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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.