Monday, July 13, 2020

Earl Peirce, Jr.-The Story So Far

I was on the track of Earl Peirce, Jr., and his family before getting off onto other things. It's time to get back on track again.
  • I first wrote about Earl Peirce, Jr., on May 17, 2017. (Click here.) What I wrote originally was in error. I corrected it, leaving only the basic facts of his dates, his places of birth and death, and a list of his contributions to weird fiction magazines. The idea was that I would come back to Peirce in a fuller series.
  • Three years later, on May 11, 2020, I wrote part one of this new series, in which I introduced the series and discussed Peirce's story "Doom of the House of Duryea." (Click here.) My hope is to discuss each of Peirce's stories in turn, if I can find them.
  • On May 14, 2020, I wrote an aside on "Doom of the House of Duryea" in which I described how Peirce appears to have been the first writer after Robert Bloch to mention Ludvig Prinn, fictional author of De Vermis Mysteriis (Mysteries of the Worm). (Click here.) Another aside: Bloch first mentioned De Vermis Mysteriis in "The Secret in the Tomb," published in Weird Tales in May 1935.
So back on track to Earl Peirce, Jr., part two.

Copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, July 10, 2020

Beyond This Horizon by Robert A. Heinlein

The woke but godless, the arrogant but ignorant, the violent but physically unimpressive, the degreed but poorly educated, the broke but acquisitive, the ambitious but stalled--these are history's ingredients of riot and revolution.
--from "The Fragility of the Woke" by Victor Davis Hanson, July 9, 2020

Last night I finished reading Robert A. Heinlein's novel Beyond This Horizon (1942). By chance, it touches on some of the things I have written about lately. What I mean when I say "by chance" is that I didn't know what the book is about before I read it, and I don't have a program of reading in search of Cozy Dystopia. I just found this book at the secondhand store and read it at my first opportunity.

I wouldn't call Beyond This Horizon a cozy dystopia or really a dystopia of any kind. Although it seems to have been written as a kind of positive fantasy on the part of its author, I don't think Heinlein's book is really utopian, either. It simply describes a future society that's different from our own, one that maybe Heinlein would have enjoyed but no one else. (There's a lot of gun-slinging in it.)

Beyond This Horizon is not the most compelling of Heinlein's novels. It takes awhile to take off and you start to think that it's trying to be too many things at once and not any one thing all together. It's a kind of journey through an alternative society, and in that ways it has similarities to a utopian story. The society it describes, however, is not perfect and is not meant to sound like it's perfect. (At least I don't think it is.) The society in Beyond This Horizon actually sounds kind of disorderly--despite the emphasis on codes of honor and etiquette--and unpleasant--despite the comforts it offers its citizens. In other words, the society described in Beyond This Horizon is kind of like every other society throughout history.

There are innovations, or at least semi-innovations, in Beyond This Horizon. These include waterbeds, sperm banks, voice ringtones, telephonic fax machines, a programmable autopilot, escalators, and welfare payments made directly to citizens by their government. I call them semi-innovations because, although they may have been invented or conceived before Heinlein wrote, they seem to have made pretty early appearances in his novel. In fact, some could have appeared at that time only in a science fiction story.

A long time ago, before it was called science fiction, or scientifiction, or even scientific romance, our favorite genre was sometimes called pseudo-scientific adventure, or fiction, or, if the reviewer was feeling appreciative, literature. The term came along about when you imagine it would have, that is, in the nineteenth century, after there was such a thing as science, and because of that development, various pseudosciences. The earliest use I have found of the term pseudo-science in reference to what we call science fiction is from 1885 in--of all unlikely places--the Vicksburg, Mississippi Evening Post ("Vital Statistics," Sept. 7, 1885, p. 2). The Post's use of the term makes it clear that readers would already have had an inkling of what pseudo-scientific adventure is all about. I suspect the term had been in use for some time, possibly in reference to the works of Jules Verne. In any case, the terms pseudo-science and pseudo-scientific in reference to science fiction were used more often as the turn of the century approached. Curiously, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction treats just one definition of the term pseudo-science, and it's the one we think of now when we see the word. You know, all of that crackpot stuff about eugenics, mental telepathy, space aliens, and reincarnation.

One of the problems with Beyond This Horizon is that there's a lot of that crackpot stuff about eugenics, mental telepathy, space aliens, and reincarnation. In fact, these things form the basic theme of the book, once it gets around to its basic theme. (And thank God it finally makes its point in its final three pages. That's how close Heinlein came to writing a pretty pointless novel. But then maybe he knew what he was doing all along.)

Beyond This Horizon takes place in the far future, maybe somewhere around the twenty-fourth-and-a-half century. (As in Buck Rogers, a man who went to sleep in the 1920s is awakened into this new world.) And although many of the names and much of the culture of past centuries has been lost (this is a post-apocalyptic world), some also remains, including knowledge of Arrhenius and his panspermic hypothesis (perhaps only a semi-pseudoscientific idea in our day), and Flammarion's (pseudoscientific) research into reincarnation. (Flammarion also wrote science fiction by the way.) There's another idea from the past--a really hateful idea, in fact--that has survived in Heinlein's future society. More on that at the end.

Although he touched on other pseudoscientific and semi-pseudoscientific ideas, the heart of Heinlein's story concerns eugenics, and from eugenics it goes into mental telepathy and (spoiler alert) reincarnation, all of which are treated as scientific subjects. Eugenics, that dream program of early twentieth-century Progressivism, has thankfully been discredited since Heinlein wrote. (1) But in 1942, when Beyond This Horizon was first published, there were still those in the West who held to it, despite its growing association with the monstrous and often pseudoscientific ideas of Nazi Germany. Again, in the society described in Beyond This Horizon, eugenics is central: the whole point is to breed the superior man. And the whole point of breeding the superior man turns into the goal of developing telepathic abilities in that man, which are used in turn to confirm (in those last three pages) that the soul survives the death of the body and that therefore life has meaning.

I would call that a strange and ambitious subject for a science fiction novel.

As I read Beyond This Horizon, it occurred to me that the eugenics/superior man/mental telepathy program outlined therein seems also to have been the program of the whole of Astounding Science-Fiction under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr. Heinlein's novel, serialized in the April and May 1942 issues of the magazine, had been preceded by A.E. van Vogt's Slan (Sept.-Dec. 1940), which treated similar ideas. By 1940 or '42, Campbell had already become interested in psychic phenomena. But who in this world can exercise his psychic abilities? Perhaps only the mutated man, the advanced man, the superior man. So that's the man about whom Campbell's writers wrote. He is in Slan and in Beyond This Horizon. He is also the end goal of L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics, which first saw the light of day in the May 1950 issue of Astounding, evolving soon after into Scientology.

Say what you will about him, but at least Robert Heinlein was smart enough to see through Hubbard and his crackpot schemes. But Campbell and van Vogt? Not so much. Nonetheless, Heinlein seems to have had a favorable view of eugenics and its program of generating the superior man. I have a feeling that he thought of himself as one of them, already on Earth in the here and now. He seems also to have given some credence to mental telepathy as a scientifically explainable phenomenon. Time to move on.
* * *

One of the side plots of Beyond This Horizon is an attempted coup against the government. The government is already pretty lousy. Like human reproduction, the economy is planned and the people have become more or less serfs. (2) But the plotters against the government are worse still. We recognize them today, for they are still with us. Their ideas are the same, though older, more tired, and more worn out than they were in 1942, if that's even possible. They are the ideas of the Progressive, the Socialist (species national or international, it doesn't matter), the Collectivist ("The Whole is greater than the parts!" is their slogan in Heinlein's book), the Leftist of whatever stripe: Society must be destroyed and then rebuilt upon a foundation of Science and Reason.

I started this ever-expanding essay with an illustrative quote. Here are some others, from Beyond This Horizon (Signet, n.d.):
Had he [Monroe-Alpha, one of the plotters] been as skilled in psychologics as he was in mathematics he might possibly have recognized his own pattern for what it was--religious enthusiasm, the desire to be part of a greater whole and to surrender one's own little worries to the keeping of an over-being. He had been told, no doubt, in his early instruction, that revolutionary political movements and crusading religions were the same type-form process, differing only in verbal tags and creeds, but he had never experienced either one before. In consequence, he failed to recognize what had happened to him. Religious frenzy? What nonsense--he believed himself to be an extremely hard-headed agnostic. (Emphasis in the original.) (p. 92)
* * * 
Mordan [one of the government's men, who speaks after the coup has been put down] considered how to reply [. . .]. "Perhaps," he said, "it would be simplest to state that they [the plotters] never did have what it takes. The leaders were, in most cases, genetically poor types, (3) with conceit far exceeding their abilities. I doubt if any one of them had sufficient imagination to conceive logically the complexities of running a society, even the cut-to-measure society they dreamed of. [. . .] What it boils down to is lack of imagination and overwhelming conceit." (Emphasis added.) (p. 104)
* * * 
"I venture to predict [Mordan continues] that, when we get around to reviewing their records, we will find that the rebels were almost all--all, perhaps--men who had never been outstandingly successful at anything. Their only prominence was among themselves."
     Hamilton thought this over to himself. He had noticed something of the sort. They had seemed like thwarted men. [. . .] they were swollen with self-importance, planning this, deciding that, talking about what they would do when they "took over." Pipsqueaks, the lot of 'em. (Emphasis added again.) (p. 104)

Here is where I'll send you back to the quote from Victor Davis Hanson and where I'll just restate that we have seen the likes of these people before, the people about whom Dr. Hanson writes today and about whom Heinlein wrote before him. Heinlein described them as having "conceit far exceeding their abilities"; Dr. Hanson calls them "the arrogant but ignorant." "Pipsqueaks," Heinlein wrote; Dr. Hanson calls them "physically unimpressive." Heinlein understood that plotters are "thwarted men [. . . ] swollen with self-importance"; Dr. Hanson calls them "ambitious but stalled." I'll refer you to Eric Hoffer, too. He understood, as Heinlein did, that the radical political impulse is religious in its aims and intensity. Instead of "thwarted," Hoffer referred to these men as having "spoiled lives," "spoiled" not as in materially comfortable, but degraded or ruined. They are bored and unhappy, self-loathing and alienated. They seek happiness, excitement, fulfillment, and a chance to lose themselves in mass movements of visionary and religious intensity ("wild, uncontrolled daydreams," Heinlein calls them). They are the same people today who are destroying and burning, tearing down and looting, beating and killing. They have never created anything, never accomplished anything; they are small, weak, and ignorant, and so they seek, out of infantile fury and rabid envy, to destroy the things that others have created, to bring down their accomplishments and scatter them in the mud and rubble of the hated, ruined, and soon-to-be-overthrown past. Children. Infants. "Pipsqueaks, the lot of 'em."

* * *

I have just two more things. There are anachronisms in Beyond This Horizon. That's for sure. Part of it is in the way people talk, a 1940s kind of snappy banter. That's common in Heinlein's writing. When it's good, it peps up a story. When it's not good, well . . . . Another is that some of the characters have old-fashioned names: Felix, Martha, Phyllis. The effect is to make Beyond This Horizon pretty badly dated. (Sorry to all people named Felix, Martha, and Phyllis.) As a cartoonist, I noticed another: the protagonist Felix is referred to once as a "Cheerful Cherub," which was the name of a newspaper comic panel from the 1920s by Rebecca McCann and which could hardly have survived into the far future.

There's still one more that is far more troubling.

The man from 1926 comes out of his slumber-stasis and interacts with the superman Felix a couple of times. (This is another of the tangents in Heinlein's novel.) There is a misunderstanding. The man from the past is challenged to a duel. Felix advises him to apologize to the offended party so as to avoid being killed. The man's pride is hurt. And then he uses the n-word.

And Felix, who knows only a little of the distant past, its customs, and its lingo, replies, "I don't understand what you mean. What has your color to do with it?" (p. 145).

So we are expected to believe that not only the word--that shocking and disgusting word--is still in use in the far future and that a man of that future knows what it means, but also that the perception and status of the people to whom it is applied have remained unchanged despite the passage of centuries. That is inconceivable to me, and it shows--despite everything else there is in this book--a terrible and inexcusable failure of the author's imagination. I'm not the first to make note of this. Thankfully others have noticed and objected before me. But in 2018, the World Science Fiction Convention awarded Beyond This Horizon a Retro-Hugo Award for best novel. I find Heinlein's use of the word a terrible flaw in an already flawed book. Was there any consideration of this flaw on the part of WorldCon? Couldn't it have found something else out of the year 1942 upon which to bestow its award? (4) And could such a thing happen now, just two years later? Not likely. Not in this climate. I'm not one for cancellation, bowdlerization, or censorship, but Robert Heinlein should have known better. It was 1942 for God's sake. He should have known better. Why should we award his ignorance and failed imagination now?

* * *

I'll close with another quote, this one from a commenter called WP on the website of the National Review. After someone else referred to our times as "stupid," WP wrote:

"Calling our current times 'stupid' is an insult to the dignity and majesty of stupid."

Give that guy (or woman) an award.

(1) Kind of. Founded by Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood is still in the business of correcting what she called "the most urgent problem today [which] is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective." See her original article "The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda," from October 1921.
(2) Did Heinlein really look with favor upon a planned economy? Maybe so. A lot of people did in those days. The man from the twentieth century who emerges into Heinlein's present studied another one of Progressivism's isms, Taylorism, also called scientific management. Taylorism is often a feature of planned and controlled economies. After hating it, V.I. Lenin came to like it and adopted it in his new slave state of the Soviet Republic.
(3) Keep in mind that genetic superiority and inferiority is the unit of measure in Heinlein's imagined society. Feel free to insert your own unit of measure: it all comes out the same in the end. Put another way, there are just two types among the haters and destroyers: the evil and exceptional (like Lenin) and the stupid and thoroughly unexceptional (everybody who follows the evil and exceptional). The second type is waaay more common. This is the type that is currently running through our streets.
(4) How about Rocket to the Morgue by Anthony Boucher? It's not science fiction exactly, but it's about science fiction. Call it honorary science fiction and give Boucher the award.

Beyond This Horizon by Robert A. Heinlein was first published as a serial in the April and May 1942 issues of Astounding Science-Fiction. Astounding used Heinlein's pseudonym Anson MacDonald as its byline. The MacDonald part was no doubt for Heinlein's wife at the time, Leslyn MacDonald (1904-1981), who was also a teller of weird tales.

The cover illustration by Hubert Rogers depicts one of the most interesting and well-written sequences in Heinlein's novel. That sequence takes place in redwood country in California during the attempted coup.

A. E. van Vogt's story "Asylum" appeared in the following month's issue, displacing Heinlein's on the cover. Rogers was again the cover artist. His green, fusiform craft is practically the same as the month before. Like Heinlein, van Vogt was a believer, I think, in the superior man. Unlike Heinlein, he went down the rabbit hole of L. Ron Hubbard's scam/belief system.

Revised slightly on July 11, 2020.
Original text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A Return to Cozy Dystopia

I'm back again after a month, but this probably won't last very long. There's always so much to do until there isn't anymore. I last wrote about the concept of the cozy dystopia in art. This is in contrast to the more common dark dystopia, exemplified, I think, in Blade Runner (1982), Brazil (1985), and the less well known Batman: Digital Justice (1990). The cozy dystopia is one in which things are clean, bright, and shiny, yet society and people's lives within it, all creations and outward manifestations of the State, are perfectly awful. In Cozy Dystopia, everyone has what he needs except a chance at happiness.

In my conception of it, the cozy dystopia runs parallel to Brian Aldiss' cosy catastrophe. Examples of the cosy catastrophe are pretty easy to come by. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (1959) is one. In thinking about it over the past few weeks, I have come up with a possible cozy dystopia, too. It is described in Player Piano by a fellow Hoosier, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Originally published in 1952, Player Piano has been reprinted many times, in English, Italian, German, French, and even Croatian. I had read a few years back about this book and eagerly sought it out. When I finally found a copy, I dove in and there began a long, long slog through one of the most boring and event-free books I have ever known. I suppose the eventlessness in Player Piano is in keeping with the idea of the dystopian society, which is, after all, one of complete stasis. Or, as D-503, the protagonist in We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, explains to the rebel and his soon-to-be lover, I-330:
"It is inconceivable! It is absurd! Is it not clear to you that what you are planning is a revolution? Absurd because a revolution is impossible! Because our--I speak for myself and for you--our revolution was the last one. No other revolutions may occur. Everybody knows that."
In other words, there can be no revolution after the one that introduces a completely stable and eventless dystopia into the world. 

* * *

By the way, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932) and Logan's Run (1976) might also be called cozy dystopias. In Logan's Run, as in our world of today, there is even a Tinder-like machine called "the circuit" for choosing sexual partners: in the dystopian future as in the world of today, the individual human being is both objectified and commodified. Reduced in the mind of the user to mere material, the object of his desire is literally materialized within and by "the circuit."

* * *

I wrote before about the bread-and-circuses component of the cozy dystopia. In thinking about these things since then, I remember that the place of origin of the bread (i.e., food) and circuses (i.e., entertainment) that currently arrive in such vast supply on our doorsteps is called a "fulfillment center." Yes, you will be fulfilled by buying more stuff, so keep at it, America. Keep climbing that asymptotic slope towards the mountaintop of your happiness.

* * *

So, I wrote last about dystopia. In the interim we have had instead in the real world a taste of apocalypse. The mob has emerged from all of its dark, fetid places and has fallen upon us like a horde of zombies, bent on our destruction. Dystopia and apocalypse are interrelated--there can be no doubt of that. In much of our popular culture, the latter precedes the former. Anthem by Ayn Rand (1938) is a good example of this. Sometimes dystopia grows out of apocalyptic conditions: the aspiring dystopian ruler simply takes advantage of disaster and disorder to construct his perfectly awful society upon the ruins of the previous, far less awful one. Other times, the tyrant and his minions actually bring about the destruction of the preceding society so as to build their new, dystopian version in its place, complete with a calendar reset to Year Zero. That seems to be the aim of our current breed of aspiring tyrants. Apocalypse first, then Dystopia. We have seen people like them before. We will again. We can gain some comfort in knowing that they have always been and always will be defeated. Nevertheless, we should know this: although reality may be arrayed against them, we can't really count on it to defeat them by itself, not, that is, without the customary heaps of rotting bodies, deep, vast mass graves, and chains of miserable gulags stretching from sea to shining sea. We have to take an active part in their defeat if we are to head these things off.

* * *

You're not supposed to give advice to your enemies, but the zombie hordes running through our streets, universities, and television studios should know two things. One is a lesson from history, and it is this: although you as a revolutionary may be the one pulling the trigger today, tomorrow you will be the one facing the firing squad. That's not just a figure of speech: it will really happen, as it has happened before. (Why do progressives always think they're doing something new?) Just ask the ghosts of Trotsky and Robespierre. In the worlds of art and entertainment, Jimmy Kimmel and J.K Rowling have had the mob turn upon them. Margaret Atwood, too, I think. Yesterday these people were progressives. Today they are dangerous reactionaries and counterrevolutionaries. The mob is unlikely to rest until they are destroyed, or at least rendered non-persons, or persons of little or no consequence. Just past his allotted threescore-and-ten, Stephen King has been cowed and now speaks nonsense so as to conform to the mob's orthodoxy. In the process he has made himself inconsequential as an artist and thinker. He probably imagines that he has saved himself. He should know, though, that his time before the firing squad will come, too. It's just that instead of tomorrow, it will happen the day after tomorrow. In any event, we might feel sorry for Mr. Kimmel, Ms. Rowling, and others like them who have been hoisted with their own petards. Then again, we might not.

The other thing that the zombie hordes and their tyrant-leaders might want to know is that there is a poison pill in each of us, poison, that is, to those who aspire to control us. However hard they might try to impose dystopia upon us, they must always fail because we each have within us the means of their destruction: each one of us alone has greater power than the entire State. Imagine that. Here is the explanation: Because the State is made by man, it is trapped within time and cannot endure. The spirit and nature of the individual, on the other hand, made as they are by something greater than man, exist outside of time and are thus eternal and imperishable. The Progressive believes otherwise of course, that the Perfect State is the end point of History and will thus last forever in its unchanging condition, also that the individual human being is negligible and eradicable, his spirit extinguishable.* The poison pill is of course our freedom, that unalienable, inseparable, and irrepressible condition of our very existence. The tyrant may have his run and murder millions, but in the end human freedom always wins and he is undone.

* * *

Sex, too, is a poison pill, a passion so great that it always undermines the efforts of the State. That's why the State always seeks to control it. See Orwell's 1984 or Anthony Burgess' 1985 for explications of the State's antipathy to sex. One of the problems with sex--from the point of view of the State, I mean--is that it is so completely powerful. It is meant to be that way, I would wager, by the one who planted the seed of sex within us. Another is that sex is inextricably bound to love, marriage, and the formation of families. The State cannot tolerate any of these institutions because they necessarily stand between it and the individual. In other words, if the individual loves and is devoted to another person or persons, then he cannot fully love or devote himself to the State--and he must so love and devote himself. He must prostrate himself before the State. Nothing must intervene between it and him, and there can be no other object for him. That explains the statist/socialist/progressive desire to undermine and ultimately destroy marriage and family. We have had that in rounds of recent supreme court decisions, deposited upon us and our Constitution like stinking piles of manure. Look elsewhere on the Internet for this quote: "We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement . . . ." From there it drones on and on as boring and tiresome socialists inevitably do. As Jahn in the Star Trek episode "Miri" might say, Blah, blah, blah. Anyway, too bad for all of them. The poison pill has been expertly placed and cannot be removed. You, the statist/socialist/progressive, can only choke on it. Excuse me if I don't offer you a glass of water or a pump for your stomach.

* * *

*A pertinent quote from George Orwell's 1984, pertinent not just here but to our current situation:
He [the protagonist Winston Smith] tried to make her [his lover Julia] understand. "This was an exceptional case. It wasn't just a question of somebody being killed. Do you realize that the past, starting from yesterday, has been actually abolished? If it survives anywhere, it's in a few solid objects with no words attached to them, like that lump of glass there. Already we know almost literally nothing about the Revolution and the years before the Revolution. Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right. [Emphasis added.]
Update (June 30, 2020): Here is another quote, from a digital flyer announcing a protest at the home of the multi-bezillionaire who sends us all the stuff we so crave: "Abolish the present. Reconstruct our future." Emphasis added again. Note the recurring use of the word abolish. At the protest itself, modern-day Jacobins set up a guillotine as a not-very veiled threat against him. My comment is this: You can't make this stuff up. My thought: I wonder if the protesters ordered their sign-making materials from the multi-bezillionaire himself and had it delivered to their doorsteps. My disclaimer: I did not pay anyone to do these things just so I might look oh-so-smart and my essay oh-so-prescient. Actually, you don't have to be very smart to see through these people and to understand that when it comes to humanity and its endeavors, there is nothing new under the sun.

Utopia 14 (1954), the Bantam Books edition of Player Piano (1952) by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. The cover art was by Charles Binger (1907-1974), who also, as it turns out, did the cover art for the Bantam edition of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1953).

Revised during the day and into the evening, June 30, 2020.
Text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Cozy Dystopia

As you might have guessed by now, I'm really interested in utopias and dystopias. My friend Steve and I were talking about dystopia one evening, and he made a point that people could live in one without knowing it. To put it another way, I guess, they could live perfectly awful lives, not as individuals but as masses in a planned and organized society, and not be aware that their lives are perfectly awful or that their society is the source of that awfulness. There is some attraction in that idea, especially for the storyteller. On the other hand, it seems to me that if your life is perfectly awful because of the structure of your society--meaning, of course, because of the nature of the State--you would know it. You couldn't help but know it, at least at some level. That would seem inherent in the very definition of dystopia. Then I started thinking about the idea of the cozy dystopia and began to have some doubts.

Brian Aldiss coined the term cosy catastrophe, and so he got to spell it the British way. I'm coining the term cozy dystopia, and so I'll spell it like an American. I'm not sure how to define it yet, though. What got me thinking about all of this actually came in two steps. A few weeks back, before the world fell apart, I watched Blade Runner 2049 (2017). The movie has its flaws, but these are minor, I think. This is a guy movie, for sure, but it's also the kind of movie that is seldom made anymore, meaning a movie with artistic ambitions and made in an artistic way. The moviemakers had a vision, and their vision wasn't to make a blockbuster. When you set out to make a blockbuster, art usually goes by the wayside. Trying to make a blockbuster is going about things in the wrong way. Or, to paraphrase Victor Frankl, success is not a goal but a byproduct. You do the thing you're going to do and success or fame or happiness will ensue. (Or maybe will ensue.)

Anyway, that was step one. Step two came when I read a graphic novel called Batman: Digital Justice by Pepe Moreno (1990). I finished it last night. It's a fascinating book in visual terms, kind of a mix between Tron (1982) and Blade Runner (1982). (Think of that: Tron and Blade Runner are of the same vintage.) The art reminds me of Richard Corben's art, which is not digital, but I also saw a similarity to the work of Maxfield Parrish, and I wonder if Mr. Corben (like Hannes Bok) was influenced by Parrish and thereby a lineage was established. There are holdovers from 1980s pop-futurism (like Max Headroom) in Batman: Digital Justice, but there are also some innovations, including the term smart phone, used in a different context than today but there nonetheless in 1990. Another is an excellent term, wetware, applied as one of contempt for human beings by the digital Joker. (It made me think of wet markets.) And there is a 3D scanner that not only scans but digitizes an object, in this case the new Batman.

In reading Batman: Digital Justice, I thought of Blade Runner, both the original and the sequel. It occurred to me that visions of dystopia in our popular culture are always dark, not just in mood, but in literal terms. There is darkness and gloom, rain and smoke, sometimes flashing neon signs at night, also dark clothing, boots and butch haircuts, a general cyberpunk feel. I guess that's to be expected since so much contemporary dystopia is drawn from cyberpunk, I guess going back to William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), another dark dystopia. My idea is that Neuromancer is gothic science fiction, like Frankenstein, and a break from the shiny, utopian, Wellsian/Gernsbackian/Campbellian hard science fiction derived, I guess, from nineteenth- and early twentieth-century confidence, progressivism, and Scientism. Batman, being a gothic superhero, as opposed to the progressive, science-fiction superhero Superman (Batman lives in Gotham City, remember), could only find a natural home in a gothic dystopia.

What got me thinking about the cozy dystopia as an alternative to the dark dystopia is what has become, maybe without our noticing it, a cliché of the Neuromancer/Blade Runner/Batman: Digital Justice type. If the artist is supposed to be an innovator, why not get away from clichés and into something new? Why not a bright, shiny, happy, cozy dystopia? I wonder if anyone has tried it, and if so, what it might look like.

The first question, I guess, is this: Can there really be such a thing as a cozy dystopia? In Batman: Digital Justice, one of the digital overlords, Media Man, provides the people with what the narration calls the vital elements of a dictatorship: "Bread and circuses--it keeps the masses happy and busy, too involved to think about the real world--and things that are really important . . ." That may be comic book-level writing, but maybe it gets to a truth, which is that a perfectly awful society might be possible if the people can be kept well fed and entertained, thereby happy or at least satisfied, thereby also distracted from the problem of their own humanity, including the problem of their own freedom. I think here of the Parable of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamzov or of Brave New World

In every dystopia, the State affords the people their comforts and asks in return only for power over their lives:
"But here [the digital Joker says] in the wire world, we don't know about love. But that's just fine with us 'cause we have a substitute. It's called power! Get enough of that and you don't need love--or anything else."
In a cozy dystopia, the recipe would be the same, but the dish would have to be prepared in a different way. The dark dystopia might be a positive fantasy for some people in the real world of today, but most wouldn't go for it. You would have to offer them the cozy version before they would fall into it. Still, whether dark or cozy, dystopia requires the existence of the State. In dark dystopias like Batman: Digital Justiceperfectly awful societies are imposed only by an overarching State. A cozy dystopia would have to be, by definition, the same kind of arrangement. No overarching State, no dystopia. I think.

Last night I heard a man on the radio talking about moving to Atlanta. It struck me that he is driving to dystopia, to a bright, happy, cozy dystopia, but a dystopia nonetheless. That might be a little harsh and more than a little flippant. I have been to Atlanta, but only once, and that was at about three o'clock in the morning when the spaghetti-pile of interstate highways was pretty well clear and I could get through the place before daylight and snarls of traffic returned. But Atlanta isn't alone in this. There are places all across America that can seem almost dystopian sometimes, not in a dark, gloomy, rainy Blade Runner way, but in a bread-and-circuses, strip-mall, big-box store, restaurant-row kind of way. And when people go home, there they have their bread and circuses, too: takeout or delivery available from a hundred restaurants and entertainment from five times as many channels. But is this really dystopia? In one way maybe so, for if only we can be distracted, then we won't have to confront ourselves or our predicament. But neither the State nor any other institution has imposed that upon us. We have only done it to ourselves. So, no State, no dystopia.

The same question again: Do we live in a cozy dystopia? In the grumpy imagination of Bernie Sanders and his fellow travelers, the answer is yes. After all, he complains about how many brands of deodorant there are available at the grocery store. Imagine what he must think of 500 TV channels and you kids get off my lawn! As a socialist, he prefers to go unwashed, I guess, but he must also prefer the Soviet-style store in which the only things available are the things that people don't want or need. As I've said before, the utopia of the socialist is a dystopia for everyone else. He would impose it upon us, but only by the mechanism of the State, and so we would descend into dystopian darkness. A smarter idea might be to impose a shiny, happy, cozy dystopia, one that the people would welcome because it meets all of their material and entertainment needs. But would we welcome it? Or would our inherent freedom only assert itself once again with the result that even the cozy dystopia would be overthrown. In order to be happy as human beings, I think, we must be free. What the socialist understands pretty well, though--maybe it's the only thing that he understands--is that freedom can also be a source of unhappiness. The Grand Inquisitor knew that, too.

Anyway, should I back away from the idea that we may actually be living in a cozy dystopia? Maybe so. Like I said before, if you live in dystopia, you'll know it, because it will be perfectly awful. You can't be happy and cozy in awfulness. But maybe you can feel awful in coziness--and millions of people do in the real world of today. The self-destructiveness in our society is evidence of that.

There's a lot of sunshiny talk in the world. Too many people sound like Pangloss. Unfortunately a lot of them are or call themselves conservatives. Maybe more accurately they're libertarians of the numbskull variety. Anyway, the talk is of how materially happy and prosperous the world has become--as if materiality is the best or only measure of happiness. (I suspect that a lot of the sunshiny talk actually comes from materialists, atheists, and agnostics, who must believe, I guess, that happiness is caused by chemicals in the brain.) Yes, there is great material happiness and prosperity in the world. We wouldn't want to trade that away for poverty and misery, although millions of socialists, like the aforementioned Crazy Bernie, so want to. I think of the epigraph from Lonesome Dove: "What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream." We are living the dream of humanity throughout the ages: the dream of material comfort and the end of want. No threats of starvation, privation, exposure, war, invasion, or ruin hang over us. And yet we are discontent. And yet hundreds of thousands of people die every year of suicide, drug overdoses, drunken accidents, and diseases of emptiness, self-destruction, and despair.

I don't believe that dystopia in general, more accurately utopia/dystopia, is possible, the reason being that human beings are imperfect and cannot be forced into perfection by the State or any other overarching institution. Likewise, I know that we are free and are made free--we are free, Bernie and Bros, so choke on it--and so we will always rebel against attempts at control because it is in our very nature to do so. We and our freedom are unalienable. The founder of the Democratic Party understood that and committed the idea to paper for all of posterity to read it and live by it. (If only the Democratic Party of today would take it to heart.) In any case, a dictatorship can last for a while--oftentimes a man's lifespan of threescore and ten years--but it must always fail because people are and will be free. Just look at what is happening right now in our country as people rebel against the tiny dictators who have tried to set themselves up in control of our lives and livelihoods. And this is after only two months of lockdowns. Look at what will soon happen--we can hope--in China, the source of so much suffering and pain in the world today. Dystopia can't be made or forced upon us. I believe it's an impossibility, despite all of the trying. In addition, our current society may have its terrible flaws, but I don't think it can be called a dystopia of any kind. But in art there can exist the cozy dystopia, and I think that's an idea worth exploring, if only to break the cliché and try something new.

* * *

I'll be away again for a while. That's why I have given you so much to read. But don't worry, there won't be a test. When I come back, I'll pick up again on Earl Peirce, Jr., whose family is turning out to be a hard nut to crack. His is a really interesting story, though, and I'll have fun writing it. I hope you'll have fun reading it, too.

Speaking of seventy-year-old dictatorships, Dianetics appeared in its first iteration seventy years ago this month, in Astounding Science Fiction, May 1950. That's not Xenu or even a dero on the cover. It's just one of the myriad monsters and aliens of science fiction. The cover artist was Brush, about whom nothing is known or probably ever will be known: How are you supposed to do a digital search for an artist named brush?

Original text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Stars Upon Thars

We live in a science-fiction world, and the current situation is science fiction come to life. Who could have guessed that this would happen? Who else but an author of fiction, of course, a man of clear vision like Dr. Seuss (1904-1991), who wrote tales of what I think you can call science fiction, fantasy, and weird fiction during his long career--or you can call them that as long as you cast your nets widely enough. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database has cast its nets widely enough and has caught Dr. Seuss in its exhaustive lists. Curiously, the ISFDb doesn't list any of the stories you will find mentioned here. But for an example of Dr. Seuss' quasi-science fiction, try Horton Hears a Who! (1954), about a miniature world located on a speck of dust. (It's a nice pro-life allegory, too, if you decide to read it that way.) For fantasy, McElligot's Pool (1947) is worth consideration. And for weird fiction, you should read "What Was I Scared Of?" (1961), a story that will give you the creeps until it doesn't anymore.

There's another tale from the same book, The Sneetches and Other Stories, that is predictive in some ways of what's going on right now. We may not be there just yet, but by indications we soon will be. Soon there will be sharp divides between the two classes of people in America, all in at least three ways. First there are and will be the mask-wearers versus the non-mask-wearers. Masks are demonstrative of your elevated status, your virtue, your great moral and intellectual superiority. Never mind how idiotic it is to wear one when you're in your car--alone--with your windows rolled up! Never mind how ineffective it is to wear one over your mouth but tucked below your nose! Never mind how ridiculous it is to wear one outside--while you're walking in the fresh air and sunshine--alone--with no one else around! (Try to hear Sam Kinison's voice when you read those italicized parts.)

Anyway, not wearing a mask today may relegate you to second-class status in the mind of the mask-wearer. Soon, though, there will be the officially tested versus the officially non-tested, or more specifically, the officially positive-tested versus the officially negative-tested. One will be permitted to go about a normal kind of life while the other will have to remain in lockdown. Eventually testing will become compulsory and the documentation that you have been tested loaded onto your cellphone or your favorite social media platform. And it won't necessarily be just one test. You will actually have to be tested again and again until you have the antibodies necessary for your promotion into the ranks of the immune. In fact, if you keep failing to test positive, the number of tests you must take will become theoretically infinite in number and the intervals between them infinitesimally shorter because our whole society by then will have gone totally insane with OCD and anxiety. You have to test positive before you can go anywhere or do anything!

Finally there will be the vaccinated versus the non-vaccinated. The vaccinated will carry around with them a virtual list of all of the vaccinations they have received to date. They will also receive minute-by-minute alerts for all of the new vaccines that are coming on the market and available right now so don't wait to get yours because you deserve it! And yes, vaccinations and vaccines are plural here because why stop with just one brand? It can't hurt to have all of them, right? Anyway, make sure you carry your VaxPort with you everywhere you go, for only it will open doors for you. Or insert your chip-card into the reader for entry. Or allow the scanner at the door a look at your QR code. Or how about this: a ubiquitous advertisement-slash-public-service-announcement featuring a twenty-first-century Karl Malden who commands you: "The Vax-I-Dee App--don't leave home without it!" Meanwhile, the unvaccinated can't leave home with or without anything because their Crazy-Eyes Governor has posted the vaccination police outside their doors, forbidding them to leave foreverHere's a better idea, though: Once you're vaccinated, you should just get a tattoo as a kind of reverse scarlet letter signaling your elevated status. Only don't make it a letter. Make it a star. On your belly. Like a Sneetch. There's your proof.

The mask right now is only a suggestion. But what happens when positive test results are required for you to gain entry to the beaches where the immune may frolic? And what happens when you have to prove that you have been vaccinated by showing your star-belly to the bouncer at your local place of worship? I have one more prediction to make: the Plain-Belly Sneetches will start paying good money for blackmarket stars to be placed upon thars, and from then on chaos will reign.

By the way, the corona is the outer atmosphere of a star. That's not perfectly symbolic, but you can't have everything.

Copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Earl Peirce, Jr.-Aside No. 1

I guess I made a discovery the other day without realizing it. The subject is Earl Peirce, Jr. His first published story, "Doom of the House of Duryea," was originally in Weird Tales in October 1936. More than six decades later it was included in the anthology Acolytes of Cthulhu (2001). I guess the implication is that "Doom of the House of Duryea" takes place in the same universe in which H.P. Lovecraft's so-called Cthulhu Mythos is set. That implication seems to rest solely on Peirce's mention of a tome by Ludvig Prinn, a fictional historical character who is part of the Cthulhu universe. The problem is that Prinn was created not by Lovecraft but by his young pen pal Robert Bloch. Bloch and Peirce knew each other in Milwaukee. Both corresponded with Lovecraft. But the connection between Peirce's story and Lovecraft's universe appears to run only through Bloch. In other words, the Peirce bone may be connected to the Bloch bone, and the Bloch bone may be connected to the Lovecraft bone, but the Peirce bone is not directly connected to the Lovecraft bone, at least through "Doom of the House of Duryea."

My discovery, if you want to call it that, is that Peirce seems to have been the first writer after Bloch to have made reference to Ludvig Prinn. Bloch first mentioned the old sorcerer in "The Shambler from the Stars," published in Weird Tales in September 1935. (That's the story in which Bloch killed off his mentor Lovecraft.) Prinn's name next showed up in Bloch's story "The Faceless God," in Weird Tales for May 1936. Peirce's story "Doom of the House of Duryea" came along five months later, in the issue of October 1936. Lovecraft, then, missed it by two months, for his first published mention of Ludvig Prinn came in "The Haunter of the Dark," in Weird Tales for December 1936. (That's the story in which Lovecraft killed Bloch right back.) Prinn's name was mentioned later in stories by William Lumley ("The Diary of Alonzo Typer," with Lovecraft as ghostwriter, in Weird Tales, Feb. 1938), August Derleth, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, Stephen King, and so on. Peirce, though, seems to have been the first after Prinn's creator, Robert Bloch, and maybe he deserves a little credit for that.

Thanks to Wikipedia and the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.

Copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, May 11, 2020

Earl Peirce, Jr. (1917-1983)-Part One


I first wrote about Earl Peirce, Jr., on May 17, 2017. I misidentified him then as Earl Monroe Pierce, Jr., based on his age and his residency in Washington, D.C., where Peirce/Pierce is known to have lived. A month later, an anonymous commenter let me know that I had the wrong person and provided a link to an online discussion about the right one. I removed what I had written and promised an update and correction. By then it was too late: my mistake was memorialized in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDb) and you can still find it there today. I pride myself on doing good work. It's not such a good feeling to do bad and to know that I have done bad. It's not a good feeling, either, to know that my mistake is flapping in the breeze of the worldwide web. I'm not a member of ISFDb and don't know anyone who is. I hope that once this new series is over, someone will let them know that the whole mess has been straightened out and that it's time to recognize the real Earl Peirce, Jr., for who he was.

The Peirces of Maine

One of the reasons I misidentified Earl Peirce, Jr., is that it just didn't seem to me that his surname was spelled correctly. We once had Franklin Pierce as president. We know Hawkeye Pierce as a fictional Korean War surgeon. (1) We even have Jeremy Duncan's pierced friend Pierce in the comic strip Zits. To complicate matters, Earl Peirce was also known as Earl Pierce. My mistake was in thinking that the correct spelling was a mistake and vice versa. (2) What I didn't know is that there are scads of Peirces who have called Maine home since the colonial era and that their numbers have included militia captains, wealthy lumbermen, a prominent artist, a well-known (in his time) archaeologist and art historian, and not one but two writers of genre fiction. Only one of them was Earl Peirce, Jr. I'll get to the other--his third cousin--before we reach the end of this series. 

To be continued . . .

The first story by Earl Peirce, Jr., to appear in Weird Tales was "Doom of the House of Duryea," in October 1936 (with cover art by J. Allen St. John). Peirce's byline wasn't on the cover, but his story has proved popular and enduring. It was reprinted in Tales of the Undead: Vampires and Visitants (1947), Far Below and Other Horrors (1974, 1987), Weird Vampire Tales (1992), and Bloodlines: Vampire Stories from New England (1997),  suggesting a New England origin for the writer himself . . .

"Doom of the House of Duryea" is also in Acolytes of Cthulhu (2001), in which Peirce's last name was misspelled (see, I'm not the only one to make that mistake) but which was graced by cover art by the late Gahan Wilson. (I apologize for the poor quality of the image: the Internet isn't everything it's cracked up to be.)

The main action in Peirce's story takes place in a cabin by a lake in northern Maine. If it is a Lovecraftian tale at all, it might be on account of a centuries-old family curse and secret knowledge drawn from obscure and forbidden books. Among the books mentioned are Episcopi (real), Nider's Ant-Hill (real, as Formicarius), and an unnamed work by Ludvig Prinn (not real). The last, De Vermis Mysteriis, was created by Robert Bloch as an addition to H.P. Lovecraft's list of grimoires, both real and not real.* Bloch was of course an acolyte of Lovecraft. Younger by a generation, he corresponded with Lovecraft, and together they wrote a series of back-and-forth stories in which they killed each other off. What is less well known is that Peirce also corresponded with Lovecraft and that he was friends with Bloch. At or about the time that "Doom of the House of Duryea" was published, Peirce was living in Bloch's hometown of Milwaukee. (Not long afterwards he moved to Washington, D.C., with his family.) I suppose that's why Peirce was called a "midwestern writer" in the introduction to his story in Weird Vampire Tales (1992).

Earl Peirce, Jr., seems to have been up on his lore. I had never heard of either Nider's Ant-Hill or Episcopi before reading his story. He also made a reference to an "Enoch" and "the terrible drawings by an ancient Dominican of Rome." I don't know and couldn't find for myself a reference for either. The word vrykolaka also appears in "Doom of the House of Duryea." That's not one you see very often in old weird fiction. There is also a word new to me--shocking and disturbing, too: INFANTIPHAGI. (Yes, it's capitalized in the original.) That word may be new to everybody else who reads it, too, for it seems to have been Peirce's own neologism. Maybe he used it for shock effect, as young writers and artists often do with such things. It's still shocking to me, more than eighty years after he wrote it, but the shock effect can only wear in our current age: I'm not sure that Peirce could have known that we would one day, once again, worship Moloch. One thing to consider here: the eating of offspring by parents (filial cannibalism) and of the mother by her offspring (matriphagy) occur in nature. As a forester, Earl Peirce's namesake--his own father--might have known of such things, or maybe Peirce read of them in his father's library, just as the fictional son in "Doom of the House of Duryea" reads of them in his own father's reeking, mildewy, yellow book of horrors on that stormy and fateful night by the lake . . .

*De Vermis Mysteriis by Ludvig Prinn was first mentioned in "The Shambler from the Stars," published in Weird Tales in September 1935.

(1) Hiester Richard Hornberger, Jr., better known by his nom de plume Richard Hooker, graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine and later practiced medicine in Waterville and Bremen. (Franklin Pierce graduated from Bowdoin, too.) Hornberger (1924-1997) served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and went on to write the original novel (1968) on which the movie and television show M*A*S*H* were based. I imagine he met more than one Peirce/Pierce during his decades in Maine. Maybe one of them provided him with the surname of his fictional counterpart. Hawkeye Pierce's real name, by the way, is Benjamin Franklin Pierce. Remember this: if you draw any line long enough it eventually becomes a circle. Here's another circle: Earl Peirce, Jr., came from a Maine family and died in New Jersey; Hornberger was born in New Jersey and died in Maine.
(2) The spellchecker in Blogger doesn't like the spelling Peirce, either.

Text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley