Sunday, September 19, 2021

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

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, 2023 Terence E. Hanley