Tag Archives: sociological science fiction

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

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

1.

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

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

2.

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

3.

So what has this got to do with Frederik Pohl?

“Finally, the review!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOOTNOTES

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Knight, ‘Infinity’s Choice’.

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

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.