Tag Archives: The Midas Plague

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.