Tag Archives: science fiction spectacle

The Situationist International by way of A. E. Van Vogt

fig. 1. “Critique of Separation”, from, Internationale Situationniste no. 8, January 1963, p. 20.

Beneath a photo of Caroline Rittener, who had appeared in Guy Debord’s 1961 film, Critique de la Séparation, appears a phrase cited from a French translation of The World of Null-A (aka, The World of Ā, 1945/1948), by Canadian SF author A. E. Van Vogt (translated as, Le monde des Ā, Gallimard, Le Rayon Fantastique #14, 1953). Vogt’s words are put into Rittener’s mouth, to illustrate the situationist critique of separation—modern alienation, that “plot” of which we are mere “pawns in a game being played by men from the stars”. Even the capitalist ruling class, protected by their wealth, play a game they barely understand: “The point is not to recognize that some people live more or less poorly than others, but that we all live in ways that are out of our control.” (Guy Debord).

The photo and citation are one of several illustrations with text that appear amidst the situationist article ‘L’avant-garde de la présence’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 8, January 1963 (English translation available here). Once again, the situationists demonstrated that the quality of the elements of culture changed under the aegis of détournement.  “Ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a part in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress depends on it. It stick’s close to an author’s phrasing, exploits his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one” (Isidore Ducasse).


fig. 2. Astounding Science Fiction, ‘The World of Ā’, part 1, August 1945.
fig. 3. The World of Ā, Simon & Schuster, 1948.
fig. 4. Le monde des Ā, Gallimard (Le Rayon Fantastique #14), 1953.

Exit, the masses: a fictional fiction?

The following is something of an oddity. I found it on an old hardrive. In was in a folder called “web reviews” that also contained a few other pages that I had downloaded around the first five years of the twenty tens. Mostly reviews of science fiction novels from blogs I was then following or had stumbled upon.

Did I write this? It is hard to say. I have no recollection of doing so though I would hesitate to deny it outright, as it sounds like something I would. I have long been interested in SF and “old” science fiction in particular. That is SF written before the 1980s.

C. Knight Calender’s Exit, the Masses resembles nothing so much as John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. The main difference being that Exit, the Masses does not appear to exist outside of the review, below. It is this non-existence that is possibly the clearest sign that it was written by me. And yet I have no memory of doing such. Dare I say, much like the rouge sociologue, Mulligan Speke, that this work “is doubly non-existent”?

The most peculiar thing of all is the way this review mixes elements of its fantasy of place with those of ours. There is much that is familiar but enough that is not, which lends to it a dream like quality. And yet alongside such patently false personages as Knight Calender, William Jean and Emmerson Stampe, stands A. E. Van Vogt and Philip K. Dick. It is as if this review itself originated in a story of the aforementioned; as likely this as that it has come to us from another dimension in which things are the same but not quite. Or perhapsand this is an even more unsettling thoughtit comes from a story of Dick’s or Van Vogt’s that was never published in our universe, which is to say it does not exist in thought or deed. Or if it does, only in one of its less travelled, far-flung corners.

In the late 1980s I recall reading a novel called The Planiverse, by A. K. Dewdney. The framing device for this fiction was that the story was no fiction at all. The “planiverse” upon which the author had stumbled was the result of a computer simulation gone wrong—or right, as the case maybe. For reasons arcane to both author, and perforce reader, the mechanism by which the planiverse came into sync with our universe remained obscure.

It seems to me that the only criteria that a simulation requires is that it may also be that which is simulated. Could it be that Knight Calender exists somewhere, like the Berenstein Bears? Is it enough that we believe that he does? That no such person wrote a book called Exit, the Masses is far from clear. Maybe we have simply not found all the manuscripts left to the gnawing criticism of the mice? Or worse, could it be that in this world, our world, the manuscript of Knight Calender’s novel was destroyed? In truth, I find it more comforting to believe that it was never written, and that this review is a fake. Though I would prefer to believe that the novel, and so too its reviews, simply remain to be written.


fig. 1. The original 1972 paperback cover, designer unknown.

Exit, the Masses by C. Knight Calender

C. Knight Calender (real name Karl Keding) is unfortunately not as well known or as frequently read now as he once was. He was an extremely prolific British (originally South African) science fiction author from the 1940s through the 1980s, ranging from sword and sorcery to space opera, social satire and complex analyses of social trends. Exit, the Masses is one of his best-known novels and a Nebula award winner, written in 1969 but not published until 1972.  Its subject matter was grand, a sort of “near future modernist epic realism” through which questions of power, population, mass media, philosophy and international politics were addressed. With that subject matter, you would think it would be dated, but this is one of those books that beautifully captures general tendencies in society despite often being wrong about the particulars.

The narrative structure of this book is unusual and rather intimidating at first. Calender’s model is the early 20th century author William Jean and his sprawling Americas trilogy. But don’t let this put you off as the author transforms Jean’s modernist realism into his indelible near future modernism. Similar to Jean’s “structures in waiting” there are three types of chapters in the book, usually very short: “superbase”, which contains snippets from essays and books that help explain world background; “what’s happening?”, composed of very short news blurbs, ads and other pop cultural fragments and detritus; and “satellite tracking”, which tells the heart of the story through the cast of thousands that Calender successively weaves into an eerily familiar whole.

I was convinced at first that the whole book was going to be an annoying and difficult read. Thankfully, I was wrong. The “satellite tracking” chapters tell a traditional and quite comprehensible story. From the many characters rapidly introduced in the first third of the novel two emerge as the most significant: Janice Jones, the Australian government agent, and Mohamed Brown the English PARA (Pan Arab Revolutionary Alliance) activist. With two viewpoint characters the world becomes much less confusing fairly quickly. Indeed Calender’s casting of a female in a traditionally male role written in the midst of the pogroms of ’69 is merely one of its revolutionary aspects (and perhaps the least of them).

Despite its often confusing multitude of voices, Exit, the masses cleverly deploys the larger story shown  in the “superbase” and “what’s happening?” chapters across the more conventional narrative in the “satellite tracking” chapters. Indeed the scatter gun presentation of various characters across the face of the future Earth of 2015 works well. Still I was surprised that by the end of the book, with more understanding of what’s going on, the “superbase” and “what’s happening?” chapters would became my favourites.

I’ll mention some “shortcomings” up front just to get them out of the way. Calender makes extensive use of invented slang, and while he mostly has a decent ear for it (far better than Heinlein, for instance), it’s still invented slang. Expect to take a while to get used to words like “the jikks’ (men and women of no fixed abode who move from one cramped space to another) that are explained only in context. He also has a few hideous clunkers, such as “pretzel-sniffers” for the putrid things produced in the industrial laboratories of the EUG (European United Genetics) corporation. Thankfully, most of the slang adds just the perfect amount of retro futuritic flavour and fine shading, and isn’t just slang for the sake of it.

Once you are immersed in his work Calender more than ably evokes a believable future. Sure he got some of it wrong. But how well he anticipated social trends! There are no “meggcorps”, and in contrast to the runaway DNA pollution of his world, our Eugenics Boards are strictly policed. In our world the US isn’t fighting PARA, but there are US troops all across north and central Africa. And sure the Soviet Union is no longer as powerful as it once was, but then Calender wasn’t perfect – who is? Sexual morality didn’t work out the way Calender predicted either.  The absence of contracting in his future seems odd from today’s perspective, and of course he missed the advent of pilnodes and many other uses of entabulaters. But when you’re reading Exit, the Masses, the politics, the mass opinions, the human reactions to the events of the world are so believable and recognizable that you want it to exist.

I think Calender is strongest in his elaborations of then popularly discussed extrapolations and his analysis of the resulting side effects. If there were “meggcorps” there would indeed be intense social pressure within and without the fragile nation state. His idea of fluid employment dynamics is almost exactly the way work became integrated into super-state sources. And the large bodies of “idlers” is just about right. Even the radical Communist sect called “Sisyphus” fighting against all limits on creativity feels plausible under Calender’s hand. Sure, the broad strokes of his political antagonism creak a little the further he gets away from his Middle Eastern comfort zone, but his meggcorps using a dispersed network of “bio-ordinators” matches the real development of entabulaters and the resulting revolutions in mass psychological fashion-molds. Of course, we won’t have such technology in the near term, even though the Davis tubes introduced last year promise a new type of entabulater in the not too distant future. 

One of the major supporting characters is Mulligan Speke, author of the fictitious hapzhi-dicto, a sort of Vigilant Chronicle for Calender’s 2015.

NECESSARY — Means: (1) I don’t approve; (2) I rarely like it when it happens; (3) I can’t be jikk’d; (4) Neither can Yesnelm. Meaning 4 is the most likely, but the others are 250 keyzers of parched drail. (p. 38)

Speke shows up occasionally in “satellite tracking” and is a lot of fun there, but his best parts are to be found in the excerpts from either the ’dicto or his various other imagined books, letters, or essays littered across “superbase” and “what’s happening?”.  If you like dark sarcasm, this is awesome stuff.

Painfully, we managed to digest the theories of physico-chemical economy so far as the political characteristics were concerned, and within only half a century of the initial controversy. (I say “we,” but if you’re a god-blithering-recidivist I expect you at this point to take the book by one corner at arm’s length and ceremonially consign it to the place where you put most sensible ideas, along with everything else you decline to acknowledge the existence of – like shit. Go on shit you higgs! (p. 257)

Indeed, it’s worth reading Exit, the Masses for Mulligan Speke alone.

*spoiler alert*

I haven’t yet mentioned the plot. Partly that’s because the world and the character profiles are the highlight of the book. After a slow and deliberate start the plot quickly gathers its momentum to deliver a stunning conclusion. The way Calender handles the extensive supporting cast is simply incredible. Even Mulligan Speke’s first fleeting appearances in “satellite tracing” later lend sense to the weft and weave of the main story. Nonetheless he kept me wondering about how some of the chapters were going to fit into the main story until the very end. For instance labelling a third of the chapters “satellite tracking” becomes clearer retrospectively.

The two main protagonists, Jan Jones and Mahomed Brown, twirl around each other without ever meeting. Jones starts at the International Moonbase and slowly spins inward to Orbital-3 and finally Earth and the planned secret meeting at Pentagon 2. Upon her strange discovery at the Lunar observatory lies the fate of the Earth and the future of billions. Meanwhile, and in parallel, the developing mission of Brown’s PARA squad in Syria and what he finds in the shelled remains of a EUG experimental unit outside of Homs bears down upon Jones. Strangely it is Calender’s depiction of the EUG creatures that proved most hideously prescient. Still, the way he connects Brown and Jones’ stories is heartbreakingly abrupt and unexpected, albeit logical. If Calender’s 2015 is anything it is meticulously logical.

Alongside the regular smog alerts in London, Paris, Peking and Los Angeles, and the aggressive militarisation of Mars and the asteroid belt, Calender conjures a world you can almost taste if not already inhabit. Even the slapstick subplot that spins on the recovery of the missing historical documents from the Anz Republic provide more than amusing. Indeed it proves to be an ultimately important distraction from the terrifying pace and carefully orchestrated conclusion of Exit, the Masses

Calender’s inversion of the traditional deus ex machina solution, and his harking to Van Vogt, P.K. Dick and Emmerson Stampe, can sometimes be difficult to keep track of (pay attention, one of the early chapters is a quite useful summary entire in disguise to be read in the negative). It is, after all, in the denouement that the author truly fleshes out the status of his novel as a masterpiece. Indeed there is more realistic social analysis in this book than in a truckload of run of the mill science fiction novels, and Calender is proof that you don’t need to get your extrapolations right in order to talk about how people speak in the world.

Highly recommended; one’s knowledge of SF canon is simply not complete without it.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-12-19

Dick Powell’s SF Reviews

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.

The Generation Ship in TV & film: J. G. Ballard’s Thirteen to Centaurus (1962/65)

This is the first in a projected series of posts on the SF generation ship trope in TV and film.

Over at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations, Joachim has been hosting an occasional read through of stories focusing on the generation ship trope in SF. It began with Chad Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free” just over two years ago. His latest gen ship review, the thirteenth in the series, is of Vonda N. McIntyre’s “The Mountains of Sunset, The Mountains of Dawn”. Joachim also has a comprehensive list of gen ship stories with more links to other reviews, here.

I find the gen ship trope perhaps the most compelling of all the ideas that SF has thrown up over the years—perhaps it is the most singularly science fictional of all? The ship as world operates as a thought experiment by which we can explore the peculiarities and extremes of human nature, considered in its social and animal guises.

So, and inspired by my participation in and comments upon Joachim’s read through, I have decided to offer up my own take. But rather than replicating Joachim’s efforts I’ve decided to offer an accompaniment: a look through of the gen ship trope in TV and film.

This post will be on the 1965 TV adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s short story “Thirteen to Centaurus”. As far as I can tell, “Thirteen to Centaurus” is the first appearance of the gen ship trope on television, and only the second appearance of the trope on a screen (being piped at the post by the 1961 film, Battle of the Worlds, which I will review in a later post). Considering that Ballard’s piece is not merely a contribution to the trope, but partly a critical interrogation of it, I feel it is a fitting place to start. In the review that follows I will refer, by turns, to both the original short story and its TV adaptation. There will be spoilers.


fig. 1. To begin again from the end. From the closing credits.

Thirteen to Centaurus (1962/65)

Originally appearing in Amazing Stories in April 1962, Ballard’s story was adapted by Stanley Miller only three years later for the first series of the British TV anthology series, Out of the Unknown.

The TV adaptation hews fairly closely to the original story. Abel, a teenage boy, lives on the Station. Beset by anxious dreams of a large bright disk, he is slowly awakening to the belief that things are not as they seem. Dr. Francis, the Station’s psychotherapist (a familiar character in Ballard’s stories), reveals to Abel something the boy seems to already suspect: the Station is in fact a ‘multi-generation space vehicle’ halfway to Alpha Centauri (conceptual breakthrough 1). Shortly thereafter Dr Francis leaves the ship via a secret passageway to further reveal (only to the reader this time) that he is a part of an Earthbound team that runs the Station as a living simulation (conceptual breakthrough 2). However, outside in the Earthbound control room of the experiment Dr. Francis discovers that the 50 years long experiment is to be shut down due to funding shortfalls and the failures of the real space program. Troubled by the disturbing ethics of the experiment and his commitment to the people within, Francis returns to the Station. Back on the ship, his relationship with Abel becomes progressively reversed as Abel subjects Dr. Francis to a series of experimental tests. Ultimately, we discover that Abel has known the truth all along, and yet thanks to the rigid social programming that Dr. Francis has overseen, Abel has no apparent desire to either leave the ship or expose the truth (conceptual breakthrough 3).

fig. 2. Dr. Francis (Donald Huston) and Abel (James Hunter).

One of the great things about the generation ship trope, at least in what many consider its classic iterations—e.g., Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky (1963/1941) and Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop (1958)—is the central importance of the conceptual breakthrough. In both these cases, the present inhabitants of the ships have forgotten the truth of their situation and have come to believe that the ship is simply the world or universe in which they are born, live and die. For the protagonist in both, the conceptual breakthrough is centred on the discovery that they are in fact the descendants of the crew of a spaceship. Indeed, this breakthrough is akin to the Copernican Revolution in science fictional garb, upending the way these people perceive themselves and their world. However, here we begin to also reach the limits of this trope. Once revealed, what more is left to say about the trope?

Ballard attacks the problem by complicating the conceptual breakthrough. The first conceptual breakthrough of the story is consistent with the classic iterations of the gen ship trope. But in Ballard’s rendition it is quickly shown to be a false one when the second conceptual breakthrough reveals the true nature of the gen ship. However, not content to leave it at that, Ballard further complicates the story by showing that even the second breakthrough is more complex than it first appears and is ‘false’ in its own way.

A circular narrative structure is central to Ballard’s original story. We go from knowing that ‘Abel knew’ (the first sentence of the short story) to finally knowing what he knows: ‘Abel knew!’ (the last sentence). However, and as outlined above, the conceptual breakthroughs are deceptive. With the first sentence in mind, we, the reader, at first think that Abel already knows that the Station is in fact a ‘multi generation space vehicle’. However, with the final conceptual breakthrough we now understand that what ‘Abel knew’ was in fact the truth that Dr. Francis and the Space Department believed was hidden from view. The horror of revelation: ‘Abel knew!

Inevitably, and due perhaps to the technical limitations of television, the story’s central structural conceit is lost in the adaptation. Stanley Miller, who wrote the dramatization, bookends his adaptation with scenes of the religious dimensions of the crew’s conditioning—something that is gestured at by Ballard, but not made explicit (for instance, in Abel’s dream of the god like ‘disc of burning light’). In doing so, Miller—perhaps inadvertently—draws a link between Ballard’s discussion of the methods of conditioning and programming used on the crew, and the way religion has served precisely such a role here on Earth.

Nonetheless, the adaptation is a faithful rendering of Ballard’s story, replete with a mid-60s British TV aesthetic. At times I was expecting the TARDIS to appear in a dark corner of the Station. Indeed, the uniforms worn by Abel, Dr Francis and other crew members would turn up in the Dr Who serial, The Ice Warriors, in 1967.

There are two earlier stories I feel that are important milestones on the way to Ballard’s final word on the trope: Chad Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free” and John Brunner’s “Lungfish”—both first published in 1957. Oliver briefly and effectively explores the mechanisms of social control and cohesion that would be required for a generation ship to function. However, Brunner’s story is almost certainly the last step before Ballard upended the trope. In “Lungfish”, Brunner poses an interesting quandary: what if the ship-born generations become more adapted to ship-born life? Certainly, such a result would undermine the aim of a generation ship. Ballard does not so much solve as develop Brunner’s proposition to its logical and terrifying absurd end: aren’t we all ship-born creatures, inescapably trapped by the conditions of our existence?

fig. 3. A gen ship on its way to Alpha Centauri…
fig. 4. … or just a model in a TV studio? You decide.

*

In “Thirteen to Centaurus” Ballard makes it clear that Abel’s ‘choice’ to stay, despite knowing that he is a part of an unspeakable experiment firmly located on Earth, is hardly chosen, but rather programmed from the outset. Abel cannot exist anywhere but the ship. But then neither can Dr. Francis in the end, doomed to be caught between the programmed reality of the fake ship and the inescapable reality of the world outside.

Like his contemporary, Philip K. Dick, Ballard seems to be saying that we are all living in a fake reality, whether we know this or not. That one is programmed—by society, one’s family, even “nature”—is proof that we are made, works of fiction as it were, even if the cosmic author is nothing but the physical and social laws of time, culture and history. Yet Ballard’s belief in the inevitability of structural determination is decidedly bleak, in which any ray of hope in the guise of conditional freedom is another ruse of the structure—a fact simultaneously horrible and mundane. It reminds me of Ballard’s understandable fear of the conformism of suburbia, a theme scattered throughout his work. Nonetheless he acquiesced to this suburbia, remaining ensconced in suburban Shepperton beyond his rise to fame and fortune, like some forgotten or abandoned anthropologist from one of his stories. For Ballard there simply is no escape from the Station, in his story or everyday life. Like Abel in “Thirteen to Centaurus”, not only do we know that we are caught in the grip of prison like laws of society and nature, we end up reproducing the very chains we despise so much.

fig. 5. The tables turned. Dr. Francis becomes Abel’s experimental subject.

I find Ballard’s grim lesson here more compelling as a fictional thought experiment than as a description of the deceptive truths of social reality. The proposition that social reality is a fiction is no longer the earth-shattering statement it once was. What’s more disturbing about Ballard’s presentation—and this he shares with his erstwhile fan Jean Baudrillard—is that despite the fictional nature of social reality it is nonetheless pointless to attempt a re-write. A miserable conclusion, surely. I will return to the question of the fictional nature of reality in a future blogpost, and why, despite the grim prognostications of Ballard and Baudrillard, we should press on to intensify the fictional nature of reality—which is to say a creative and consciously constructed reality. Only this can liberate us from the truly fake reality of capitalism.

fig. 6. The same table turning as seen in fig. 5, but as originally illustrated by Virgil Finlay in Amazing Stories, April 1962.

A final word. The same year Ballard’s story was published, the French speleologist Michel Siffre spent two months alone living in cave in the Ligurian Alps. His solitary stay constitutes to my thinking an extreme (and ultimately unsustainable) manifestation of the ‘closed community’ that is posed in generation ship stories. Without any way of measuring time, Siffre’s experiment helped to further understand the nature of internal, ‘chronobiological’ mechanisms by which humans and other animals regulate their wake/sleep cycles. Perhaps most interesting was the extent of malleability that Siffre discovered. Certainly, he could not eliminate the need for sleep—like the unfortunate experimental subjects of Ballard’s story “Manhole 69”. Nonetheless, he and later other researchers, found that the wake/sleep cycle could be lengthened, and effectively doubled: e.g., 36 hours awake, 12 hours asleep. Whereas it may be true that there are real limits to the way life can be transformed, surely human history provides more than enough evidence that such limits can be shifted even if they can never be entirely eliminated.


Still want to read more about “Thirteen to Centaurus”? Check out these reviews of Ballard’s original story: Joachim Boaz’s, Classics of Science Fiction’s, and Galactic Journey’s. Galactic Journey also has a brief review of the TV adaptation here.


Up next in this occasional series? The two Star Trek: The Original Series takes on the gen ship.

J. G. Ballard—Manhole 69 & The Concentration City

fig. 1. The cover of my increasingly thumbed 2002 paperback Collected Short Stories–now with added spine.

I have been reading J. G. Ballard, The Complete Short Stories (2002). My intention is to use Ballard to facilitate my ongoing research into the Science Fiction Spectacle. Along the way I plan on the occasional review with thoughts and ruminations on the side. Here are its first, sickly fruits.

fig. 2. The cover of New Worlds no. 55 in which Ballard’s “Build-Up” first appeared. Even though the cover illustration was not for his story, it nonetheless seems eminently Ballardian in retrospect: the wreck of a craft, a barren landscape and the lone survivor of this collective unconsciousness. Illustration by Terry Maloney.

The Concentration City (1957)

“The Concentration City”—originally “Build-Up” (1957)—is an early story that plays with what would become, in time, distinctly Ballardian themes. Here, it is the city become metaphor of a labyrinthine and neurotic psyche rendered in concrete and steel.

Possessing a suitably Kafkaesque name, the protagonist Franz M. wants to fly, to escape the bonds of Earth.[1] But his dream seems impossible. All is city, horizontally and vertically, as far as the eye can see. The city’s “Foundation” is a myth, pure speculation, and the idea of a free-space that is not the city remains just that—an idea whose improbability is underlined by the brutal fact that a cubic foot of space operates as the universal commodity, perforce with a dollar figure attached.

Ballard’s dystopian city become world/world become city is implicitly critical, a hellish vision of the anxieties surrounding the urban reconstruction and mushrooming suburbanisation of the 1950s. In the story the city is rendered suitably extreme and fantastical. Unlike the sense of real limits in the most horrific of dystopias (for instance, the spatial limits of We or 1984, or the temporal limits of Well’s The Time Machine), Ballard’s city fills all possible time and space—an urban moebius strip become manifest. And yet it is precisely in this nightmare vision that Ballard reveals a singular truth of the emergent ideology of “urbanism” in the post-war world: the future will be boring, ‘a vast, conforming suburb of the soul’.[2]

fig. 3. Presumably Franz M. “Build-Up” illustration by Gerald Quinn, New Worlds, no. 55.

Manhole 69 (1957)

In “Manhole 69” we follow the fortunes, or rather misfortunes, of three men who are the subjects of a truly unsettling experiment. They have had their ability to sleep surgically removed or switched off. Over the course of the story, we come to see not only the hubris of the Promethean experimenters, set upon altering the deep fabric of not just human nature but its profound animal heritage, but more pointedly the deeply distressing psychological effects that are ultimately—and unintentionally—induced in the test subjects. By stories end, the subjects—Avery, Gorrell and Lang—have been reduced to a catatonic state and the experiment is a bust.

“Manhole 69”, alongside “The Concentration City”, can be conceived as constituting a manifesto of sorts for Ballard’s fictional obsessions—two halves of what would come to constitute the Ballardian. Indeed, “Manhole 69” inverts the movement of “The Concentration City”. Whereas the latter story manifested the neurotic topology of the inner self in the city, in the former the narrative drags the reader down into the suffocating confines of the individual test subjects themselves. Unable to escape, however briefly, the travails of being constantly conscious, the narcotomized Avery, Gorrell and Lang’s ability to distinguish the difference between themselves and their world quite literally collapses. Their attempt to escape ‘the group unconscious, the dark oceanic dream’ of their animal nature fails as assuredly as Franz M’s futile flight from the all-encompassing city.

The genius of Ballard’s science fictional conceit is to evoke something we all have experience of. Namely, the alienation of individuality: that claustrophobic sense of being absolutely cut-off and cast adrift in one’s self.

Why “Manhole 69”? The title appears to divide its fans—e.g., ‘despite its unfortunate name’, ‘best short story title ever’, etc. I fall into the latter camp, finding the name peculiarly evocative, precisely because it is simultaneously puzzling and erotically charged—classic Ballard! In the story the “Manhole” refers to the collapsing sense of reality experienced by the test subjects, when the gym in which they are ensconced seems to dwindle in size to more terrifyingly human dimensions: ‘This, then, was the manhole: a narrow, vertical cubicle, a few feet wide, six deep’ (62). “69” is the number of the door always locked to the test subjects, and through which their own contact with the sleeping world remains—namely, the scientists Neill and Morley. Put together they effectively name the syndrome the story is about: Manhole 69.[3]

fig. 4. The cover of New Worlds no. 65 in which “Manhole 69” first appeared. Perhaps by way of a Freudian slip it would later be referred to as “Manhole 65” in New Worlds no. 69, no less! Illustration by Brian Lewis.

Ballard and the Situationists

Boredom is counterrevolutionary. In every way.”—Situationist International, 1962[4]

As noted above, “The Concentration City” originally appeared as “Build-Up” in its initial publication, and subsequent reprints. However, it was renamed “The Concentration City” for its 1967 republication in Ballard’s collection, The Disaster Area. The re-titling appears to draw a connection between the Nazi concentration camp and the endless, claustrophobic city of Ballard’s story. Taken as parable of the new urbanism of the 1950s and 60s, replete with housing developments and the reconstruction and construction of towns on the basis of automobile traffic flows, the rebranded “Build-Up” begins to sound like a work in parallel with the more explicitly critical and revolutionary critique of urbanism carried out by the Situationist International.

In 1961, the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, described the then new housing developments being constructed amidst post-war reconstruction as akin to Nazi concentration camp.[5] The following year, Vaneigem and the other situationists drew a link, in frankly psychoanalytic terms, between this new concentrated urban sprawl and the suffocating nuclear shelters that President Kennedy was then promoting as the family friendly solution to nuclear catastrophe:

The new habitat that is now taking shape with the large housing developments is not really distinct from the architecture of the shelters; it merely represents a less advanced level of that architecture. […] The concentration-camp organization of the surface of the earth is the normal state of the present society in formation; its condensed subterranean version merely represents that society’s pathological excess. This subterranean sickness reveals the real nature of the “health” at the surface.[6]

Was Ballard influenced by the Situationists? It’s hard to say definitively. No doubt he knew of them, considering his interest in and contacts with British Pop Artists and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Additionally, his obsessive interest in Surrealism, and his pathological interest in the car and the encroaching conformism of modern capitalist life would seem to indicate that he was open to their influence. He even had stories appear in at least two magazines that also contained articles on and/or translations of Situationist writing: Circuit no. 6, London, June 1968, and The International Times, no. 26, London, 16-29 February 1968. Though whether he had come across their writing in 1967 or before is something I presently cannot answer.

fig. 5. Detail of the cover of Circuit no. 6, June 1968.

Of more interest to me is the resonance between Ballard and the Situationists. The Situationists infamously argued that their critique of the society of the spectacle was ‘merely the concentrated expression of a historical subversion which is everywhere’—more pithily: ‘Situationist theory is in people like fish are in water’.[7] Certainly, the idea that a spectacle of everyday life mediated in large part by the new mass communication technologies was emerging more generally in the 1950s and 60s. Indeed, Ballard himself attempted to distinguish his fiction in terms not dissimilar to this. For instance, in a 1967 interview he spoke—in terms not unlike those Guy Debord used in the same year—of ‘the fictional elements in experience [that] are now multiplying to such a point that it is almost impossible to distinguish between the real and the false’.[8] In the same interview, Ballard reckoned that his turn toward writing a non-linear, fragmented, collage-style fiction—most obviously on display in the stories collected as The Atrocity Exhibition—was deliberately an attempt to conjure the modern relations between inner and outer life in a world saturated by the new medias:

we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone read magazines, dream and so forth. We don’t live our lives in linear terms in the sense that the Victorians did.[9]

There are real problems with Ballard’s attempt to theorise the modern world of the 1960s. In contrast to the Situationists, Ballard’s reasoning is more positivist and circular. For him the fictionalisation of everyday life seems to be caught up with its increasing non-linearity. Which one might argue is related to its technological decomposition: ‘we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone read magazines, dream and so forth’. However, this seems to imply that previously life was not fictional—i.e., it was linear. In effect, Ballard is arguing that life has become fictional because it has become fictional. What is missing is any account of why it has become more fictional—apart from a type of technological determinism—or, more importantly, whether or not it was ever not fictional (only consider, for instance, the predominance of religious ideology in earlier societies, one of which—the Victorian—Ballard’s calls ‘linear’).

Hopefully I will return to a more detailed criticism of Ballard in the (non-existent) future.

Final thoughts

The choice of “The Concentration City” and “Manhole 69” was not merely driven by the fact that they constitute early exemplars of what would come to be known as the Ballardian turn in SF and the New Wave of the 1960s. As a callow youth in the early 1980s I was given a copy of the collection The Disaster Area and the novel The Crystal World by an older brother. To say that this constituted a perverse initiation of sorts is perhaps an understatement. The deeply disturbing worlds I found in these books was markedly at odds with the largely optimistic and anodyne ones I had so far found in the likes of Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov. Perhaps Herbert’s Dune was the closest I had then come to something approximating Ballard’s pessimism—though ‘close’ hardly does justice to either Herbert or Ballard, nor the shattering effect that the latter’s work had on my teenage psyche. Of the stories that made up The Disaster Area, “The Concentration City” and “Manhole 69” were the ones I kept returning to and reading obsessively. I recall desperately wanting to solve the impossible dilemmas they presented, the vertiginous puzzles that seemed to promise a future only of madness and inescapable despair, simply because they seemed so real and inevitable in comparison to all the other SF I had then so far read. Certainly, Ballard’s SF, more technological horror than utopian dream, would prove to be a better map of the coming dystopia of the capitalist millennium and beyond. 

*

I am not sure whether dystopian fiction is the best SF because it foregrounds dystopia as the truth of contemporary society, and so presages its destruction (and so, too, SF’s end); or whether it is the worst SF because it gives up on the possibility of there being any truly human civilisation beyond the perils and pains of the present. Perhaps a little bit of both. Where Ballard’s pessimism shines, so to speak, is in its unremitting exposure of the pathologies of spectacular capitalism and the fact that these are the products of human activity. Where it fails is in its wholesale collapse into the pathological symptoms that he identifies, such that one begins to suspect that Ballard truly desires to simply dwell in the ruins.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Flight would remain a powerful image of escape and freedom throughout Ballard’s work: ‘I believe in flight, in the beauty of the wing, and in the beauty of everything that has ever flown’. J. G. Ballard, ‘What I Believe,’ in Re/Search: J. G. Ballard, ed. V. Vale and Andrea Juno, San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984, p. 177.

[2] J. G. Ballard, ‘Interview with JGB,’ in Re/Search: J. G. Ballard, ed. Vale and Andrea Juno, San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984, p. 8.

[3] So far, the only indication I have found of Ballard acknowledging the more libidinal nature of the title—albeit very tangentially—in some comments on the editorial work of Ted Carnell of New Worlds: ‘Ted Carnell […] never really wanted any re-writing. The only things he sometimes changed were the titles, but not too often. There was a little story called “Track 12”—that was his title, not mine. We had an argument over that, because he’d just taken “Manhole 69” without querying what that meant…’, ibid., p. 119 (italics in the original).

[4] Situationist International, ‘The Bad Days Will End [1962],’ in Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.

[5] Raoul Vaneigem, ‘Comments Against Urbanism [1961]’ https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/comments.html.

[6] Situationist International, ‘Geopolitics of Hibernation [1962].’ Online here.

[7] Situationist International, The Real Split in the International: Theses on the Situationist International and its time, trans. John McHale, London: Pluto Press, [1972] 2003, p. 7 (thesis 2); Internationale Situationniste, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.,’ Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (Avril 1962), p. 17.

[8] J. G. Ballard and George MacBeth, ‘The New Science Fiction: A conversation  between J. G. Ballard and George MacBeth [orig. BBC Third Programme, 1967],’ in The New SF: An original anthology of modern speculative fiction, London: Arrow Books, [1969] 1971, p. 54. For the resonance with Debord, consider this from The Society of the Spectacle (1967, Ken Knabb’s translation, 2014): ‘the spectacle […] is not a mere supplement or decoration added to the real world, it is the heart of this real society’s unreality’ (thesis 6, chapter 1).

[9] Ballard and MacBeth, ‘The New Science Fiction’, p. 57.

Neither space fish nor fowl

fig. 1. Alongside of Silurians, Lovecraftian Old Ones, and other so-called fictional denizens of Earth’s deep past, the Sea Devils are an amphibious pseudo-species that clearly embody the ambiguities of this blog.

Neither space fish nor fowl: a sinister year in review

When I set out about 18 months ago my aim appeared relatively simple: “writing on the Situationists and science fiction”. The plan was to take two routes: first, I would examine ‘science fiction’ as an idea that appeared in the writing of the Situationist International (something I have begun to do here); and secondly, I would use some of the critical tools of the Situationists—in particular Guy Debord’s related concepts of ‘spectacle’ and ‘cultural decomposition’—to examine science fiction as a sub-category of capitalist culture. To my mind, the best explanation of what I mean by ‘decomposition’ and its relationship to SF can be found here.

Since then, things became a little unstuck. In early 2021 I wrote up two long pieces on two Frederick Pohl stories from the 1950s (here and here). However, I feel somewhat deflated with the results. The articles in question suffered the twin problems of being overly ambitious and somewhat fractured in delivery. Rather than advancing the two axes of my research I toyed with them in a desultory fashion. Complicating things further I suffered from some non-COVID health problems while attempting to write and post these pieces. One of these problems was more serious and resulted in a brief hospitalisation, the other less so but chronic and long lasting. In short, the first half of last year was shit and I struggled with life in general, let alone the blog.

Despite this loss of focus, I was able to finally finish a translation of one of the few remaining works of Guy Debord that had remained untranslated. Indeed, while recovering my health I fell down a Surrealist hole that the Debord article was one of the fruits of (some other fruits can be plucked here and here).

Here’s my top 5 posts of 2021:

1. Surrealism: an irrational revolution (2 July 2021)

‘Surrealism: an irrational revolution’ is far and away my most popular post of the last year, four times more popular than the second most popular. This is almost certainly due to the fact that a “new” old work of Debord’s has a potential audience much bigger than my own peculiar take on SF.

2. To experiment with the creation of everyday life (2 April 2021)

I dare say that ‘To experiment with the creation of everyday life’ has ridden into second place on the coattails of Debord’s article. At best, it summarises some of my thoughts on the role played by artistic avant-gardes in posing the need to move beyond art in the 20th century in order to ‘turn our experiments once more to the vast canvas of everyday life’. It’s also got a great detourned graphic made by me:

fig. 2. “No poetry for the enemies of poetry” by antyphayes. Graphic detourned from Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, Rogue Planet, April 1956.

3. SF in the SI: science fiction, ideology and recuperation (9 August 2020)

In third place, ‘SF in the SI’ hews closest to my original aim for this blog, even though the post hails from 2020.

4. In praise of the infodump (23 November 2021)

‘In praise of the infodump’ in fourth, signals a return to form for the blog having been published recently (last November) after posting nothing in September and October of 2021 (this two-month hiatus being no doubt the blog’s nadir last year).

5. Hateful anti-christams (22 December 2020)

In fifth, ‘Hateful anti-christams’, another refugee from 2020, is yet another example of my ongoing fascination with all things Dadaist and Surrealist—to whit, another “new” old work: a translation of a short anti-poem by Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters (the ultimate Dada-Merz mash up).

This year—in stinking hot, tottering, and imploding twenty-twenty-two—all I ask is that we finally—FINALLY—get rid of capitalism. Failing this, I’ll continue to blog away. In the coming months be prepared for: thoughts on SF authors J. G. Ballard and Cyril Kornbluth; a re-jigged version of my research into the ‘Science Fiction Spectacle’; the long awaited third part of ‘Thinking through The Time Machine’ (check out the first and second parts); and perhaps even another episode in the mysterious saga of La Hipótesis

Frederik Pohl’s mass consumer (2): The Tunnel Under the World

fig. 1. Interior illustration by Ed Emshwiller, for The Tunnel Under the World, Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, January 1955, p. 7.

The following is a bit of a mess—two, possibly three articles struggling to be one. A book review, a critique of book reviews, and a valiant attempt to make of the review something more critical. I’m not sure I achieve any of these goals, but in the attempt, something emerges: ideas, criticisms, elusive thoughts. A failed whole that underlines its failure. Much like the lot of all mortal things.

*

In the preamble to my review of Frederick Pohl’s The Midas Plague, I denounced the book review as a literary form. You may think that it was not the wisest of opening moves in a review of my own. To be fair to my paradoxical self, I was taking aim at a particular type of review, one that eschews critique in favour of plot summary and bland opinion (“It’s great, read it!”). But to be unfair to myself, who says—apart from me—that my reviews escape the morass of opinion?

Like all artefacts, at the heart of the book review lies the problem of our historical moment itself. Even and especially when that beating heart appears absent. The following can seem so obvious, so platitudinous, that for many it is of little or no consequence: books appear today primarily as commodities. They are produced not only by authors, but given the mass market in books, also and especially by workers in factories, before being circulated and transported by still more workers, finally to be sold by booksellers or increasingly bought and sold online by still other workers. That books exist in a book trade may appear hardly surprising; but once we begin to examine the nature of that trade, particularly the modern book trade from the time of the first industrialised production of books as recently as the mid-19th century, right up until the vast warehouses of the internet behemoths of the present, we begin to see that the book trade is far from the simple or transparent fact it sometimes imagines itself to be. What Marx once evocatively noted of the commodity in general, can be said of the book trade and all that it entails in particular: “at first sight [it appears] as an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But itsanalysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

Even when books do not immediately appear as commodities—for example, when they are presented as zines for free—their form implicitly references the commodity, albeit as a critique (even if only implicit) of the purported necessity of the commodity form. That books appears today under these historical and social conditions—conditions largely beyond the control of any single author, reader, print worker, courier, bookseller or zinester—requires that we confront such conditions. Of course, we can remain silent about such issues, or even confuse and obfuscate them. But the necessity of making sense of this world remains—one either takes up this task or ignores it at their peril. That we review the explicit content of books while saying little or nothing of their forms of appearance—which is to say the ways in which they are produced, circulated, sold and consumed—is perhaps a greater story than any so far told.

The task of addressing the book or story appearing in the form of a commodity can seem somewhat easier when the explicit content of the story itself deals with this question. For instance, Frederick Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World. Here, Pohl takes aim at the lengths to which capitalists will go in order to sell a commodity. But it is unclear whether he has a problem with commodities or just creeping commodification. In this Pohl is little different than those orthodox Marxists (from which Pohl himself hailed as a callow youth) who consider the problem of capitalist wealth as primarily one of distribution rather than the truly horrible fact that the entirety of human activity has been progressively forced to appear “as an immense collection of commodities” (Marx again). Nonetheless, Pohl effectively conjures the grinding repetitiveness of much of what passes for social life in a society dominated by commodity production and consumption—much more so than his failed satire, The Midas Plague.

*

fig. 2. Interior illustration by Ed Emshwiller, for The Tunnel Under the World, Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, January 1955, p. 13.

Published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in January 1955, The Tunnel Under the World presents a world of the then not-too-distant future—sometime in the 1980s I reckon. In Pohl’s imagined future the burgeoning advertising machine of post-war USA has reached an apotheosis of sorts.

“On the morning of June 15th, Guy Burkhardt woke up screaming out of a dream.

“It was more real than any dream he had ever had in his life.”

Burkhardt, a white, middle class Yankee Everyman—familiar to the entire planet thanks to the Twentieth Century—soon discovers things are not as they seem. Not only is his Everytown, Tylerton, beset by peculiarly aggressive advertising campaigns, he further discovers that unbeknownst to most of its denizens the entire town is reliving June 15th over and over again.

“And every day the same—always the 15th of June, always my landlady, Mrs. Keefer, is sweeping the front steps, always the same headline in the papers at the corner. It gets monotonous, friend.”

Soon Burkhardt realises that the never-ending day and the offensive advertising are far from unrelated. In fact [OBLIGATORY AND LATE SPOILER ALERT] he soon discovers that the entire town is a miniaturised simulation of the town he thinks he is living in. The horrible truth that Guy Burkhardt uncovers is that he, and the “twenty or thirty thousand other people” of Tylerton have been killed by a tremendous leak and consequent explosion at the Contro Chemicals plants on the town’s outskirts. Seizing upon this “opportunity” a group of advertisers, presumably with the connivance of the US state, move in and retrieve the personalities from the corpses (the high point of the science fictional handwaving of the story), in order to imprint them on tiny robots. And so, they rebuild Tylerton, “a perfect slice of America”, as a scale model city, populated by tiny robot simulacra, all for the nefarious purposes of the dreaded admen and their market research.

“They aren’t Russians and they aren’t Martians. These people are advertising men!”

While reading The Tunnel Under the World I was struck by how Philip K. Dickian it felt—with a dash of Samuel Beckett’s absurdity. Pohl evokes a dream like setting seemingly more real than the real, in which the unwitting characters are stuck, perpetually repeating their lives like clockwork. Here, only the broken machines become aware, and yet this awareness is little recompense. Those who escape their programming finally understand the awful truth that lies beyond appearance: there is no escape, except death—and perhaps not even then.

Pohl’s story most resembles, to my mind, Philip K. Dick’s Adjustment Team (1954). Dick had published this work some four months before Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World.[1] I do not know if Pohl had read Dick’s work prior to writing The Tunnel Under the World, but the similarities are striking. In Adjustment Team the protagonist, Ed Fletcher, accidentally discovers that his reality is “adjusted” by unseen manipulators that are more bureaucrat than numinous divinity. Indeed, Adjustment Team can seem like the template for a key Dickian theme that Philip K. would chisel away at for the rest of his life: nothing is as it seems.  

“There was Tylerton—an ersatz city, but looking so real and familiar that Burckhardt almost imagined the whole episode a dream. It was no dream, though.”

Where Pohl’s version of Dick seems superior to my mind—at least to the version presented in Adjustment Team—is in the way Pohl evokes the bleak repetitiveness of life in modern capitalist societies. Inevitably, Guy Burkhardt’s reliving of June 15th is given a definitive science fictional explanation in the story. But in truth, Burkhardt realisation that he is trapped in an endless cycle of work and consumption effectively presents the grim monotony of everyday capitalist life. By having the workers of Tylerton being forced to continue the living death of alienation beyond their physical extinction, Pohl cleverly draws attention to what the situationists would come to call the “dead time” of life under capitalism.

However, the circularity of the story also reveals the limits of Pohl’s tale—and perhaps also reveals the story’s limitation as itself a commodity. There is no escape from the little town of Tylerton, and the story ends as bleakly as it began. Burkhardt’s growing awareness, and final discovery of the truth leaves him in no way able to challenge his position. His only option appears to be: cooperate or die. Certainly, Pohl paints him into a science fictional corner. But I feel that it reflects Pohl’s own pessimism about the impossibility of confronting the mundane horror of capitalism. Burkhardt’s awareness cannot lead to a revolutionary consciousness or praxis within the bounds of the story; but in truth, Pohl had become dominated by a cynicism regarding the potentialities and possibilities facing his fellow humans after his less than inspiring brush with Stalinism as a teenager. Indeed, his cynicism is on full display when Burkhardt is confronted with the choice made by another of the town’s denizens, Alice Horn. Horn, “the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in Tylerton,” first appears as another town dweller. Soon, Burkhardt begins to realise that she is somehow in on the mysterious plot that surrounds the town. Finally, when she reveals the actual fate of the town to Burkhardt, she also reveals her role in the deception as a in situ agent of the advertisers:

“I was an ugly woman, Mr Burkhardt, and nearly sixty years old. Life had passed me. And when Mr. Dorchin offered me the chance to live again as a beautiful girl, I jumped at the opportunity. Believe me, I jumped, in spite of its disadvantages.”

Perhaps more distantly, Pohl’s fictional townspeople, repetitively going about their daily undead lives, recalls for me a stunning sequence from Raymond Roussel’s quasi-proto-surrealist fable Locus Solus (1914). Roussel’s work tells the story of the scientist and inventor Martial Canterel guiding a group of guests around his country estate, Locus Solus. Similar to his earlier “novel”,[2] Impressions of Africa (1910), the plot is largely irrelevant, playing mostly the part of vehicle for presenting a series of vignettes in which Canterel shows a series of bizarre contraptions to the guests. In one particularly long and evocative sequence, the guests are shown a series of eight glass enclosures that contain reanimated cadavers. Within, pumped full of the suitably science fictional drugs “vitalium” and “resurrectine,” the undead on display perpetually re-enact “certain outstanding minutes” of their lives.[3]

Roussel’s fiction is deeply unsettling, though equally bizarre and fascinating. His stories are intensely otherworldly in a way few science fiction or fantasy writers achieve. Indeed, apart from the trappings of everyday existence (scientists, travellers, foreign locales, etcetera, etcetera), Roussel’s fiction seems to bear only the most tangential connection to our world. Pohl, on the other hand, wanted to interrogate reality—after a fashion. The target in The Tunnel Under the World is clearly US capitalism circa the 1950s. The horror of the story draws its power from the real horror of capitalism. Tylerton is merely an exaggeration of a situation that already existed in the 1950s.

“You finally understand. There’s no place to go. You know it now. I could have told you, but you might not have believed me, so it was better for you to see it yourself.”

The more terrifying conclusion to be drawn by readers is that for the capitalist nothing is beyond the realm of possibility when it comes to improving sale’s figures. The Tunnel Under the World is a cautionary fable about the limits of commodification. By Pohl’s reckoning, there is no escape from the perils of capitalism in suburban USA, only a labyrinth that draws you further in to its repetitive cycles.

“Sometimes he screams, sometimes he wheedles, threatens, begs, cajoles… but his voice goes on and on through one June 15th after another.”

*

fig. 3. Interior illustration by Ed Emshwiller, for The Tunnel Under the World, Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, January 1955, p. 37.

A final note on the role of repetition in the tale. Re-watching an old skool Doctor Who story recently, Robert Holmes’ Carnival of Monsters (1973), I was struck by his use of repetition. In a set up that has become more familiar since the appearance of the film Groundhog Day in 1993, the Doctor and Jo find themselves in a moment of time that continues to repeat itself. Importantly they can affect some of the detail and content of the moment, but not the overarching formal structure—the moment repeats itself despite any minor changes that are made. As a representation of the historical dilemma we face in capitalist societies—of the sense of never-ending entrapment being caught in the web of wage labour and exclusive property with no way out—the cinematic evocation of this circularity is particularly effective. To what extent were such narrative structures themselves only made possible with the advent of the cinema; the cinema’s singular ability to record and replay an instance of time over and over? However, this apparent perfection of cinematic repetition was itself made possible by the machine-like rhythms of the factory and industrialism. The cinema is the first, truly capitalist art form, in the sense that it is the product of the advanced industrial and scientific techniques that emerged from the development of industrialism in the 19th century.

The cinematic evocation of circular time is the technological realisation of a social fact, the inscription of the capitalist imaginary into the ephemeral reality of its brief historical passage. Its failing as representation, and so as an ideological representation, is to be found in its various uses and interpretations. The apparent technical perfection of cinematic repetition can lend itself to the maladroit theories that read the historical specificity of capitalist alienation into the very substance of existence—for instance, the misplaced ontologies of Heidegger and Foucault. Not unlike Kant mistaking the structures of capitalist modernity for the eternal verities of the supersensible things-in-themselves.

Did the cinema influence Raymond Roussel’s repetitious fancies? Possibly. Frederick Pohl and Philip K Dick were deeply affected, undoubtedly, by their cinema drenched upbringing in the US of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The truth of these various Groundhog Days is not the eternal lie of capitalism, i.e., that we can only make use of these structures, never change them. Rather, the truth is that cinema time, just like capitalist time, is a structure in the making and, even more so, in the unmaking.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Dick submitted the manuscript to his literary agent early in 1953. See ‘Notes’ in The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume Two: Adjustment Team (1952-1953), Subterranean Press, 2011, pp. 400-401.

[2] I use the term “novel” hesitantly, simply because Roussel’s work can also be categorised in terms of the modernists anti-novels that were calling into question, around the same time as his work, the form and content of the 19th century bourgeois novel.

[3] Raymond Roussel, Locus Solus, translated by Rupert Copeland Cunningham, London: John Calder, 2003, p. 118.

fig. 4. Strictly speaking, this article is not a part of the not-a-challenge, considering that the month in question is January. However, I began writing this piece with an eye to making it my second contribution, and the bulk of the text was completed in January 2021. Plus I like the image. Plus I like the good folk of The Vintage Science Fiction Month not-a-challenge. So there.

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.

The science fiction spectacle (2)

fig. 1. “What isn’t surpassed rots, what rots incites supersession.” From a situationist ad for Raoul Vaneigem’s Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations (1967).

When I first set out to write this blog post I intended to show off some of the science fictional motifs that appeared in the activity of the Situationist International (SI). For instance, the many détournements of science fiction comics that appear over several issues of their journal; and the science fictional qualities of some of their ideas and theories—most obviously ‘psychogeography’ and ‘unitary urbanism’. Broadly, the point was, and is, to demarcate the science fiction of the SI—the science fiction (SF) that appears in their work—from another related project I am also trying to chart: the ‘science fiction spectacle’. However, I am going to set aside looking at the SF of the SI for the time being to briefly return to the question of what exactly is the ‘science fiction spectacle’.

1.

In a previous post, when speaking of the ‘science fiction spectacle’, I was perhaps not as clear as some would have liked (including myself). There, I noted that the SI infamously claimed that their ‘theory is in people like fish are in water’.[1] Rather than being the megalomaniac claim some have accused them of (though the Situationists were not averse to megalomania), the point they were driving at was a simple one. In contrast to the pro-capitalist idea that revolutionary critique and contestation comes from without capitalism (where exactly… Mars…?), the situationists argued that their critique of ‘the society of the spectacle’ was merely one iteration—albeit a particularly coherent one—of a broader critique being generated within the then present capitalist society.

To be sure, the situationists were not simply arguing for the equivalence of these criticisms. Indeed, they were clear: their concept of ‘spectacle’ was presented in order to ‘unify and explain’ the apparent diversity of seeming unconnected phenomena—for instance, the various industrially produced news, propaganda, advertising, mass entertainments and commodities that were increasingly marking the ‘modern’ world of the 1950s and 60s (what some have called the ‘media landscape’ or ‘admass’).[2]

What is the ‘spectacle’? For now, I will note that Debord’s concept of spectacle is an amplification and development of Marx’s concepts of alienation, ideology and the commodity-fetish. What links these latter with the concept of spectacle is that they all pose that aspects of human practice have become objectified or externalised in such a way that they appear to be ‘autonomous’ of these practices. For Marx, the ‘fetishism of commodities’ was an attempt to describe this autonomy, in which the commodities produced by humans appeared to ‘live’ their ‘real’ life as repositories of ‘value’ amidst their circulation, marketing and sale, independent of their conditions of production:

The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social. […] [T]he commodity-form […] [has] absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

For Debord,

The fetishism of the commodity—the domination of society by “sensuous things which are at the same time supersensible”—attains its ultimate fulfillment in the spectacle, where the perceptible world is replaced by a selection of images which exists projected above it, yet which at the same time succeeds in making itself regarded as the perceptible par excellence.

I will return to the question of what exactly is the ‘spectacle’ in more detail in a future post.

2.

By way of what I call the ‘science fiction spectacle’, I propose to illustrate the situationist critique of the ‘spectacle’ with reference to various examples of science fiction that dealt with the same object of criticism (the commodity-spectacle), and at the same time (the 1950s and 60s). I am not arguing that such science fictional ‘criticism’ proposed a theoretical critique of the ‘society of the spectacle’ in the same fashion as the SI, but rather that the criticisms that do appear in the SF of this era can reasonably be used to illustrate and even justify situationist claims.

Apart from a passing familiarity with the situationists, I have a longer interest in science fiction that stretches back through my childhood. More recently I have become fixated on Anglo-American science fiction from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. In particular, it is short SF from this period I am most fascinated with—short stories, novelettes and novellas. In a brutally pragmatic fashion, it is easier to plough through a few hundred short stories than novels. However, there is more to my interest than this. Not unlike Orson Welles, I feel that short form SF is ‘better than the long ones’—and for similar reasons.[5]  The short form is perfect as modern fable, or rather an anti-fable in which contemporary morality is not so much the lesson as the object of criticism.

Elements of what the situationist proposed to cohere under the concept of ‘spectacle’ can be found in Anglo-American science fiction of the post-war period: specifically, between 1945 and 1970. Exemplars of such science fictional criticism can be found in the work of Frederick Pohl (e.g. The Midas Plague, 1954, and The Tunnel Under the World, 1955), and Philip K Dick’s (e.g. The Defenders, 1953, and The Mold of Yancy, 1954). However, the emergence of such ‘sociological science fiction’ was broader than these two better known authors. [6]

The years I propose—1945 to 1970—are not merely accidental. Even though the situationist development of the concept of ‘spectacle’ lay between 1957 and 1967, with the highpoint of its development between 1962 and 1967, Debord and others had been developing their critical practice from at least 1951. That there was ‘something in the air’ between 1945 and 1970 akin to the full-blown situationist critique of the 1960s is something I would like to explore. Additionally, the endpoint of 1970 is similarly non-accidental. The world changed after 1968–at the very least, became more cynical about the dominance of the ‘spectacle’. Debord would note, shortly after 1968, how the ‘negativity’ of the rebellions was already ‘invading’ the commodity-spectacle. As David Pringle and Peter Nicholls have noted, ‘[a]bout the end of the 1970s traditional sf about the media seemed to wither away almost overnight: during the 1980s harsh satires about the world of admen, once almost commonplace, became scarce’. I would hazard to argue that this was a result, a least in part, of two processes: on the one hand, the more general calling into question of what the situationists called the commodity-spectacle in the wake of 1968; and on the other hand, the utter triumph of the self-same commodity-spectacle through the ultimate defeat of the movement of 1968—not to mention the sheer brutal omnipresence of the once ‘new’ world of mass communications by the 1980s.

To be clear, I am not proposing that I am the first to note the critical content of science fiction from this period. Indeed, the literature on the critique of the ‘media landscape’ in science fiction—to name just one of the elements—is well advanced. Rather, I want to examine these stories not only as responses to the developments in capitalist society in the immediate post-war period, but further propose that we can draw upon these stories in the situationist style: détourn them for critical purposes.

Among other things, I will return to the idea of the ‘science fiction spectacle’ in upcoming posts.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Situationist International, ‘The role of the S.I. [1962]‘, trans. by Reuben Keehan. Translation modified.

[2] See, in particular, thesis 6 and 10 of Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle.

[3] Marx, Capital, volume 1, chapter 1, ‘The fetishism of the commodity and its secret’.

[4] The Society of the Spectacle, chapter 2, thesis 36, translation modified.

[5] Orson Welles, ‘Introduction’, in S.F: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Judith Merril, Dell Publishing: 1956, p. 8.

[6] Elsewhere I have begun to examine Russian science fiction from the same time. And I would hope that this project will lead to an examination of other iterations of SF around the globe of the mid-twentieth century.