Tag Archives: Barry N. Malzberg

What comes after SF

fig. 1. Has the future of SF come and gone? Illustration: “As Mars Sees Us”, by Frank R. Paul, Amazing Stories, July 1940.

What comes after SF

‘the hour of its birth is the hour of its death.’
—G. W. F. Hegel[1]

Is there a future for science fiction?

Consider this: writers of science fiction have imagined not just the end of civilisation, and the end of the human species (among others), they have even imagined the end of everything—up to and including the beyond of the end. And yet rarely—perhaps never—do writers of SF imagine the end of SF, even though its finale is necessarily implied in the end of it all.

This is perhaps less strange if we consider that SF itself rarely features in the futures imagined by SF writers. Could it be that the collective imaginary of science fiction sees no future for SF? Or at least no future for SF in SF. With the notable exception of recursive science fiction,SF is strangely absent from most imagined futures. Is recursive science fiction, then, where we will find SF imagining the future of SF? Perhaps—but I’m not holding my breath.

Recursive SF is a somewhat fuzzy sub-genre of SF—which is no bad thing in that fuzziest of all genres. In its clearest and narrowest definition, it is ‘science fiction stories that refer to science fiction […] to authors, fans, collectors, conventions, etc.’[2] However, the self-referentiality of recursive SF runs the gamut of the more straightforwardly comic and satirical at one end (like Frederic Brown’s novels, What Mad Universe or Martians Go Home), through to the more self-consciously critical works of Barry Malzberg, in which Malzberg uses the conceit of self-referentiality to interrogate SF—albeit in fictional garb.

When speaking of two recursive works of Robert Silverberg’s—‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ (1973) and ‘Schwartz Between The Galaxies (1974)—Malzberg notes that they are ‘less […] work[s] of fiction than of literary criticism.’[3] This is an apt description of some of Malzberg’s works. For instance, his ‘A Galaxy Called Rome’ (1975) is an excellent example of, and introduction to, such critical-recursive SF. Malzberg himself prefers the term ‘decadent science fiction’ to describe what he’s up to—a term that is presumably derived from Joanna Russ’s suggestive essay ‘The Wearing Out of Genre Materials’ (1971).[4] To the extent that such ‘decadence’ is indicative of a more self-aware and sometimes critical take on the pretensions and pathologies of SF, that often includes formal experiments in literary style, both Russ and Malzberg associate it with the development of a ‘New Wave’ in SF in the 1960s and 70s. Unfortunately, and despite my own fascination with the New Wave and ‘decadence’, I have yet to find amongst its practitioners any evidence of what I have set out to find. Namely SF imagining either the SF of the future, or the end of SF itself—even though the utter exhaustion of SF is hinted at in the most corrosively recursive SF (Silverberg’s short story, ‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ again leaps to mind).

The entry on ‘Recursive SF’ at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction seeks to expand the definition of recursion to include, ‘Alternate Histories, usually backward-looking in time, and frequently expressing a powerful nostalgia for pasts in which the visions of early Genre SF do, in fact, come true.’[5] This is almost an answer to my question. Unfortunately, I am not looking for a ‘backward-looking’, retrospective vision of the future of SF, no matter how attractive such decadent confabulations are. No doubt imagining a different future for, say, SF in the 1940s, is easier to do given that one is imagining an alternate future based on what happened in our universe. But for now, in this quiet sector of the multiverse, I am trying to find is an SF that imagined SF in its future, not a future past.

What got me thinking along these lines was a remark made by Michael Moorcock in his introduction to a 1969 collection of New Wave SF writings, appositely entitled The New SF:

In the early days of the science fiction magazines writers often tried to visualise what literature would be like in the futures they invented. In a sense, therefore, the stories in this book are something of a natural development from magazines like Amazing Stories (founded 1926) for, to Hugo Gernsback the editor of Amazing Stories, they might well seem like the products of an ‘alien’ future.[6]

Moorcock’s remarks are more suggestive than factual. The idea that the wild and wacky experiments of the New Wave could almost have been the future of science fiction imagined in the past is a fascinating thought. I have, however, found little evidence for Moorcock’s claim that SF writers in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were doing much to ‘visualise what literature would be like in the futures they invented’. I could be wrong about this—indeed, I want to be wrong. Perhaps somewhere in the lost drafts of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) one can find an outline of the entirety of SF’s future trajectory, and, inevitably, its end.

To further illustrate what I am driving at, regarding the absence of an imagined future for SF in SF, let’s look briefly at two examples of recursive science fiction from the 1950s and 60s: Arthur C Clarke’s novel, The Sands of Mars (1951) and Edmond Hamilton’s short story, ‘The Pro’ (1964). In Clarke’s novel, the protagonist is a long-time science fiction writer who now lives in a future that has overtaken, in part, his pulpish imaginings. He journeys to a Mars that already has the rudiments of a permanent colony, somewhat bedazzled by the way the near future both confirms and refutes his fiction. Hamilton riffs on a similar theme. However, he makes the dislocation of the SF writer who has lived to see the future the central focus of his short story. In both cases nothing is said about the SF in the science fictional present imagined in either story. It either no longer exists, or—demonstrating a singular lack of imagination—is simply the same as it was when these stories were written. One can only assume that if there is an SF in these imaginary worlds, it is exempted from the forces of change and history that are otherwise speculatively evoked in the self-same stories.

Could it be that the inability to imagine a future for SF disguises a repressed belief that there is no future for SF? In his 1994 essay, ‘The Many Deaths of Science Fiction,’ Roger Luckhurst argues that, ‘SF is dying, it has been dying from the very moment of its constitution’.[7] Motivated by those interminable debates that mark fandom, which locate the ‘death of SF’ in an imagined transgression of what is meant by ‘SF,’ Luckhurst argues that such anxieties necessarily emerge precisely as a result of the establishment of the genre in the first place. Indeed, he further believes that SF has a ‘death wish’ that is bound up with the boundaries of the gerne, and that is a function of the repressed desire for a ‘proper death’: either by way of its dissolution and return to the mainstream, or by way of being acknowledged as more than or better than its pulp, popular origins. Either way, the establishment of clear boundaries for SF only intensified the anxiety of this death-wish, and the anxieties that continues to metastasise with ever controversy over perceived threats to these borders, whether from within or without (though especially from the former).

Luckhurst is at his most interesting when he focuses upon ‘the effect[s] of the structure of legitimation’, by which he means that the exclusionary policing of SF’s ambiguous borderlands by trufans and writers alike is the real source of SF’s internal conflicts and ‘death wish’.[8] By any measure, the efforts of people like Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell in establishing an exclusive definition of SF was bound to explode, given not only the relatively arbitrary origins of their stipulative definitions of SF, but also the patent influence that the rich borderlands of the genre continued to exert upon readers and writers. What’s clear, even amidst the hardest of the so-called Hard practitioners of SF, is that there is no such thing as pure SF. Perhaps SF was stillborn from the outset, a consensual hallucination held together by the will of a Gernsback or a Campbell, not to mention the self-legitimating institutions of fandom they surrounded themselves with. Indeed, Gernsback’s and Campbell’s SF is starting to sound more like something you would find in SF, some harebrained scheme cooked up in the imaginary laboratories of the future.

One of the interesting threads Luckhurst unpicks, but does little with, is Hugo Gernsback’s pioneering attempt to establish not only the contours of SF, but also its aspirations to be more than simply another pulp ghetto for popular consumption. In Gernsback’s proselytising and agitational vision for SF, SF is calling into being a world that has yet to come. To my thinking, implicit in that vision is a sense of the self-limitation of SF. Once the world Gernsback desires has come into being, once the general consciousness of the population is in synch with science rather than simply ‘tak[ing] new inventions and discoveries for granted’ in a quasi-religious fashion, then SF’s role as harbinger and teacher will be complete.[9] And once complete, the need for SF will simply disappear.

The idea that SF has no place or part to play in the future it fictionally conjures into being, can be seen in the Clarke and Hamilton stories discussed above. There is a sense in both that with the realisation of the dreams of science fiction, SF as anticipation and advocacy is rendered superfluous. Clarke’s story is more positively disposed to the merits of SF as anticipation, no matter how flawed the speculation often is, whereas Hamilton poses that perhaps there was no point in the first place, and that the space age of the 1960s was realised despite the existence of SF. Indeed, its Hamilton’s pessimism about the worth of SF—reflecting, perhaps, his own mixed feelings after almost 40 years in the business—that gives this story is melancholic power. He seems to be posing: would it have been better if SF had never been born in the first place?

Given a future in which SF was realised in line with Gernsback’s or Campbell’s desire, presumably SF would become something akin to pulp Westerns, a fiction of nostalgia for a lost time. In large part, SF has become this. The shiny rockets and bubble headed space suits of the Golden Age of SF can today seem to be more aged and out of place than spurs and a Colt 45 were in the 1950s. But in developing this tendency toward nostalgia, SF is not just the Romanticisation of a lost past—the past of the pulps on the verge of the space age. It is also the Romanticisation of an imaginary future that never was. That dream of SF—of grand and ever-expanding space exploration and colonisation—was not and perhaps never will be realised. Indeed, Ballard’s fiction from the 1960s, when he attempted to redirect SF from its technophilic obsessions amidst the burgeoning space age of Mercury astronauts and Project Apollo, has proved to be a better guide to our present.

Is it possible that the repressed desire for death and the striking absence of an imagined future for SF were finally realised in the New Wave? Not the ‘proper death’ that Luckhurst spoke of, by which the New Wave broke down the walls that separated SF from the non-genre literary recognition it both envied and imagined itself superior to. Rather, the New Wave enacted the death of SF—albeit in an erratic and largely unconscious fashion—and brought it to ruin through the exhaustion of all the shop-worn tropes in a fury of play and experiment. Which is not to say that the New Wave in SF did not live a terrific life full of noise and wonder. But as Robert Silverberg has mordantly noted:

by 1972 the revolution was pretty much over. We were heading into the era of Star Wars, the trilogy craze, and the return of [a] literarily conservative action-based science fiction to the centre of the stage.[10]

In any case, SF died—or at least that archetypal Anglo-American SF born in Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction between the 1920s and 1940s. It was killed off amidst a blaze of play and experimentation at precisely the same time that the revolutionary movement that erupted in France and Italy in 1968 and 1969 was being murdered by erstwhile friends and foes alike. And much like the supersized capitalism that came after the failed revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, the reconstituted and globalised SF is a strange beast: a vast commercial spectacle, a bloated behemoth that staggers through its domesticated afterlife, shorn not only of its earlier aspirations and optimistic urgency, but equally denied the peaceful death it so richly deserves.

And today, through the fog of an infinite regress of proliferating sub-genres, which inadvertently mock the old delusion of a unitary SF, we see our old friend the commodity, whose terroristic mass production has brought the biosphere itself to the brink of destruction like some arch science criminal of yore, colonising the real and the imaginary with equal indifference and spite.

Is this the future that SF imagined for itself?


FOOTNOTES

[1] G. W. F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George di Giovanni, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [1813, 1816, 1832] 2010. Translation modified.

[2] Anthony R. Lewis, An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction, Cambridge, Mass.: NESFA Press, 1990. See, also: https://data.nesfa.org/Recursion/

[3] Barry N. Malzberg, ‘The Science Fiction of Science Fiction,’ in Engines of the Night, Baen Ebooks, [1982] 2013.

[4] See, Joanna Russ, ‘The Wearing out of Genre Materials,’ College English vol. 33, no. 1 (October 1971); Barry N. Malzberg, ‘Thinking about Thinking About Science Fiction,’ in An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction, ed. Anthony R. Lewis, Cambridge, Mass.: NESFA Press, 1990.

[5] John Clute & David Langford, ‘Recursive SF’ in Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2021).

[6] Michael Moorcock, ‘Preface,’ in The New SF, ed. Langdon Jones, London: Arrow Books, p. 8.

[7] Roger Luckhurst, ‘The Many Deaths of Science Fiction: A Polemic,’ Science Fiction Studies Vol. 21, no. 1 (March 1994), p. 35.

[8] Ibid., p. 44.

[9] Hugo Gernsback, ‘A New Sort of Magazine,’ Amazing Stories Vol. 1, no. 1 (April 1926), p. 3.

[10] Robert Silverberg, ‘Introduction to “Schwartz Between the Galaxies”,’ in The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Four: Trips, 1972-73, Subterranean Press (Electronic Edition), 2009.

Robert Silverberg Downward to the Earth

I have often imagined a review that never ends, that contains every review that has ever been or ever will be written, snaking on and upward, from ruminations on Gilgamesh to who knows what works the future will bring. But it’s not this one, this is just one of the leaves in that review to come, that has never been and perhaps never will…


fig. 1. The copy I read has this cover. It effectively conjures the elephant-like Nildoror, and Gundersen in futuro-retro-1970s garb, gripping his chest anxiously. Cover art by Stuart Hughes.

It is common to describe science fiction as a literature that projects the concerns of the present into an imaginary future. From this perspective, there are those critics and fans that hail science fiction as the royal road to all that is unconscious in the present. Left or right, hard or soft, SF flows from the space-time of its composition. How else could it be? Unless, perhaps, the author was themselves caught up in an SF story, like a hapless protagonist in a Barry Malzberg story, little suspecting their present was doubly fictional, caught in a reductio ad absurdum with appropriate recursive details.

Like most clichés, this well-worn one that SF is just about its present has a lot going for it. We are encouraged to decode the concerns of the author to find traces of our world in their fantasies of tomorrow. What’s less clear, to my mind, is why we should only be concerned with the present as some type of absolute fact of composition.

Our present reality is a strange science fictional beast indeed. It recalls to me Karl Marx’s belief that in capitalist societies the ‘past dominates the present’. Marx’s argument was that by virtue of the twin principles of social organisation in capitalism, the accumulation of wealth by way of the exploitation of wage labour, the past comes to dominate the present. More poetically he put it thus: ‘The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living’. The situationists called this ‘dead time’. The experience of wage labour—with its dull rhythms and repetitions subservient to the needs of business and wealth—is it most obvious manifestation.

Once the entire planet had been made over, industrialised into a single market in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science fiction appeared to cheer this vision and chase it across the Earth and the dream of beyond. Dead time is the true subject matter of science fiction, just as science fiction is the poetry of dead time. SF sings of technological alienation, of rockets and of man. Which is not to say that it does not have its own beauty. At its best, SF dreams of overcoming the present dominated by the past; at worst, it endlessly projects the living death of the capitalist present ever on into a future without respite.

*

The past dominates the story in Downward to the Earth. However, Silverberg endeavours to interrogate this dominance, in the guise of the central protagonist, Edmund Gundersen, and his quest for the redemption of past sins. Indeed, the author does not spare us with a flattering image of our present projected into his fictional future. And yet, in the person of Gundersen, he holds out the possibility of meaningfully reckoning with the missteps of past crimes.

The outline of the story is simple. Gundersen returns to the planet Belzagor to seek redemption. In the course of this tale, he travels upriver to the Mist Country where the inhabitants undergo a mysterious rebirthing ceremony. There, the possibility of transcendence beckons—a familiar trope in this high period of Silverberg’s writings (1967-75). Along the way, Gundersen revisits the old places of the colonial occupation and some of the people who remained behind. In the guise of these characters, old friends, colleagues, a former lover, Seena, and his travelling companion Srin’gahar, an indigenous Nildoror, Gundersen successively throws off the memories of a past that still weighs upon him.

Belzagor. That’s what they called the planet now. The native name, the nildoror’s own word. To Gundersen it seemed like something out of Assyrian mythology. Of course, it was a romanticized pronunciation; coming from a nildor it would really sound like Bllls’grr.[1]

A revealing episode near the outset of Gundersen’s journey upriver is given in a brief discussion between him and his travelling companion, Srin’gahar, the Nildoror. Scratching a map into the dirt, Gundersen attempts to engage Srin’gahar in a discussion regarding the course of their journey. Quickly, we discover that for the Nildoror the map is quite literally not the territory. Bereft of analogues of the human hand, not only do the Nildoror have no written language, equally they have no experience of the abstractly symbolic, whether picture or text. It is in this passage, and later, in the even more elusive chapter on the mysteries of rebirthing, that Silverberg truly renders the alienness of his aliens. No doubt humanity lived its long dream without need or desire for a written language until relatively recently, and yet along the way it fashioned abstract symbols all the same. The idea of an alien intelligence without any need or desire for such abstraction, and so perforce literally at one with their ephemerality, intrigues me no end. Indeed, it reminds me of Guy Debord drawing attention to the systematic abstraction that is entailed in our world of dead time and the commodity-spectacle:

Workers do not produce themselves, they produce a power independent of themselves. The success of this production, the abundance it generates, is experienced by the producers as an abundance of dispossession. As their alienated products accumulate, all time and space become foreign to them. The spectacle is the map of this new world, a map that is identical to the territory it represents. The forces that have escaped us display themselves to us in all their power.[2]

Under the influence of the Nildoror, Gundersen’s journey from his past as a colonial agent is clearly a movement from the map to the territory, from abstraction downward to the earth.

The worldbuilding of Belzagor is one of the most astonishing aspects of the novel. The two sentient species Silverberg populates the planet with, the elephant-like Nildoror and the less seen Yeti-like Sulidoror, are well realised. One could perhaps mistake Silverberg for merely fashioning yet more dubious versions of racist stereotypes. Certainly, the Nildoror and Sulidoror are variously represented as noble, and sometimes savage. But they are never merely this. Silverberg uses them as more than simply a foil to the ‘civilised’ Gundersen. Indeed, Gundersen’s desire to understand the significance of the rebirthing ceremony points to a more potent message that is suggested, in part, in the Debord quote above. It is not that we have simply lost something in the fall into civilisation and abstract culture; rather, the desire to overcome abstractions as truly abstract and wholly autonomous, remains an urgent need.

Unfortunately, Silverberg is unable to extend his sensitivity for the colonised to a more full-blooded representation of human women, or rather the only significant woman in the story: Seena, Gundersen’s former lover. I’m not the first to remark on this common failing of Silverberg. To my mind this is precisely a failing of his future imaginary, his succumbing to the worst ideas and practices of the time in which the novel was composed. Which is all the more striking considering that Silverberg was not insensitive to the stupidities and impositions of hierarchical society. To be fair to him, he is not completely unaware of his failings in this regard. For instance, consider the dolphin protagonist of ‘Ishmael in Love’ (1970), and his somewhat hilarious if still limited comments on the nature of heterosexual male desire in the human. And once one gets past the voyeuristic male gaze that has no equal in his descriptions of Gundersen and the other men in the novel, Seena is more than a simple carboard cut-out as one finds written by too many of Silverberg’s male contemporaries.

In part, Silverberg’s models Gundersen’s quest upon that of Marlowe’s in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He even goes so far as to include a character called Kurtz, who like his namesake in Conrad’s novel operates as a narrative pivot, but nonetheless somewhat differently in Silverberg’s story.

Given the influence of Conrad, what is striking about the human empire that had once ruled Belzagor is its antiquated character. It is patently modelled upon the colonial empires of the 19th and 20th centuries—most obviously, upon the Congo that had only gained its independence from Belgium some 8 years before Downward to the Earth was published. Considering that Silverberg has little to say about the whys and wherefores of this empire of the future, I will forgive him this anachronism. Simply because he does not use the empire in the usual science fictional way, as a somewhat exotic backdrop that too often affirms the prerogatives and crimes of the actual empires that litter our history. Refreshingly, Silverberg interrogates the brutal truth of empire, on Earth as much as in his fictional setting—and so perforce as it is often unthinkingly used in SF.

Another clear influence upon Silverberg’s novel is the work of J. G. Ballard. One episode, in which Seena tells Gundersen about the fate of a co-conspirator of Kurtz, reminded me of Ballard’s story, The Crystal World:

He was staying at Fire Point, and went out into the Sea of Dust and got some kind of crystalline parasite into a cut. When Kurtz and Ced Cullen found him, he was all cubes and prisms, outcroppings of the most beautiful iridescent minerals breaking through his skin everywhere. And he was still alive. For a while.[3]

Ballardian tropes are scattered throughout the novel. The Drowned World is here, shipwrecked in Belzagor’s humid jungle, alongside other evocations of ruin and cold melancholy: the dilapidated hotel, the abandoned, overgrown colonial stations, the futility of struggling against entropy. Downward to the Earth is at once homage and elaboration that wears its influence proudly.

fig. 2. On the left, one of René Magritte’s illustrations of Les Chants de Maldoror; on the right Félix Vallotton’s fanciful portrait of Isidore Ducasse, aka Comte de Lautréamont. Magritte’s drawing illustrates a scene from the first canto, presumably when Maldoror seduces and destroys the young boy. I like to imagine that this creature is also the one Gundersen encounters in the abandoned company station in chapter eight.

I believe that another, more obscure force worked itself upon Silverberg here. It can be found in the suffixes that Silverberg used for his indigenous aliens: the Nildoror, Sulidoror, and especially the dumb Malidaror, a ‘semi-aquatic mammal’ that we briefly encounter in chapter four. They all, especially the latter, seem to descend from the unspeakable lineage of the eponymous protagonist of that strange, disquieting nineteenth century anti-novel, Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont. Am I merely imagining this? I know that Silverberg had some encounter with Lautréamont. He is mentioned in passing in his much-admired novel Dying Inside. Though again, perhaps he betrays the influence of Ballard. In a Vermillion Sands short story, ‘Cry Hope, Cry Fury’ (1967), Ballard has his protagonist not only reading Les Chants de Maldoror, but appropriately dogged by a Maldororian character. Of course, I may be wrong regarding the influence of Lautréamont upon Silverberg. I hope—inevitably a wretched and sickly hope—that the connection exists. And if you don’t believe me, as Lautréamont remarks in the final line of Maldoror, go and see for yourselves.[4]

*

I first read Robert Silverberg as an 8- or 9-year-old. It was his first novel, Revolt on Alpha C, published 1955. It is a very different beast to Downward to the Earth. And yet there are structural similarities. Both novels revolve around a choice made by the protagonist, one that must lead either to destruction or transformation—or possibly both.

Revolt on Alpha C is a kids book with classic SF tropes: dinosaurs, rayguns, space-time overdrive and thus, necessarily, rocket ships. It became one of my early templates for SF—which is no bad thing. Remarkably, for my childish and impressionable mind, it had a positive representation of revolution, based upon the Revolutionary War in North America in the 1770s and 80s. Thank you, Robert Silverberg. And thank you, decade of the 1970s, and for the many and varied realities and representations of revolution and revolutionaries in the mass popular culture of the day, even if most of them were cast as dastardly and bad. Silverberg’s was an exception. Come join the revolution on another planet, he said. Was it this call that lodged in my infant brain?

fig. 3. The Scholastic Book Services version of Revolt on Alpha C. Permanently burnt into my longterm SF imaginary. Cover art by William Meyerriecks.

My tumble into Silverberg’s work, though long, has been occasional. After reading and rereading Revolt on Alpha C as a child, I didn’t read him again for many years, and not so successfully. I recall trying to read The Time Hoppers (1967) and not finding it of much worth. Though this review makes it sound like a cool, Philip K Dick gem of a story—could I have been so wrong? Horses for courses as they say. A slew of excellent Silverberg short stories from the mid-sixties made me realise that I was perhaps being unfair by thinking of him fondly only for that slight tale of Space Academy Patrol cadets Larry Stark and Harl Ellison of the starship Carden mucking about on Alpha C IV. And please excuse me for thinking that it is more than merely a coincidence that the ship’s name is also a nom de plume of Cornelius Castoriadis, sometime revolutionary and theorist of Socialisme ou Barbarie. For with a mind made of correlations and paranoias what else could it be?

It wasn’t until I read the excellent ‘Passengers’ (1968), and then not long after Hawksbill Station, both novella and novel in rapid succession, that it was confirmed for me that Silverberg was worth more than a cursory look. But even then, I was confused, mostly because I had read both versions of Hawksbill together. To my mind the novella is the better realisation. The novel adds superfluous detail that only detracts from the horror at the centre of the story. Reading it so soon after the excellent novella only detracted from the latter. And so more years passed before I found myself here. And on my way I recently read the review of Hawksbill Station at Weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it. Reading and talking about Silverberg got me to thinking and wanting to read and talk some more about Silverberg. Good fortune: I already had a copy of Downward to the Earth. And so, my review. Is it here that it begins just when it looked like it was ending?


FOOTNOTES

[1] Robert Silverberg, Downward to the Earth, London: Pan Books, 1978 [1969], p. 7 (chapter 1).

[2] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, [1967] 2014, thesis 31.

[3] Silverberg, Downward to the Earth, p. 97 (chapter 9).

[4] Comte de Lautréamont, ‘Maldoror [1869],’ in Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2011, p. 219. Translation modified. Note that if Silverberg used an English translation of Maldoror before 1970 he would not have had access to Alexis Lykiard’s excellent version. The only widely available English translation at the time was Guy Wernham’s 1943 version, newly reprinted in a 1966 New Directions paperback. I can see a project taking shape: perusing all citations of Maldoror in science fiction, hidden or explicit. Written up, it would resemble Ballard’s superlative short story, ‘The Index’ (1977).


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.