Sunday, September 19, 2021

Summer Reading List No. 3-The Status Civilization by Robert Scheckley

My Internet was out for fourteen days. No, I don't live in Afghanistan. I live in a twenty-first century Third World-country called the United States. Anyway, I'm back, writing again about Utopia and Dystopia.

During a hot August, I read The Status Civilization by Robert Sheckley (1928-2005), originally in Amazing Science Fiction Stories beginning in August 1960 (as "Omega") and published in paperback just a month later by Signet/New American Library. (Part two of the story appeared in Amazing that same month.) I was drawn to it by the cover blurb: "The Stunning Novel of a Future Earth--When One Vast and Stratified Society Threatens All Who Fail to Conform." Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

The Status Civilization begins not on Earth but on a prison planet called Omega. The protagonist is a man with no name, only a number (402), and no memory of his own identity or past. It's an intriguing start and could have been the seed of a simple science fiction adventure. Instead, the author Sheckley used science fiction and stories of Utopia/Dystopia as they have so often been used, as vehicles for satire and social commentary. There is real power in this place where you might not have expected it, but only after the story has gotten well along.

The setup in The Status Civilization reminds me a little of the movie Total Recall (1990). There is also a robot-confessor in Sheckley's novel (pp. 121-122); George Lucas later used the same idea in THX 1138 (1971). The protagonist's questioning of the robot-confessor leads him to a familiar place on Earth. (p. 122) That scene reminds me of "Mars Is Heaven!" by Ray Bradbury (1948).

I don't know who wrote about the first computer games in science fiction, but Sheckley might be a candidate. Once returned to Earth, Sheckley's protagonist--his name is Will Barrent (that may or may not be a pun)--questions a number of the people living there. One is Cuchulain Dent. Here is part of their exchange:

"I'm an inventor specializing in games," [Dent says]. "I brought out Triangulate--Or Else! last year. It's been pretty popular. Have you seen it?"

     "I'm afraid not."

     "Sort of a cute game. It's a simulated lost-in-space thing. The players are given incomplete data for their miniature computers, additional information as they win it. Space hazards for penalties. Lots of flashing lights and stuff like that. Very big seller." (p. 112)

That's as good an extrapolation as any I have read in science fiction. Robert Sheckley, it seems to me, had some pretty keen vision.

Here is Citizen Father Boeren, talking about the Church of the Spirit of Mankind Incarnate, "the official and exclusive religious expression of the government of Earth":

"[T]he forgers [I suspect that one is a pun] of our present Church threw out all controversial matter. We wanted agreement, not dissension. [. . .] There have never been any schisms in our religion, because we are all-acceptant. One may believe anything one wishes, as long as it preserves the holy spirit of Man Incarnate. For our worship, you see, is the true worship of Man. And the spirit we recognize is the spirit of the divine and holy Good."

     [Barrent asks:] "Would you define Good for me, Citizen Abbot?"

     "Certainly. Good is the force within us which inspires men to acts of conformity and subservience. The worship of Good is essentially the worship of oneself, and therefore is the only true worship. The self which one worships is the ideal social being [. . . .] [Emphasis added.] (p. 115)

Yeah, pretty keen.

You can fairly say that The Status Civilization is part of the literature of a 1950s-early 1960s American society that pitted conformity against nonconformity, status-seeking against the urge to drop out, and so on into other dichotomies. The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney (1950); Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1952); The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) by Sloan Wilson; and The Organization Man by William H. Whyte (1956) are examples. But Sheckley's novel is not strictly of its time, for the author expressed some key insights into human nature and human society. Following is an example, one that may be more true now than it was in 1960. The head (and sole member) of the secret police, Dravinian, speaks:

"That's how Earth is, Barrent. Our energy and skills are channeled into essentially decadent pursuits. We recarve old furniture, worry about rank and status, and in the meantime the frontier of the distant planets remains unexplored and unconquered. We ceased long ago to expand. Stability brought the danger of stagnation, to which we succumbed. We became so highly socialized that individuality had to be diverted to the most harmless of pursuits, turned inward, kept from any meaningful expression. [. . .] (p. 118)

There are closed classrooms in the Earth of the future (and of our present). What goes on inside those classrooms must always remain secret not only to the people outside the classroom but also to the pupils themselves. Barrent discovers--or recovers--what happened to him inside the closed classroom of his youth:

     What had he been taught? For the social good, you must be your own policeman and witness. You must assume responsibility for any crime which might conceivably be yours. [Emphasis in the original.] (p. 123)

Barrent himself realizes: "Earth needed no security forces, for the policeman and executioner were implanted in every man's mind." (p. 123) I have written before that the most efficient tyranny is one in which individuals tyrannize themselves and each other. That is the tyranny of the future in The Status Civilization, and that is increasingly our shared tyranny of today.

One last connection to the wider world of science fiction: Barrent is looking for the witness against him. As in the final episode of The Prisoner (1967), he finds him.

The Status Civilization by Robert Sheckley, with cover art by an unknown artist (Signet/New American Library, 1960).

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, September 3, 2021

Summer Reading List No. 2-Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

I wrote recently of Kate Wilhelm (1928-2018). I had never read anything by her, but in reading about her, I became intrigued. So I looked on my shelf and found Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Timescape-Pocket Books, 1977). I read it this summer.

First I should say what a good writer Kate Wilhelm was. Her prose runs clear and smooth, like a river. There is feeling in this novel and an awareness of the importance of human relationships. There is also color. These things are too often lacking in science fiction.

I work as a forester and I'm always glad to see and read stories that take place in the woods and that involve trees. In her statement in The Faces of Science Fiction, Kate wrote about gardening. She knew her plants and she knew her trees. The title may mention birds, but she named more trees than birds here: pine, spruce, and fir; sassafras, silver maple, and bitternut hickory. What other writer in all of literature knows or has named bitternut hickory in her work? But the title is apt, for it is a kind of lament, an allusion to things that have been lost.

If you're trying to categorize Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, you could call it a post-apocalypse. You might also call it an example of the cosy catastrophe. But in its depiction of a collectivist society guided by science and the needs of science and run by almost soulless (and eventually stupid) clones, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is also a Dystopia. And it's clear where the author's sympathies lie, for they are with individual human beings and against collectivist unity. Some illustrative quotes:

     Barry was shaking his head. "Psychology is a dead end for us," he said. "It revives the cult of the individual. When the unit is functioning, the members are self-curing. [. . .] We all know and agree it is our duty to safeguard the well-being of the unit, not the individuals within it. If there is a conflict between those two choices, we must abandon the individual." (p. 100)

* * * 

[Ben speaks:] "Always before us, in infancy there was a period when ego development naturally occurred, and if all went well during that period, the individual was formed, separate from his parents. With us such a development is not necessary, or even possible, because our brothers and sisters [i.e., other members of the unit] obviate the need for separate existence, and instead a unit consciousness is formed." (p. 106)

* * *

[Carl speaks:] "If the human baby [i.e., naturally conceived and carried to term by the mother] has a birth defect, caused by a birth trauma, he can be aborted, and still the cloned babies will be all right."

     "That's hardly in the nature of a drawback," Barry said, smiling. There was an answering ripple of amusement throughout the class.

     He waited a moment, then said, "The genetic pool is unpredictable, its past is unknown, its constituents so varied that when the process is not regulated and controlled, there is always the danger of producing unwanted characteristics. And the even more dangerous threat of losing talents that are important to our community." He allowed time for this to be grasped, then continued. "The only way to ensure our future, to ensure continuity, is through perfecting the process of cloning [. . . .]"

     "Our goal is to remove the need for sexual reproduction. Then we will be able to plan our future. [. . .] For the first time since mankind walked the face of the earth," he said, "there will be no misfits."

     [Conceived through natural sexual reproduction and born from and reared by his mother, Mark, a misfit, retorts:] "And no geniuses." [Emphasis added.] (pp. 132-133)

* * *

There is euthanasia also in this perfect and planned society. Certain women, called breeders, bear children naturally but have them taken away to be reared and educated (or indoctrinated) by the State in the form of the community. These women are kept in a drugged state in an attempt to control or at least dampen their depression and despair.

* * *

So in Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, we see all of the elements of Utopia/Dystopia: unity, conformity, collectivism, planning, regulation, control, extreme risk-aversion by the Community/State, abortion, euthanasia, attempts to do away with sex (love, too, of course), attempts to eradicate the individual, the view that children are the property of the Community/State, intolerance and punishment of nonconformity and dissent, fear and hatred of and alienation from nature, etc. You might recognize these elements in the real world of today. Yes, they're here. An example from just this week:

"Designer Baby Revolution: Can We Outlaw Sexual Reproduction?" by Cameron English, on the website of the American Council of Science and Health, August 30, 2021.

 * * *

As with so many science fiction writers, Kate Wilhelm was prescient, but then anyone with an awareness and understanding of human nature can probably foresee these things. Maybe the purpose of science fiction is to expand the reach and appeal of philosophy, ethics, theology, psychology, politics, economics, etc., into the popular realm by turning these things into readable, enjoyable, satisfying fiction. Anyway, in its closing, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang sums up the reason for the satisfaction, happiness, and end of loneliness now felt by Mark, the former misfit: "Because all the children were different."

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm, winner of the Locus and Hugo Awards for best novel in 1977 and nominated for the Nebula Award in the same category that same year. The cover art is by Edward J. "Ed" Soyka (b. 1947).

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Summer Reading List No. 1-The Listeners by James E. Gunn

Four years ago, on the day after Flying Saucer Day, I wrote about James E. Gunn and his novelette "The Listeners," originally in Galaxy Magazine in September 1968. Since then I have looked for the book version, which collects all of Mr. Gunn's stories in the series, originally published from 1968 to 1972. I finally found it this summer in one of my trips to Half-Price Books, a store that I hope stays in business forever. And this summer I read it.

First I should let you know that James E. Gunn died at the end of last year, on December 23, 2020. He was ninety-seven years old, another of that interwar generation who did so much, accomplished so much, overcame so much, even unto the end. We send condolences to his family and friends and I guess to the world of science fiction in general. James E. Gunn was born in the same year that Weird Tales began, 1923. Surely he was one of the last of the authors first published during the Golden Age of Science Fiction, 1938-1950. His first story was called "Communications" and it appeared in the September 1949 issue of Startling Stories. Communications would seem to have been a theme in his work.

The Listeners is episodic. Like Mr. Gunn's life, it is spread over nine decades, from 2025 to 2118. It is set mostly in Puerto Rico, at the site of a great radio telescope, an ear directed at the heavens, waiting to hear words from on high. The main character is Robert MacDonald, a middle-aged (and older) administrator and head of the listening project. (Yes, his surname is Scottish and, yes, he is an engineer.) MacDonald is hanging on, hanging on, waiting for the communications he's sure must come. He carries the Project on the back of his faith.

James Gunn was completely conversant in the history and culture of Listening. In his book, he referred to Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, Otto Struve, and other figures in the what is now called the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). He quoted from some of them, too, in his inter-chapter "Computer Run" compilations, which were, I think, new to the book version, first published in 1972. (They remind me of the "Newsreel" sections in John Dos Passos' U.S.A. Trilogy.) He and Dr. Sagan seem to have formed a mutual admiration society, in fact. Dr. Sagan's blurb on the cover of the Ballantine edition reads: "One of the very best fictional portrayals of contact with extra-terrestrial intelligence ever written!" In his turn, Carl Sagan seems to have lifted Mr. Gunn's religious leader straight out of The Listeners and plopped him into the movie Contact (1997). The radio message returned to Earth in order to get our attention is also seemingly from The Listeners.

The depiction of that religious leader is a flaw, I think, in Contact, less so in The Listeners. I don't know what things were like in 1968 or 1971-1972 when James Gunn first wrote, but his character Jeremiah (cute name) verges on stereotype. Carl Sagan called him Joseph and was far less understanding. I think what both authors failed to understand is that Christians are far more tolerant of the idea that there may be other people in the universe than are the Listeners that there are not. It is, after all, the core belief of Christianity that we are not alone. It would be intolerable for the Listener to learn that we are, though. As James Gunn wrote:

And then maybe Adams was right. Maybe nobody was there. Maybe nobody was sending signals because there was nobody to send signals. Maybe man was all alone in the universe. Alone with God. Or alone with himself, whichever was worse. (Ballantine, 1985, p. 3)

MacDonald may or may not be an atheist. I think only Jeremiah calls him that. I'm not sure that he ever thinks or speaks of these things himself. Curiously, his ghost seems to keep appearing to people after his death, curiously, that is, for a story that is otherwise what I would call hard science fiction and in which the tone is essentially agnostic.

I gather that James E. Gunn was a midcentury American liberal. As that and as an author of science fiction, he seems to have believed in progress, perhaps especially in material and scientific progress. His story is set in Puerto Rico, at the site of a radio telescope. In his version of the story, that radio telescope and the listening project go on for decades, far into the twenty-first century. In the real-life version of the story, the radio telescope at Arecibo came crashing down on December 1, 2020. You could take that as emblematic of a kind of decline and decay of the American and/or scientific project. Maybe it doesn't mean anything like that at all. Anyway, science fiction author James E. Gunn died three weeks and a day later. (3 x 7) + 1: prime numbers all.

Science fiction is not prediction. But here is an excerpt from The Listeners. Take as much or as little of it as prediction or extrapolation as you want. Remember that Mr. Gunn wrote this in the early 1970s.

It is 2028. MacDonald is talking to Andrew White, the first black president of the United States (who would of course be played by Morgan Freeman in the movie version):

     "The function of government is 'to promote the general welfare,'" MacDonald said.

     "It is also a deliberate policy. Poverty and injustice are evils, but they are endurable evils in a world where other problems are greater. They are not endurable in a complex, technological society where cooperation is essential, where violence and rioting can destroy a city, even civilization itself."

     "Of course."

     "So we turned ourselves around and set this nation to the task of eliminating poverty and injustice--and we have done it. We have established a stable social system where everyone has a guaranteed annual income and can do pretty much what he pleases except procreate without limit or harm others in other ways."

     MacDonald nodded. "That has been the great accomplishment of the past few decades--the welfare movement."

     "Except we don't call it welfare anymore," White said. "It's democracy, the system, the way things are, what people are entitled to. What makes you think that science is not part of the system?"

     "It creates change," MacDonald said.

     "Not if it is unsuccessful," White said. [. . .] "The important task of government, you see, is to keep conditions stable, to hold down disturbances and unrest, to maintain itself, and the best way to do that is to give everybody the opportunity to do what they want--except change things. [. . .]" (p. 149)

I don't want to hit you over the head with this, but it's plain that the people of 2028 and before have tried to construct a kind of Utopia. Welfare, entitlements, a guaranteed income, happiness, democracy, and zero population growth are features of their Utopia, but the ultimate purpose is stasis.

Futurism is prediction. Here is another excerpt, from one of the "Computer Run" sections of The Listeners:

The year 2000 conditions could produce a situation in which illusion, wishful thinking, even obviously irrational behavior could exist to a degree unheard of today. Such irrational and self-indulgent behavior is quite likely in a situation in which an individual is overprotective and has no systematic or objective contact with reality. For example, there are probably many people for whom work is the primary touch with reality. If work is removed, or if important functions are taken from work, the contact these people have with reality will be to some degree impaired.  The results--minor or widespread--may become apparent in forms such as political disruption, disturbed families, and personal tragedies--or in pursuit of some "humanistic" values that many would think of as frivolous or even irrational.

Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Weiner, 1967 (p. 165)

Illusion, wishful thinking, obviously irrational behavior--Kahn and Weiner called it in the year before "The Listeners" went to print. Kahn was an atheist. Did that give him special insight into the problems of a future populated by non-believers?

One last excerpt. A second message comes from Capella in the year 2118. Before it is displayed for all to see, a short "Computer Run" section intervenes. From it, these lines of verse:

[. . .] somewhere in sands of the desert   

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   

The darkness drops again; but now I know   

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

                                   William Butler Yeats, 1921

The imagery here, from Yeats' poem "The Second Coming," stands powerfully on its own, but it also strikes me now as a counterpoint to Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias," about which I wrote last time. In "Ozymandias," the statue--and by extension the man and his power--lies in ruins. But in Yeats' vision, the statue, the power, the rough beast in the form of a half-man, awakens, moves, slouches to be born. In this vision, Apocalypse is our future.

Yet The Listeners ends in hope--hope at least for the Listeners.

The Listeners by James E. Gunn (1923-2020), published in 1985 by Ballantine Books, with cover art by Rick Sternbach.

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, August 30, 2021

The Two Ozymandiases (and Then Some)

I quoted Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias" when I wrote in July. What I found in my research is that there are actually two Ozymandiases. First is Shelley's version:

Ozymandias (1818)

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said--"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away."

* * *

Shelley wrote his "Ozymandias" in competition with his friend, Horace Smith (1779-1849). Smith's version was published two months after Shelley's:

Ozymandias (1818)

by Horace Smith

In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,

Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws

The only shadow that the Desert knows:--

"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,

"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows

"The wonders of my hand."-- The City's gone,--

Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose

The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,-- and some Hunter may express

Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness

Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,

He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess

What powerful but unrecorded race

Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

* * *

Shelley's sonnet is justifiably famous. Horace Smith's is, I suppose, obscure. But it brings into these tales of two Ozymandiases something missing from the first: the poet's vision is cast into the future as well as into the past. And as a vision of the future and a post-apocalypse, Horace Smith's poem approaches science fiction.

* * *

All of that led me to some other lines of verse. These were written by the British poet and author Anna Lætitia Barbauld (1743-1825). They predated Shelley's and Smith's poems by six years. An excerpt from Eighteen Hundred and Eleven: A Poem (1812), by Anna Lætitia Barbauld, lines 39-49:

And think'st thou, Britain, still to sit at ease,

An island Queen amidst thy subject seas,

While the vext billows, in their distant roar,

But soothe thy slumbers, and but kiss thy shore?

To sport in wars, while danger keeps aloof,

Thy grassy turf unbruised by hostile hoof?

So sing thy flatterers; but, Britain, know,

Thou who hast shared the guilt must share the woe.

Nor distant is the hour; low murmurs spread,

And whispered fears, creating what they dread;

Ruin, as with an earthquake shock, is here, [. . . .]

* * *

Mrs. Barbauld wrote of the Napoleonic Wars, but in her vision of the near future, she saw ruin.

The future may hold Utopia, but it may also hold Apocalypse.

* * *

By the way, Anna Lætitia Barbauld is in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. And if someone knows how to make the proper spacing between lines of verse in Blogger, I'd sure like to know about it.

"The Questioner of the Sphinx" (1863), by the American artist Elihu Vedder (1836-1923).

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, August 28, 2021

We Are Marching to Utopia

We remember Paradise and we want it back. Once History turned out of its cycle and was loosed into its flight as an arrow, we thought we had found the way: the Millennium will come and we will have it once again. Progress is the vision, the guiding force, most of all the technique. We are marching towards Utopia, the cadence called by History in the voice of its progressive interpreter.

The communist Utopia was supposed to be a Worker's Paradise, a stateless state in which the Proletariat owned the means of production and were no longer bound to their sole respective roles, where a man might be free to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and criticize after dinner.

Instead we have Cuba.

The African Utopia was supposed to be Wakanda. Instead we have South Africa. Earlier this year, the University of Capetown Library burned and with it the cultural and historical treasures of nations. The South African Post Office arrived, too, on the edge of bankruptcy. I don't know where it is now. And South African Airways, unable to survive as a ward of the State, was sold into the private sector. That might be the thing that saves it after all. Word is that the airline will resume flights in September.

I began writing this little article in July, when protesters were in the streets of Cuba. The New York Times described them in this way, from July 11, 2021: "Shouting 'Freedom' and other anti-government slogans, hundreds of Cubans took to the streets in cities around the country on Sunday . . . ."

"'Freedom' and other anti-government slogans . . . ."

Nice going, Times.

They're right of course. "Freedom" is an anti-government slogan. Where they're wrong is where their sympathies obviously lie, for they obviously lie with the Cuban government and not with the people who suffer under it.

So I made up some fake headlines:

Democrats Alarmed as Lego Group Sends Presidential Palace Building Sets to Cuba

Progressives Want End to Trade Embargo So Antifa Can Burn the American Flags Currently Being Waved by Cuban Protestors

Google Translate Changes Meaning of Spanish Word "Libertad" from "Liberty" to "We Want More Covid Vaccines"

Now here it is August and the Taliban have walked into Kabul. And now here's a real headline, from Business Insider, August 20, 2021:

A baby that was photographed being passed to US soldiers over razor wire in Afghanistan has been safely reunited with their father

Their father.

That headline sums up as well as any why the Taliban won and we lost: They were determined to defeat their enemies. We're worried about pronouns.

I don't think of the Taliban as being utopian in their thinking, although Islamism has its eyes on the future and the setting up of an all-powerful State. But like utopians and other progressives, Islamists are anti-liberal. And their victory shows what happens when men burning with a holy fire encounter the bloodless Liberal. If we are to win in any of this, we have to burn, too. 

Comic books are often described as an "adolescent power fantasy" or a "male adolescent power fantasy"--a phrase that has become a cliché and perhaps deserving of an acronym: APF or MAPF. (The latter reads like a comic book sound effect.) Power fantasy is supposed to be a pejorative, I guess, but who exactly lacks them? (If Business Insider can use a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent, so can I.) Nobody I can think of. You could say that romance novels are the female version of the power fantasy. You can come up with your own examples, I'm sure. Anyway, the reason I bring up the topic is that socialism and Marxism are adolescent power fantasies, too. They are enjoyed most by men and women with adolescent--or childish--or even infantile--minds. These people imagine, I guess, that when the Revolution comes, they will assume their power, what is rightfully theirs and has been denied them. Then you'll pay. That's right. Then you'll pay. Never mind that the merely intellectual revolutionary--the guy with the books and the ideas and the glasses to correct his myopia--always falls before his truly ruthless comrades.

Let's not march towards Utopia anymore. Let's choose a better way and a better world instead--better than Utopia--a world that is more human because it is imperfect.

One more thing: a fitting soundtrack has played as I have written this tonight: Harold Budd's Abandoned Cities. And it's from a fitting year: 1984.

Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Return to Utopia

Forrest J Ackerman (1916-2008) is in The Faces of Science Fiction (1984). His statement covers almost an entire page. I'll quote some of it:

I was a secular humanist before I knew the term. I have not believed in God since childhood's end. I believe a belief in any deity is adolescent, shameful and dangerous. [. . .] I am embarrassed to live in a world retaining any faith in church, prayer or a celestial creator. [. . .] My hope for humanity--and I think sensible science fiction has a beneficial influence in that direction--is that one day everyone born will be whole in body and brain, will live a long life free from physical and emotional pain, will participate in a fulfilling way in their contribution to existence, will enjoy true love and friendship [. . . .] I have devoted my life to amassing over a quarter million pieces of sf and fantasy as a present to posterity and I hope to be remembered as an altruist who would have been an acceptable citizen in Utopia. (Emphasis in the original.)

There is a lot to say about the things in that quote and in Ackerman's larger statement. First, there is his seeming sense of superiority, a sense that exists not only in science fiction but also in the world at large, especially among intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals. The Superior Man seems to have been a recurring character in science fiction during the 1930s and '40s, especially in Astounding Science-FictionKarl Marx, another atheist and materialist, believed himself above ordinary men. Curiously, both he and Ackerman died.

Ackerman was a materialist in more ways than one. In his lifetime, he collected a lot of things. The final count may have been a third of a million. Yes, he may have saved those things, but I believe them today to be scattered: Nothing made by man endures. I am reminded of Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias," a poem to which I will soon return:

["]My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

 Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!["]
Nothing beside remains.  [. . .]

Nothing that we make, mighty or low, shall remain. That includes big bunches of sci-fi memorabilia.

Ackerman had his hopes for humanity. They are admirable. But why are those hopes only for the future, or more precisely, in the future? Why aren't they now? Why haven't they been in the past? What keeps them from happening? A progressive-minded person--a Marxist for instance--would say that society or the system hasn't and won't allow them. Thus the system must be overthrown and society remade. History--that Irresistible Force--will guarantee a better future.  There is a fierce urgency now, but it will still take some time before we have perfection. And in that time, by the Marxist and socialist formulation and ambition, countless millions will die by deprivation, war, and murder. These things are of course historical necessities.

In his statement, Ackerman claimed wisdom, or at least a hope that he had gained some wisdom in his then sixty-eight years on this earth. But he placed his hopes in a process that is almost certainly illusory. There is no wisdom in believing in it. That process? History, of course, a Force or Forces that are, incidentally, always imprecisely described, always undetectable, always unmeasurable. Progress is another name for it. I'm reminded here of Sidney Harris' cartoon in which a miracle inserted in the right place guarantees that your equation comes out right:

That's the hope and plan of the hard-nosed materialist: that a miracle will occur, human nature will be altered, and we will have a better world as a result. What he, the materialist--Ackerman included--fails to understand is that we will never be whole, we will never be free of pain, we will not always be fulfilled, we will not always have love and friendship, for the world can never be made perfect. Our only chance for having any of these things is to reject atheism and materialism and to seek something greater to fill the hole in our hearts, a hole that always and everywhere has the same shape.

So Ackerman was a utopian. Ironically, he posed for photographer Patti Perret in front of some of his memorabilia for the utopian/dystopian picture Metropolis (1927). I doubt that he was aware of the irony. After all, the Progressive lacks a sense of irony and self-awareness. But as we know, every Utopia is a Dystopia, the reason being that in order for a society to be made perfect, people themselves must be harried into perfection. Only an overarching State can accomplish that--or believes that it can accomplish that--and so the State must be made supreme over the lives of men. So, Metropolis may depict Dystopia, but in its way, it also depicts Utopia: Utopia for the powerful is Dystopia for the rest of us.

Socialists of one stripe might quibble with those of another over the meaning of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Workers in revolt? They are the Proletariat. They are oppressed. Their situation is intolerable and they will have an end to it. This is History in action. . . . Or maybe not. Here is Joseph Goebbels, propagandist for the Nazi party, writing in 1928:

The political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history. In its place advance the oppressed producers of the head and hand, the forces of Labor (Arbeitertum), to begin their historical mission. This is not a matter of wages and hours--though we must not fail to realize that these demands are essential, perhaps the most important single manifestation of the socialist will. More important is the incorporation of a potent, responsible estate (Stand) in the affairs of state, perhaps indeed in the dominant role in the future politics of our fatherland. (Quoted in Hitler's Social Revolution by David Schoenbaum, 2012.)

Note the sophomoric patois of the socialist revolutionary: bourgeoisie, history, oppressed, Labor, historical mission, the socialist will, the future. Always: the Glorious Future. Here is more of Goebbels:

We are not a charitable institution but a Party of revolutionary socialists. (Emphasis added. Also quoted in Mr. Shoenbaum's book, from 1929.)

Before I go on, I must emphasize: Nazis were socialists. They said it themselves. They inserted that word into their own name for themselves. As people would say nowadays, they self-identified as socialists. They were anti-liberal, anti-democracy, anti-capitalist. They wished to create a perfect State and a perfect society, set, of course, in the future. This would be their Thousand-Year Reich. In other words, National Socialists, like their International cousins, were and are essentially utopian in their aims. So enough with the slander that American conservatives have anything to do with Nazis. If anything, it is the American Socialist or Progressive--the anti-liberal, anti-capitalist Progressive--who finds in the Nazi past his or her ideological bedfellow, or at the very least shares in the techniques of Nazism.

A last quote, from Siegfried Kracauer in his book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947, 1971):

In the case of Metropolis, Goebbels's own words bear out the conclusions drawn from this film. Lang relates that immediately after Hitler's rise to power Goebbels sent for him: ". . . he told me that, many years before, he and the Führer had seen my picture Metropolis in a small town, and Hitler had said at that time that he wanted me to make the Nazi pictures." (p. 164; Lang quoted from the New York World Telegram, June 11, 1941.)

Fritz Lang decided instead to flee Utopia, first for France, then for the United States. My hope is that our country will forever be an enemy of socialism in all its forms and consequently of Utopia.

I'm not sure that there is a strong or unequivocal connection to be made between utopianism and Esperanto, but Forrest J Ackerman was both a utopian and an Esperantist. He was fluent in that made-up language and knew its theme song by heart. Here is a pertinent passage:

On a neutral language basis,

understanding one another,

the people will make in agreement

one great family circle.

Wow, what a catchy lyric that is. I sometimes find myself singing it when I'm in the shower or walking down the street or when I'm hanging out with the Lion King on the endless plains of Africa. Anyway, one of the aims of the socialist/statist/progressive/utopian program is the creation of the One State. (That's what Yevgeny Zamyatin called it in We.) All the better if the One State is really just a big, happy family, living together in a great circle of happy happiness. On top of course is a Benefactor or Father Figure (or in our current case, a creepy, befuddled, hair-sniffing Uncle Figure), one who bestows upon us, his children, every material--and therapeutic--blessing and frees us all from our own freedoms.

Like so many pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-historical, pseudo-scientific, pseudo-religious, and otherwise just plain crackpot ideas, Esperanto was invented in the nineteenth century. (The whole idea of it reminds me of Richard Shaver's Mantong.) It caught on during the 1920s and '30s, I think, around the same time as communism, fascism, Taylorism, technocracy, and other cult-like and/or totalitarian belief systems. It seems to have been custom-made for the person who had ceased believing in God but, being human, needed to believe in something larger than himself anyway, in this case a happy circle of humanity. It was perfect, too, for science fiction fans, for here was a language for the future. Perfect for the atheist, perfect for the materialist, perfect for the science fiction fan: perfect for Forrest J Ackerman. Beyond that, made-up stuff, as opposed to things that grow organically and through tradition, is one of the hallmarks of progressivism, for the Progressive despises the past and lives for a better future. That means everything for the future has to be made up because we will destroy everything from the past. Ackerman said it himself in so many words: he was a progressive and believed in a better future.

Guess who else is or was an Esperantist? George Soros. Funny.

I was at a secondhand store on Wednesday this week, July 21. (The birthday of both Ernest Hemingway and a girl I knew in high school.) Strangely enough, I found an Apollo 11 drinking glass, fifty-two years and a day after men first set foot on the moon. The day before, the Bezillionaire blasted off into space in a Tower of Babel built on the flames of a rocketship.* I'm not sure whether that was an homage, a tribute, or something else. Anyway, he's not the worst of the Big Tech moguls, at least I don't think so. In going into space, he seems to be living a lifelong dream. I think we should all be happy with people who do these things. Dreams are made to be lived. Too few are. And after all, it's his money. He gets to do what he wants with it. And before you object to that idea, recall that about forty-five seconds ago you bought something from his company, thereby putting some of your money into his pocket in a voluntary exchange. What was yours is now his, and vice versa. Anyway, if you think that his money isn't his, and that it's rightfully yours, or "the people's," you might join with Joseph Goebbels, who wrote that his party:

was not against capital but against its misuse . . ., against capitalism in every form, that is, misuse of the people's property (Volksgut). Whoever is responsible for such misuse is a capitalist. . . . For us, too, property is holy. (Quoted, again, in Mr. Shoenbaum's book.)

Property is, after all, material, and the socialist is also, by necessity, a materialist. Property is holy to him. It's just that he wants to make yours, his. The transfer ain't voluntary and there ain't no exchange.

Like I said, I think there are worse people in Big Tech than the Bezillionaire, the reason being that they have utopian aims. They are thoroughgoing progressives. They believe, I think, that they can create and are creating a better world. They have even admitted these things, boasted of them. I used to think, naïvely, that they want our money. But I don't think they want our money so much as they want our data. Their hope, I think, is to gather enough data by which they might write an equation describing human behavior, no miracle needed. And with that equation and the knowledge they believe will come from it, they hope to understand and predict everything. The future, the universe, all of human existence will be to them an open book. What they don't realize is that such a thing cannot be done, for we have infinite and irreducible variety within us. No man was the author of that variety and no man can duplicate it. In their ambitions towards godhood, these men (and a few women) are making a go at the infinite. What they don't realize is that only one Being is capable of anything infinite, absolute, or eternal. He has already written the equation and his terms are beyond our understanding. They can't do it. They aren't capable of anything that is rightly his. But then, like Forrest J Ackerman, they don't believe in such things. They are materialists. To them, human beings are merely material. For them, property is holy. The equation can and will be written. But first they need the data.

Supposedly Tamerlane spoke the word impossible only once in his life, and that was as death came for him. Like him, these people believe they cannot die, and they are working towards immortality for themselves by attempting to place their own ghosts--ours, too, I guess--into their own machines. They believe themselves to be gods or soon to be gods and cannot countenance that they and all of their fine ideas and wondrous works will in the end surely die. But they will. These men and women will find that the impossible--death--is indeed possible, and not just possible but inevitable. And not just inevitable but necessary. (They may never learn that part.) Like Tamerlane they seek to conquer the world and thereby make themselves immortal. Instead, they will become like yet another prideful figure from history, the aforementioned Ozymandias, who was himself silenced and conquered by time and death, by the lone and level sands of the bare and boundless desert that lies over his ruined works and will surely lie over all of our own.

* * *

That's an awful lot to read, I know, but I'll be gone for a while. I'll pick up again on this topic when I get back. So:

To be continued . . .


*An addition, August 7, 2021: It occurs to me now that Esperanto is a human attempt, necessarily frail, ultimately doomed, to undo the outcomes at the Tower of Babel, to make once again a world and a people "of one language, and of one speech." (Genesis 11:1) It is in itself a kind of arrogance, a belief that we can be godlike in our wisdom and in our powers, that we are in fact wiser and more powerful than God. We should consider another verse from the Bible, Mark 10:9, here inverted: What God has put asunder, let no man join together. Esperanto is merely a hobby. It is not a serious endeavor.

Now an aside: The Bible says that the builders of the Tower used slime for their mortar. Some interpret "slime" to mean asphalt. Jack Parsons (1914-1952) was inspired to use asphalt as a solid-rocket fuel. Although the Bezillionaire rode to space on top of a rocketship, his was liquid-fueled rather than solid-fueled. Nonetheless, it's hard to pass up commenting on these nexuses within the worlds of culture and ideas.

Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Los Angeles Science Fiction League, Circa 1939

I have begun swinging back around to my series on Utopia and Dystopia in Weird Tales. Step One: Show group photograph of Los Angeles Science Fiction League, circa 1939.

Last week I stopped by Half-Price Books, one of my favorite stores and one of few commercial establishments that I will mention by name in this blog. (I have a policy against advertisements.) I planned mostly on selling books and buying only a little. The store I went to had a different idea, though, because it put out for sale a book called The Ray Bradbury Companion, written and compiled by William F. Nolan (b. 1928) and published in 1975. How was I supposed to pass that up? It may have some writing in it, but it's a book I have never seen before and may never again.

As you might expect, there are all kinds of things included in The Ray Bradbury Companion. One is a group photograph, shown below. Before getting to that, I'll tell you about the man who wrote in my new copy of this book.

I don't like it when people write in books. We think we own these things, but aren't we really just caretakers? Shouldn't we do the best that we can to ensure that every book makes it into the next generation with as little damage and wear as possible? And shouldn't we all want to avoid any comparison at all to Carlos Allende and his little personalities? Anyway, inside the front cover of my new book, a previous owner wrote his name, Max Westbrook, and the date, September 1975. Like Allende's Mr. A, Westbrook used green ink for his inscription, underlining, and marginalia. I sensed that he could have had some connection to Ray Bradbury, but after looking into it, I'm not sure that he did. I found out about Max Westbrook, though, and he was a literary critic and teacher of some note. So:

Max Roger Westbrook was born on April 6, 1927, in Malvern, Arkansas. He attended Pine Bluff High School in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and served in the U.S. Navy in the World War II era and again in the Korean War era. Dr. Westbrook received his bachelor's degree from Baylor University, his master's at the University of Oklahoma, and his doctorate at the University of Texas. He taught at the universities of Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Texas. His books included The Modern American Novel: Essays in Criticism (1966), Walter Van Tilburg Clark (1969), Country Boy (verse, 1979), and Oregon or Bust (1985). He was a longtime member of the Western Literature Association and won the association's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1988. His headstone reads like the title of one of his books: "Country Boy." Dr. Westbrook died on July 25, 2002, nineteen years ago next week.

Knowing that Max Westbrook owned my copy of The Ray Bradbury Companion before I did takes away some of the bad feelings I have about writing in books. Anyway, here is the photo, just as it appears on page 28:

And here is the caption, ditto:

The first thing I noticed about this picture is that it shows Leslyn MacDonald (1904-1981), the diminutive wife of Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988). The second is that she is sitting far away from her husband and next to an always-smiling Ray Bradbury (1920-2012). Others labeled in the photo include Forrest J Ackerman (1916-2008), Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013), Jack Williamson (1908-2006), Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977), and Heinlein himself. I have a feeling other well-known people are in there somewhere (Morojo and Hannes Bok are candidates), but I don't recognize any of them. Maybe you do. Maybe you recognize the art on display, too.

Ray Bradbury was friends with Forrest J Ackerman. Ackerman is in the book The Faces of Science Fiction (1984), about which I wrote not long ago. A discussion of that entry is Step Two in my return to Utopia and Dystopia.

To be continued . . .

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley