian literature of the 19th century by building an empire on the wager that utopia will always be revealed as dystopia. SF’s triumph as a genre is intimately bound up with this wager, as much as its ability to best express the dystopian capitalist frenzy of accumulation and expansion which chases itself across the globe and on into the cosmos.