Donald Trump was hardly into his first full calendar year as president before a chorus of critics and pundits began to use the word “dystopian” to describe his administration and the social milieu that it seemed to precipitate. In March 2017, novelist John Feffer wrote, “Unpredictability, incompetence, and demolition are the dystopian watchwords of the current moment, as the world threatens to fragment before our very eyes.” Months later, Entertainment Weekly ran an article with the hypertext title, “How the Trump era made dystopia cool again.” The A.V. Club and Vulture both proposed that we had reached “peak dystopia.” Writing for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore described our era as “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction.” (Not of, but “for.”) In early 2018, when the internet was briefly galvanized by talk of Oprah Winfrey running against Donald Trump in 2020, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane described that potential contest as “troublingly dystopian.”
What a curious, discomfiting situation we find ourselves in when the buzzword à la mode is 130 years old, and the literary genre we once relied on to explicate life behind the Iron Curtain is now apparently reflective of contemporary America. But what exactly is it about the Trump administration that makes us reach for such specific literary terminology? Is it the sudden resurgence of white supremacy and fascist sympathies in the American heartland, providing a speculative path toward American authoritarianism? Perhaps, but neither racism nor fascism are requirements of the genre. Are we terrified that this administration will instigate a world-ending nuclear conflict with North Korea, and/or Russia—and/or a devastating economic war with China, and/or Europe? If so, the relevant literary genre would be apocalyptic, not necessarily dystopian. Or do we say “dystopian” hyperbolically—reflecting our anxieties about a nightmarish social sphere of distress, confusion, and disorientation? That might be better described as surreal, or absurd. Are we alarmed by the hard pivot away from professionalism, decency, and decorum? Issues like these are more at home in the novel of manners, such as Pride and Prejudice. Or are we simply dismayed and alarmed by the convergence of an outrageous, semi-competent administration and a general mood of anti-intellectualism? That would be a job for satire. Trump himself—bumbling, bombastic, egoic, unaware, unpredictable, unread—would be more at home as the quixotic protagonist of a picaresque, or as a delusional child king in a fairy tale.
It is my suspicion that we call some things “dystopian” for the same reason we sometimes abuse correct usage of “gothic,” “ironic,” or “Kafkaesque”: We like the sound of it, and we enjoy invoking its vaguer associations. But if we’re going by conventional definitions, it is arguable that there was nothing specifically or egregiously dystopian about the Trump administration until last April, when the administration announced a new “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossing, becoming the first White House in memory to implement a standing procedure for separating migrant children from their parents, even as they attempted to surrender themselves legally in a plea for sanctuary.
Dystopia is a rich, heterogeneous, and dynamic category of film and literature. However, when we look at the most successful, enduring works of this genre, we find the same institution caught in the crosshairs of various fictional totalitarian regimes, again and again: the independent and autonomous nuclear family.
Dystopian fiction was preceded by utopian fiction, beginning in 1516 with Thomas More’s novel Utopia. (The synthetic Greek toponym “Utopia” was simply More’s joking name for his setting—an invented South American island—as the word literally means “no place,” or “nowhere.”) Utopian novels were immensely popular in 19th-century England, as humanist philosophies and medical and industrial technologies at the tail end of the Enlightenment combined to suggest a better and brighter tomorrow. Theoretically, a fruitful Eden was almost within reach. Yes, dystopia is commonly described as the opposite of utopia, but this obscures a common trope in which dystopic future societies are presented as the aftermath (or consequence) of failed attempts to bring about an actual utopia.
Perhaps the precursor to dystopian fiction is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s anti-utopian novel Notes from the Underground, published in 1864. Dostoevsky’s skeptical narrator monologues at length on the preposterousness of the idea that science and Western philosophy were ushering in a radical new era of human progress: “Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne.” Dostoevsky’s intention, partly, was to deride and pick apart Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s utilitarian, materialist novel, What Is to Be Done?, in which characters make grand, romantic statements about the joyful founding of an eternal, collectivist utopia. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man sees two major flaws in this thinking. First, if given the opportunity to submit to rational prescriptions for a better life, people would rather be free to suffer. Second, idealism—when taken too seriously—tends to breed dissociation, distortion, and interpersonal alienation.
Today we associate a handful of qualities with the concept of dystopia: governmental overreach, unnatural social configurations, paranoia, state-driven propaganda, digitally panoptic surveillance, and other alienating technologies. However, none of these characteristics are intrinsic to the genre, just as dystopian fiction isn’t necessarily satirical or allegorical, regardless of the popularity of Black Mirror. Dystopia is such a diverse and mutable canon overall that there are no essential commonalities—with one possible exception: a significant distortion of family relations.
Nearly all landmark works of dystopian fiction feature an oppressive governmental order that interferes with what we might term the “natural” process of family-making: choosing a partner and raising a family freely and relatively unencumbered by external power structures. This is observed from the outset in the seminal dystopian novel We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, published in Russia in 1921. Set in the walled-off, hyper-rational future society One State, in which sexual liaisons are overseen by the government, the conflict in We is precipitated by a moment of illicit flirtation, and the principal transgression upon which the plot later hangs is an unlicensed pregnancy.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, fetuses gestate in artificial wombs and are raised by the state. Here, too, an illegal pregnancy is a major plot point, and the word “father” is an epithet. In 1984, George Orwell’s Oceania allows marriage but prohibits divorce, as well as non-procreative sex. Winston Smith’s central offense is his illegal affair with Julia, and it is her whom he must betray to restore his safety and good standing. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag’s unhappy, alienating marriage is the consequence of an illiterate, spiritually unwell society. In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, infants are not raised by their biological mothers but are assigned to families—if they are not summarily euthanized. Even in the bubblegum dystopia The Hunger Games, the action commences with Katniss’s motherly intervention on her little sister’s behalf, sparing her from certain death, allowing her to continue to have a childhood.
The most influential dystopian novel of this moment is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, thanks to the Hulu miniseries adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss, previously a different sort of feminist icon in AMC’s Mad Men. In Atwood’s novel, a near-future United States is replaced by an Old-Testament Christian theonomy in which healthy young women are forced to bear children for high-status men and their infertile wives. This feature of Atwood’s world-building can’t exactly be chalked up to pure fantasy crafted in the welter of creative genius. To borrow a phrase, we’ve seen this before. In an essay for Glamour last year, Jenae Holloway writes that she is “frustrated and jealous that [her] white feminist allies are able to digest The Handmaid’s Tale through the lens of a fictitious foreboding”—in other words, that the show does not strike them as it strikes her: with a sense of “déjà vu.” Holloway’s essay reminds us that an even cursory look into slavery in the Americas reveals separations of children from parents, forced adoptions, and rape as standard to the experience. Breaking up families is not simply a systematic and normalized aspect of state control; it is a requirement to maintain the system itself.
Historically, human slavery may have been a relatively limited phenomena in Atwood’s Canada; however, indigenous families were routinely shattered by administrative bodies between 1944 and 1984, including 20,000 children in the “Sixties Scoop” alone. Conventionally, the non-academic reader or viewer only associates these phenomena with science fiction when the writer works in this palette explicitly—Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred and her short story “Bloodchild” come to mind—but once one considers the potential for reverberations of chattel slavery in literary dystopias, one begins to see them everywhere: in Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” wherein a teenage übermensch is taken from his parents, who later witness his televised execution; in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” where citizens of an agrarian community cannot protect their spouses or children from ritualized public execution; and most obviously Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which depicts a perfect society enabled by the unending agony of a single imprisoned, tortured child.
None of this is to say that participation in a family is categorically “natural,” or what legitimizes one’s existence. The world has more than enough space for people who abstain from family-making. Nor does this observation require us to attempt to define what a family is. What is important is to note that our most successful, compelling, and enduring literary dystopias consistently present antagonists to the nuclear family dynamic. They create rigid legal frameworks around everything from sexual union to rearing of children. This is the dreaded commonality at the root of mainline dystopian fiction: the simple formula, “government authority > family independence.”
Whether you were raised by biological or adoptive parents, older siblings, or more distant relatives—or by a foster parent, or some other surrogate or legal guardian—what you share with the vast majority of humans is that you were once the object of a small, imperfect social unit responsible for your protection and care. This is the primary social contract, based not on law or philosophy, but on love and trust. For better and worse, our bonds to our families pre-exist and preponderate the accident of our nationality. Accepting this truth may be the first test of a legitimate state. It is the illegitimate, insecure regime that seeks to disrupt and broadly supersede the imperfect moral authority of reasonable, well-intended parents—in all of their many forms and situations.
In separating migrant families seeking amnesty, President Trump brought us into dystopia at last. It is a small comfort that he clearly knew from the outset that this action was morally untenable. He told reporters that he “hated” the policy of family separation, claiming that it was “the Democrats’ fault,” the repercussion of a do-nothing Congress. In reality, neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush separated migrant children from their parents as a standard practice. There is no law or settlement that requires detained families to be broken up, and the general legal consensus was that if Trump were being honest—if family separation had actually been an unwanted, pre-existing policy—he could have ended it, overnight, “with a phone call.”
As usual, executive dissimulation instigated bizarre performances lower down the chain of command: On June 18, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen held an extraordinary press conference in which she denied the existence of an official family-separation policy while simultaneously arguing for its legitimacy. Nielsen’s denials were particularly astonishing as two months before her press conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced—publicly and on camera—the instigation of family separation as a deterrent to improper border crossings. In fact, the DHS had already published guidelines explaining the system of family separation and admitted to detaining approximately 2,000 migrant children. The truth was that the institution of a heartless, zero-tolerance border policy was a calculated effort led by administration strategist Stephen Miller, who was also a key architect of the travel ban in 2017. Writing for The Atlantic, McKay Koppins characterizes Miller’s push for this policy as overtly xenophobic and intentionally inhumane, designed to appeal to Trump’s base while also sowing chaos among his opponents.
To our nation’s credit, outrage was abundant and came from all corners. Evangelist Franklin Graham said that family separation was “disgraceful.” Laura Bush wrote that the policy was “cruel” and that it broke her heart. Even former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci described the policy as “inhumane” and “atrocious.” Governors from eight states announced they would withdraw or deny National Guard troops previously promised to help secure the Southwest border. Even Ivanka Trump, who has yet to be accused of hypersensitivity, allegedly asked her father to change course on family separations at the border. Condemnation also came from both houses of Congress, with Senate Republicans vowing to end family separations if Trump did not. On June 20, after repeatedly claiming that only Congress could end family separations at the border, Trump reversed course, signing an executive order that would ostensibly keep migrant families together during future detentions. Technically, this order allowed family separations to continue as a discretionary practice, until the ACLU brought a lawsuit before Judge Dana Sabraw of the Federal District Court in San Diego, who issued an injunction that temporarily halted family separations and required all separated migrant children be reunited with their parents within 30 days—a requirement that was not met.
As far as steps down a slippery slope toward totalitarianism go, Trump’s “zero-tolerance” border policy has been significant. Nearly 3,000 migrant children were traumatically separated from their parents, with some flown across the country. In Texas, children were routed to a detention facility in a converted Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville and a tent-city detention center near the border station in Tornillo—where summertime temperatures regularly approach 100 F. Some migrant children and babies were kept in cages—a term the administration resisted but could not deny, just as the smiling image of Donald Trump in the converted Walmart cannot be reasonably considered anything other than gloating propaganda.
For many migrants, significant emotional and psychological damage has already been done. Recently, dozens of female migrants in a Seattle-area detention facility were separated from their children, having to endure hearing them crying through the walls. One such detainee informed U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal that she told a Border Patrol agent she wanted to see her children, to which the agent replied, “You will never see your children again. Families don’t exist here.” That same week, a Honduran man named Marco Antonio Muñoz, who had been separated from his wife and toddler after crossing the Southwest border, hanged himself in his Texas holding cell.
Not only has the executive branch of this government launched an assault on the dignity and sanctity of the family; they have simultaneously begun work to erode the permanence of citizenship, through a process of “denaturalization”—an action not attempted since the paranoid 1950s of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare. This would transfer the authority to strip citizenship from the court system to law enforcement agencies, such as DHS, or ICE, who would presumably go looking for naturalized Americans who may have misrepresented themselves in some way during their application for citizenship. This situation would subject naturalized citizens to the paranoia and potential exploitation of an East German-like police state, in which they are under warrantless surveillance, threatened by informants, and potentially expugnable for nothing more heinous than a paperwork error. Simultaneously, conservatives such as Tucker Carlson have argued for a referendum on birthright citizenship, the foundation of the equality Americans purport to enjoy. This fits with the administration’s pattern of using diverse methodologies to thwart and rescind legal and illegal residency alike, in what has increasingly come to look like a new front in the multi-pronged effort to alter the racial and cultural demographics of the electorate. This, too, conforms to the genre of dystopia: the existence of a large and oppressed underclass living adjacent to privileged elites, who are sometimes floored to learn that not everyone perceives the status quo as the next-best thing to a true utopia.
If given even tacit approval, policies like separating families at the border will lead to an open season on immigrants—legal residents and undocumented migrants alike—as well as millions of other natural and naturalized citizens who are not both white and perfectly fluent in English. We will see an emboldened expansion of unconstitutional checkpoints at places like airports and bus depots. We will see the normalization of racial profiling. Our children will see their friends taken out of school without warning. They will be disappeared.
But if we’ve read our dystopian literature, we are prepared. To a degree, we are insulated. We can understand this moment in history, and how comforting it must feel to curl up inside the illusory sense of security offered by an impenetrable border, or a leader who boldly intones our weaker ideas and more shameful suspicions, or some fatuous, utopian aphorism about making a nation great again. We will remind ourselves and each other what is at stake. We will remember that the only thing we need to know about utopia is that nobody actually lives there.
Image: Flickr/Karen Roe
“In an ironic twist, Super Terrain, a publisher in France, has created a new edition of Bradbury’s classic that actually requires extreme heat in order to be read.” The prototype copy of Fahrenheit 451, which looks fully blacked-out until you apply heat, may be available to the general book-buying public in 2018. Check out: an essay about Ray Bradbury from our archives.
In the summer leading into my senior year, I received a letter from my literary hero. My mother — noting his famous name on the return address — hand-delivered it to me while I shelved books at the local bookstore.
“This came for you,” she said.
I glanced up from the stacks, read the return address, then slowly unfolded the letter.
There was my name at the top, followed by the backstory: how he’d received a copy of an essay I’d written and been humbled by its contents. Tasked with writing about a “great American,” I’d bypassed the usual fare (presidents, astronauts, etc.), and wrote instead about him — the writer who’d changed me.
“It is one of the finest essays I have ever read,” he wrote, adding that he’d keep it in his desk drawer as a “permanent piece of literature for me to read from time to time.”
And just below, in his thick black scrawl, his signature: Ray Bradbury.
I was dumbstruck, dumbfounded, just plain dumb.
In my stupor, my mind leapt to a June night five years prior, when directly following closing ceremonies for my seventh-grade school year, my mother had driven me to this very bookstore to pick out a book of my choice. It was a rare, late-night bookstore visit, and as I browsed the shelves, pointer finger dragging across the tops of the titles, it eventually fell to Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. I chose it, devoured it, and as a result of its power, rerouted my life’s trajectory.
To receive an unprompted congratulatory note from the man who’d written it — in that very store, no less — seemed a kind of kismet worth capitalizing on.
And since his letterhead noted his home telephone number, I decided to give him a call.
I picked up the phone, dialed, waited nervously for the rings to give way to Ray.
“Hello?” a booming voice answered.
Following a few minutes of cyclical thank you’s and bonding over our shared Midwestern roots (Ray hailed from Waukegan, Ill.; I, from Fort Wayne, Ind.), I at last grew bold, did what any budding fiction writer might when he had his hero on the line.
I lied. Spectacularly.
“You know,” I said, “I’ll be in the area soon. I’d love to swing by and shake your hand.”
“Well, come on over then!” Ray agreed.
The reality was that 2,200 miles separated Indiana from L.A. — no short commute, especially by way of my 18-speed Huffy. And so, I settled on my second best option: I used my earnings from the bookstore to purchase a plane ticket. A few months later I boarded a plane, hailed a taxi, scheduled a shuttle, and at last reached Ray Bradbury’s front door.
At 17, Ray Bradbury, too, indulged in the occasional lie.
“I was going nowhere when I was seventeen years old,” he explained to biographer Sam Weller. “I had no talent. I couldn’t write a short story. I couldn’t write an essay or a poem or a play. So I had to lie to myself when I graduated…”
That lie came in the form of a prophecy he placed beneath his senior yearbook photo: “Headed for Literary Distinction.”
He didn’t believe it, though he hoped to make it so.
A month prior to graduation, Ray was cast in a role in the senior class play. He slipped away sometime before curtain call, making his way to the top of the high school’s tower. “I looked at the setting sun,” he said, “and I knew that this was the last night when I would be famous for a while.”
Yet not for too long. Throughout the 1940s Ray continued to hone his short story skills, publishing dozens, many of which found their way into his debut collection, Dark Carnival. By the mid-1950s he’d become a household name — The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 doing much to solidify his status.
Despite his yearbook quotation, success had hardly been guaranteed. Ray, I was proud to learn, was even scrappier than I was. As a teen, he’d plucked scripts from dumpsters behind Hollywood studios simply to study them. Upon getting a knack for how they were written, he went further by pitching his material directly to the stars themselves.
Scrappier still, a decade or so later — with a pregnant wife at home and $40.00 in the bank — Ray boarded the bus to New York to share his work with editors. On his final night staying at the YMCA, Doubleday editor Walter Bradbury suggested he link together his Mars stories. Ray stayed up all night doing so, crafting an outline that later became The Martian Chronicles, and returning home with a $700.00 check.
I marvel at such miracles; in particular, Ray’s ability to forge his own fate as the opportunities presented themselves. But I marvel, too, at his refusal to leave anything to chance. Perhaps his stick-to-itiveness is best illustrated by way of a story he shared with me during my visit to his home all those years ago. How, as a young, broke, telephone-less writer in L.A., he’d given editors the telephone number of the gas station payphone across the street. His bedroom window flung wide, whenever that phone rang he’d leap out the window and sprint across the street. Then, as casually as possible, he’d answer, “Hello?”
Now that’s how it’s done, I remember thinking. That’s how you become a writer.
The shuttle dropped me in front of the Bradbury home at a few minutes before 9:00 a.m, leaving me three long hours to whittle away before our noon meeting.
I perched on a low wall across from his yellow and white Cheviot Hills home and waited, reaching for my tie-dyed-covered spiral notebook and jotting some notes.
Reading them now, I see a young man so full of zeal that he’s all but unrecognizable to me.
“I wonder if he can see me,” 18-year-old me wrote. “All he’d have to do is glance out his window and look at the boy furiously writing down every word…All he’d have to do is glance.” This continues for a few cringe-worthy pages, eventually concluding with lines that, today, feel a little too good to be true. “For the first time,” I wrote, “as I sit across from his house scribbling away in this notebook, I feel like a writer.”
Maybe it was my variation of Ray’s aspirational yearbook prophecy, my roundabout way of saying “Headed for Literary Distinction” in a more personal, low-stakes fashion.
My final line: “I felt a rain drop and I pray it holds off for another hour.” (It didn’t.)
At noon I made my way up to the Bradbury doorstep: shook the water from my hair, wiped my feet on the mat, then knocked on the front door. His wife Maggie answered (“Well hello there!”) and led me into the living room to meet Ray.
There he was, smiling broadly with red suspenders blazing.
“Welcome!” he called, and for the next hour or so, proceeded to offer me every key to the universe he had. He walked me through the books on his shelf, shared with me his paintings, his poems, his work.
In turn, I committed several embarrassing acts. Including giving him my senior photo (the one with me holding a copy of Dandelion Wine), as well as a baby food jar filled with rainwater and dandelions gathered from my front yard, vintage 1998.
“Dandelion wine,” I explained, and though it wasn’t — not the kind you’d want to drink anyway — he accepted my offering, seemingly appreciative of my attempt to strive toward the metaphor he himself had written about: how we might bottle, cork, and stopper time by capturing a glint of summer in a jar.
“Thank you,” Ray sighed, holding the amber goo up to the light. “I love it.”
For a moment it seemed he’d transported back to Waukegan, to being a 12-year-old boy in his grandfather’s lawn, dashing once more in search of dandelions.
The play-by-play of what happened that day isn’t as important as the fact that it happened at all. At least for me. The real accomplishment, as I later wrote to Ray, was that I’d managed to “transform my hero into my friend.” (Which, if you can get past the schmaltzy sentiment, is an accurate representation of how I truly felt.)
And it’s how I continued to feel through our decade-long correspondence, most of which was filled with affirmations by him and the airing of anxieties by me. In recent years, these letters, too, have become difficult to return to. Not only because Ray is gone, but because that version of me is gone, too.
Who was that earnest young man in those letters? I wonder. What ever became of him?
“I’m in love with my younger self,” Ray once said. “He was lousy, but I love him.”
I was lousy, but I loved me, too. Loved my zest and gusto and “anything can happen” mentality. The way the stars always aligned when I needed them to, the way the bottom-of-the-ninth-with-bases-loaded scenario meant the grand slam was always just a pitch away. Even today it’s an alluring idea: to imagine our lives as one eventuality after another. To dispense heartily with probability and believe in possibility instead.
My essay was titled, “With Zest and Gusto the World Was Saved.” That’s about all I could tell you of its contents. It’s been lost for years, which is probably just as well. If my other writings from that era are representative, then I imagine it was a highly dramatic, purple-prose-infused caterwaul complete with lots of heart and not a lot of substance. As such, I have a hard time believing it was one of the “finest essays” Ray had ever read.
In his letter, Ray noted that my essay had reminded him that he was a teacher, too; that there were people who were reading his words for more than the stories, but for the writing lessons they offered.
My title was a nod to a line Ray himself had written: “[I]f you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer.”
The words are as true today as they were when I first read them. Only now, I know that Ray’s advice transcends writing.
He was teaching me how to live.
“Now listen,” Ray told me as our conversation wound down. “You’re making all the right noises. Most important is that you stay enthusiastic about life.”
He kissed my cheek, called me his son, told me to live my life with zest and gusto.
I waved goodbye, stepped outside, tilted my head toward the rain, and tried.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
“If we had the same dream every night,” Nietzsche wrote in 1873, “we would be as preoccupied with it as by the things we see every day.” The premise is simple: reality, at least what we perceive it to be, is a matter of continuity. But say you devote yourself to a single work of fiction, a single imagining, day after day for the majority of your life. What becomes of the real? When are you inside, and when are you out?
Earlier this summer, Richard Linklater’s nostalgia project Boyhood premiered after 12 years in production. For a few days every year since 2002, Linklater assembled the same cast, centered on a young boy Mason Junior, and shot what Linklater has called a “document of time.” The marvel of Boyhood is that the plain spectacle of the aging cast allows Linklater to subvert the dramatic impulses of traditional cinema. The film repeatedly upsets the conventional setup-payoff paradigm of narrative filmmaking to achieve a nuanced, meandering, and quiet chronicle of the boy’s coming-of-age. Boyhood challenges viewers’ recourse to narrative by honing in on the unsorted miscellanea of growing up: doing the dishes, finding a dead animal in the yard, Mom and Dad arguing mutedly on the other side of a windowpane, irritant siblings redeeming themselves in small ways when it counts. As Linklater explains, “You see how life just accumulates.”
Linklater’s 12-year shoot was motivated by an aesthetic persuasion about what time could afford. The magic of film editing or makeup or 12 lookalike Mason Juniors would have been inadequate to the purposes of Linklater’s sprawling yet understated film epic. Part of the production’s interest was accommodating and incorporating the real-life maturation of its cast: how adolescent postures endure into adulthood, how intonations and vocabularies evolve, how a body transforms slowly, and then all at once. All these personal transformations were then framed within the cultural narrative of the early 2000’s. Consider the film’s soundtrack: a year-by-year survey of American pop culture since 2002, beginning with Britney Spears. A document of time, then, is always also a curation of culture. What Boyhood proves is that sometimes “putting off” work is really a conviction about the opportunities and insights that come with taking one’s time. Call it an investment.
Now, an artist’s apologia can get very slippery, very quickly. Artists are savvy at masking their excuses. Plenty are just plain lazy or too indecisive or too timid to dig in and confront the Beast. So what is the difference, or what is the threshold, between an artist who procrastinates for years and a prudent auteur, such as Linklater, who has a plan? These ambitious, bloated, and sometimes staggering ventures raise important questions about how a work’s scope determines its mode of production. How much time should be spent on a single work of art? Or inversely, how will the amount of time spent on a work ultimately shape what that work will become and what it will mean to the creator? What it will mean to us? I see Ahab on the quarterdeck lamenting to Starbuck: “For forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful lands, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep…what a forty years’ fool — fool — old fool, has old Ahab been!” Maybe the more urgent question is at what point has a work grown too much for its own good, taken on too much meaning? Why do our creative ambitions swell up and run out on us? Why, as Ahab poses, “Why this strife of the chase?”
In 1956, shortly after publishing The Recognitions, William Gaddis sent a registered letter to himself outlining the premise of his second novel: “a young boy, ten or eleven or so years of age, ‘goes into business’ and makes a business fortune.” The purpose of Gaddis’s letter was to safeguard his idea from copyright infringement, a fitting launch for a book “projected as essentially a satire on business and money matters as they occur and are handled here in American today.” One provisional title was JR.
JR consumed Gaddis for the next two decades until its publication in 1975, devouring almost everybody close to him: two marriages, two children, and a swarm of agents and publishers in between. In a 1974 letter to American novelist and film producer Warren Kiefer, Gaddis described day-to-day work on the novel “like living with an invalid,” a sentiment articulated in the text of JR itself when writer and physics teacher Jack Gibbs laments his own project of 16 years, a novel that shares its title with Gaddis’s last published work, Agapē Agape: “Sixteen years like living with a God damned invalid sixteen years every time you come in sitting there waiting just like you left him…God damned friends asking how he’s coming along all expect him out any day don’t want bad news no news rather hear lies, big smile out any day now.”
Gibbs’s authorial melancholy and much of Gaddis’s own strife in completing JR were first figured in a character named Stanley from The Recognitions. Stanley, the novel’s holy fool, is an organ composer struggling to finish a requiem dedicated to his mother. At one point, he explains his dilemma: “It’s as though this one thing must contain it all, all in one piece of work, because, well it’s as though finishing it strikes it dead, do you understand?” Stanley’s qualm is a reiteration of Wyatt Gwyon’s insight earlier in The Recognitions: “There’s something about a…an unfinished piece of work, a…thing like this where…do you see? Where perfection is still possible?”
Literary critic Morris Dickstein has identified this totalizing, perfecting ambition of American authors as the Moby-Dick or One Big Book syndrome. The syndrome stems from an effort to culminate and consolidate “the whole meaning of the national experience” — hence the systems or encyclopedic novel. But a designation more appropriate to Gaddis’s JR and to a distinct set of experimental postwar American texts would be the mega-novel, a form elaborated by critic Frederick Karl in his essay “American Fictions: The Mega-Novel” as robust, multifarious fiction that strives to expropriate and counteract the cultural value attached to “mega.” Think MegaBucks or Mega Rich. The mega-novel subverts the dominative logic of late capitalism by turning capitalism’s multiplicities, apparatuses, and vocabularies back on themselves. Thus, in Gaddis’s words, “by developing and following through the basically very simple procedures needed to assemble extensive financial interests,” 11-year-old JR Vansant ruptures those very procedures of the financial infrastructure. Recognizing this inside-out ploy of the mega-novel, what is really a type of deconstruction, is critical to understanding the scope of JR and other oceanic postwar efforts.
Unlike The Recognitions, JR has no chapter breaks, no epigraphs. It is composed almost entirely of unmarked dialogue. The text reels — a continuous discord of voices and noise: money rustling, traffic, people up and down the street, in and out of office buildings, radio broadcasts, telephone calls, trash disposal, septic cacophony, “somewhere a urinal flushed,” the incessant moan and drone and oversaturation of metropolis. The novel documents the runaway qualities of cybernetic capitalism — a barrage of unfiltered data and meaning, a cultural logic bent on the endless reproduction and circulation of signs — and a child’s ability to exploit and undermine that system.
Franzen famously denounced the novel as a haywire, nonsensical literature of emergency. And then a cast of forefront experimental authors denounced Franzen as a populist pundit. That is not the concern here. The question here is why JR took so long to write.
In the 20-year span that Gaddis was working on JR, the U.S. experienced radical economic, technological, and cultural shifts. The maturation of war bonds and the confluence of corporate power brought about a postwar prosperity and consolidation of capital that completely altered the country’s economic landscape, not to mention hugely symbolic fiscal gestures under the Nixon administration such as the suspension of the gold standard in 1971. Telecommunication, information, and banking technologies boomed: the first operating system, videotapes, integrated circuits, magnetic stripe cards, satellites, cordless phones, personal computers, email, electronic payment networks, the first ATMs. Academia was recruited and incorporated by an immense military-industrial complex that was infiltrating universities in Cambridge and northern California. A war waged halfway around the world in Indochina. Color televisions flooded the market. Family sitcoms were replaced by soap operas, newscasts, variety shows, and daytime game shows. Capital was no longer anchored to anything real and culture was reproducing itself at a mile a minute, all while radars painted the coasts, sweeping for backscatter off something huge and unknowable. People were left to carve lives out of the maelstrom of signs: swipe, go, click, take, look, laugh, lock, switch, cut, ring, watch, wait, are you ready —
And then all of it came crashing down in 1973.
Gaddis, meanwhile, was “being dragged by the heels into the 20th century:” fighting against the nerve-wracking hum of electric typewriters; failing to revert the copyright for The Recognitions, which was being printed unedited in paperback editions without his knowledge; freelancing for media companies; teaching; vying for reviews; calls to Western Union ringing on the phone in the next room — “it’s almost always for Western Union whose number is 1 digit off ours;” and constantly strapped for cash — “Will this tight rope walking ever end?”
Was Gaddis continuously working on his novel day and night for 20 years? No. He was sidetracked by freelance writing projects and teaching positions to make ends meet, gigs that seemed to support his writing in paradoxical ways: “My work on [JR] this spring will be sporadically interrupted by a part-time teaching invitation which I had accepted in order to continue work on the book.” And even when he was able to work on the novel fulltime, Gaddis’s daily reports capture the writer’s infinite means of procrastination:
2:11 got notes for present sequence in book beside typewriter
2:13 suddenly realized I had better get cat food before stores closed
Gaddis recorded about 12 hours of these minute-by-minute escapes. He too was suffering from the onslaught of postwar noise, a ceaseless stream of information designed, it seemed, to prevent anyone from working on a long novel that could expose such a system.
The problem, ultimately, was distraction — distraction from the Task — a danger later elucidated by William Kohler, the narrator and monomaniacal digger of the ne plus ultra of long haul mega-novels, The Tunnel, William Gass’s 1995 doorstop that was 30 years in the making. “The secret of life is paying absolute attention to what is going on,” Kohler asserts. “The enemy of life is distraction.” If Gaddis’s novel was conditioned by the blur of postwar meanings, then The Tunnel’s resolve was a revamped Protestant work ethic: persistent and monastic focus meant to mitigate the barrage of cultural noise and offer some sort of coherence in the “day-to-day wake-to-work regimen.”
William Kohler appears diametrically opposite from Gaddis’s romping 11-year-old JR. Kohler is a ruminative midwestern history professor (with Nietzschean indigestion no less) struggling to write the introduction to his academic magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. Holed up in his basement, his wife upstairs, Kohler begins tunneling out behind the furnace and interposes into his masterpiece his staggered attempts at the introduction: “I slide these sheets between the sheets of G&I and wonder when I’ll run out of history to hide in.” Gass, notorious for overwhelming publishers with ideals about formal experimentation, initially wanted The Tunnel to be published unbound. “I knew I would never get my way,” he ultimately admitted. What becomes clear though is that The Tunnel, in its very conception, was a failed loose-leaf attempt, the detritus of a supposedly greater, more focused work.
The conviction of Gass’s tome, however, is that the detritus of life is what ends up becoming central to our understanding and recollection of it. Shards of thought, flashes of memory, fragments of creation — these are the leftovers and miscellanea that amount to a life, just as in Boyhood, except in The Tunnel, these things for William Kohler do not culminate in the Right Life, not the one he imagined for himself.
Whereas Gaddis’s concerns in JR were the technologies of capital and information, Gass’s interest in The Tunnel was historical process, specifically, the inside of history. In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, Gass elaborated the dark interior of objective histories: “The things that get left out of history are the very things that tend to undermine it, among other things, the first thing, is the historian himself, his nature.” Just as JR folded the procedures of capital markets back on themselves, The Tunnel breaks down the crystalline structure of historical process and deconstructs the inside-outside binaries we often use to describe historical formations. Thus Kohler anguishes, “Why must one bring the world into the tunnel, when the tunnel is supposed to be the way out?”
Kohler finds himself depositing the dug-up dirt in empty desk drawers. He becomes surrounded by debris, digging his way out and his way in all at once, collapsing the distinction between escape and extraction. As Gass has explained, “Tunnels are not always escape tunnels or hiding tunnels…you dig for ore, you dig for gold.” Gass’s clarification offers a profound analogue for the author’s process. The work always takes you closer and further away at the same time, in the same stroke. Every sentence, every shovel-full becomes as self-dissociating as it is self-constituting, and by the same turns. Rather than digging out or digging in, you may just be digging for the sake of digging itself. Ahab coined an expression for this: madness maddened. The metaphor of the tunnel seems perfectly prefigured by Kafka’s unfinished short story, “The Burrow,” in which a nameless narrator manically digs a complex network of tunnels and eventually realizes, “[He] and the burrow belong so indissolubly together.” The stakes are clear: the work consumes you.
Recognizing this wager, the sheer exhaustiveness of the Task, Gass once explained that, for him, The Tunnel “functioned as an avoidance book. Its unpleasant presence made [him] write other books in order to avoid writing it.” The scope of large works becomes overwhelming, unmanageable. Subject matter is demanding, then intimidating, and finally unapproachable. But these tomes are also slowed by more mundane matters of process. The ambitious scales are often counterpointed by the almost logistic labor of line-by-line editing, which, of course, is what any author bargains for. “One thing that takes so much time with JR,” Gaddis once explained, “seems to be that since it’s almost all in dialogue I’m constantly listening, write a line and then have to stop and listen.” In the same vein, Gass’s prose in The Tunnel was haunted by an absolute drive toward meter, rhythm, and precision. He admitted, somewhat resigned, “Who has time to wait between two syllables for just a little literary revelation?” But Gass was nostalgic for a prose style written for the ear, and in a 1976 interview with The Paris Review, in the midst of working on The Tunnel, he waxed, “One used to read Henry James aloud. It’s the only way to read him.”
Are these works, then, merely the outsized products of minute compulsions?
One can’t really talk about obsession, the long haul, and moving dirt without mentioning Michael Heizer, a renegade artist who turned his back on the New York City art scene in the 1960’s for the American desert. In 1972, Heizer began his magnum opus of earthworks, “City,” an immense, stadium sized, minimalist land art installation in the middle of Nevada that is still under construction. Heizer pursues the same type of cultural investigation as Gaddis and Gass. “Part of my art,” Heizer explained in an interview with The New York Times Magazine, “is based on an awareness that we live in a nuclear era.” And in the same way that JR charted the rise of American corporate capitalism and The Tunnel observed the entire narrative of the Cold War, the development of Heizer’s bunker-like environment has not only been contemporaneous with, but geographically adjacent to the postwar saga of the National Academy of Science’s struggle to dispose of nuclear waste underneath Yucca Mountain.
As the U.S. Department of Energy attempts to project the radioactive decay of depleted plutonium and uranium in the waste repository, Michael Heizer and his construction crews sculpt, grain by grain, a massive installation intended to last hundreds, if not thousands of years. Heizer challenges the techniques of military and industrial technology by way of a postmodern acropolis designed to endure alongside and even outlast U.S. materiel waste and the facilities it’s housed in. Better yet, Heizer is monitoring the government’s encroachment on “City,” ready, if the Department of Energy proceeds with a nuclear waste rail line within view of his sculpture, to blow his work sky high. In a state that is 83 percent owned by the federal government, a man and his city resist.
“City,” when it is eventually open to the public, will be monumental. Rather than an installation within an environment, “City” will be an environment unto itself, one that raises questions about bleak military structures and vast urban developments in the middle of nowhere.
Heizer’s project carries the same meticulousness of a compulsive prose stylist. “Mike wanted everything within a sixteenth of an inch,” one construction worker commented, “even on a concrete slab that was 78 feet by 240 feet.” The worker couldn’t quite articulate the concept behind “City,” but he was able to appreciate its scope, which might very well be its meaning: “At the beginning I was lost…was this a stadium?…But gradually I got the idea. I can’t say exactly what it means now, but I know it has to do with history and with making something that will last.”
It has to do with history. A sprawling work inevitably encapsulates its own history, the process of its own creation and the cultural narratives that run alongside it. This was Linklater’s prudence with Boyhood, and this is what happened with Gaddis’s JR. The novel contains and performs its own making, just as The Tunnel embodies the arc of its own development and “City” simulates the gradual rise of a desert metropolis. In composing The Tunnel, Gass recognized that, more than anything else, his primary working material was time: “The narrator moves steadily into the past as the novel proceeds, and there is an increasing sensitivity to what he remembers.” Time folds back on itself: “The past becomes more complete, is more real than the present.” What was true for Kohler was true for Gass:
My mother was an alcoholic and my father was crippled by arthritis and his own character. I just fled. It was a cowardly thing to do, but I simply would not have survived…What is perhaps psychologically hopeful is that in The Tunnel I am turning back to inspect directly that situation, and that means I haven’t entirely rejected it.
The long haul offers a regimen that skirts more stagnate, immediate vocabularies, those kneejerk interpretations that would reject or reduce the past. A novel, while remaining an ongoing task, repeatedly returns writers to the material of the past — old pages, old iterations, the rituals of memory — and the text becomes an experiment in deconstructing the linearity of time, in resisting the organizing powers of historical process. Writing sidesteps the obliterating force of the present, the barrage of the Now. The 30-year creation of The Tunnel took to heart a maxim articulated by Kohler near the end of the novel: “Writing is hiding from history.”
This November will mark the 13th annual National Novel Writing Month, an internet movement launched to discipline writers and spur them into production. NaNoWriMo will bring to mind the many great works that were completed in a sprint, such as On the Road, which Kerouac penned in only three weeks, or Fahrenheit 451, which Ray Bradbury drafted in a basement library typing room in just nine days. It could be argued that rather than evading history, these feverish texts confronted it. Bradbury’s blaze may have been prompted by a fear of the midcentury book burnings in Nazi Germany. Or take Faulkner, who, the day after the stock market panic in 1929, pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and scrawled a title in the right-hand corner — As I Lay Dying. He would complete the manuscript in a mere six weeks during his graveyard shifts at a power plant: “I had invented a table out of a wheelbarrow in the coal bunker, just beyond a wall from where the dynamo ran.”
But Kerouac was accumulating writing on the road for years before stitching together his final manuscript. And Fahrenheit 451 was the culmination of five short stories that Bradbury had been working on for three years. Faulkner’s chronicle of Addie Bundren and her coffin was an extension of Yoknapatawpha County, an apocryphal world Faulkner had shaped previously in Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury. As I Lay Dying was not only a title that Faulkner had tried twice before for earlier works, but the story itself was arguably an outgrowth of an unfinished manuscript, Father Abraham, that Faulkner abandoned in 1927. Fast-forward to 1996, and you’ll see that in his introduction to Infinite Jest, Dave Eggers asserted that Wallace wrote his masterpiece in only three years. Wallace did have an inspired spurt in Boston in the early ’90s, but the truth about Infinite Jest was that DFW had been reworking fragments from way back in 1986.
You see what I’m getting at.
It’s difficult to say where a work of art comes from, to mark precisely when a novel is conceived or to chart the time during which it is made. But juxtaposing works that were supposedly produced in a panic with some of the long haul endeavors exposes the complex circumstances that surround all artistic creations and the ways that process, be it short or long, can be romanticized and mythologized. Artists procrastinate. They also persist. What is certain is that we carry ideas around for longer than we know, and part of the artistic venture is unearthing the source. “It’s almost hard to remember the impulses at the beginning,” DFW admitted. “It’s something you live with for years and years rather than something you just have an idea or a feeling and you just do.” Or as Gass explained of The Tunnel, “To the degree that this is an escape tunnel, you have to hide the entrance. And so the entrance to this book is hidden.” The problem, always, is finding one’s way back out again.
During the difficult stretches, Gaddis may have considered his manuscript the invalid in the next room. But in his correspondence, it is evident that when Gaddis was able to fully engage his writing, he experienced complete affinity with the novel. As the book was finally verging on publication, Gaddis consoled his son Matthew: “I guess the house will gradually drain of strange (I mean unfamiliar not fully looking) faces,” speaking of young JR Vansant and the novel’s cast. After finishing the novel, Gaddis mused, “Maybe I can learn to talk like an intelligent adult again.” Gaddis had not spent the prior 20 years with an old man, nor had he turned into one. He had spent them with an 11-year-old boy, which is precisely why his novel was able to challenge the stultified adult vocabularies about money markets, educational bureaucracies, and publishing monopolies. It is a sentiment captured perfectly in an interview some years later when Gaddis explained that of all his work thus far, he cared most for his novel JR, because he was “awfully fond of the boy himself.”
Does the long haul pay off? Maybe. Probably not. Part of the pursuit is learning to reexamine and shrug off these vocabularies — ideas about investing, spending, and wasting one’s time, figuring out if it’s worth it, measuring output and productivity, taking stock of oneself, reevaluating oneself, earning respect — vocabularies deployed to commodify and valuate our efforts, all in the interest of reducing us to that most basic currency: human capital. Maybe there is no real redemption, but redemption is an old gospel that has been repurposed by slot machines and a culturally constructed nostalgia telling you to Redeem your cash-voucher…Redeem your past. It has to be about something else now.
The operative claim in The Tunnel, which appears early on in the novel, is that, “It is the dream of all men to re-create Time.” That dream, Gass proved, is fulfilled in the exhaustive process of creating a work of art that reformulates and overcomes the technologies of time in modern culture, technologies that would rather have us distracted, defeated, and subject to the slot machine “sleep-to-dream routine” of an over-simulated, over-stimulating network world. It takes figuring out what Time can mean in the first place, before it is dispensed to us, defined for us.
When I write fiction, where am I? More importantly, when am I?
Joshua Cohen, who completed his own mega-novel Witz a few years ago, once explained to me that, “The page has access to all of time.” Gass, it seems, and his ilk — Linklater, Gaddis, Heizer, all of them — discovered for themselves an interstice where every next day they could venture deeper into their own pasts, the underworlds of their own histories. They found that place where time does not flow in one direction, where memories and imaginings fold on to one another, where past, present, and future all become equally accessible.
Illustration: Austen Claire Clements
There was something in the air during the 1950s in America that bred an especially grand strain of science fiction whose like was never witnessed before and hasn’t been since. It was a heady concoction: postwar triumph and trauma, unprecedented technological advances, the true advent of mass media swamping the atmosphere, that psuedo-fascistic hum of nationalistic propaganda and blacklisting, and the incessant reminder that a mushroom cloud could end it all… like that.
Because our national memory consigns the decade to a cultural-studies netherworld of Eisenhower conformity whose only pinpricks of creative greatness could be found in the Beats’ scrappy secondhand Whitmanisms, the science fiction of the 1950s is somewhat neglected. Many anthologies and studies that cover the genre’s supposed “Golden Age” content themselves with the 1930s and 1940s, when the pulps were churning out stiff-jawed space operas and riffs on gleaming cities of the future. The science fiction of the 1960s, with its narrative-busting experimentations is seen as being more daringly au courant and thus worthier of critical attention. Somewhere between the spacesuited squares like E.E. Doc Smith and countercultural innovators like Harlan Ellison, though, lies a golden seam that contains some of the century’s most thoughtful, jazzy, and dazzling literature.
The new Library of America two-volume collection, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, edited by Gary K. Wolfe, dusts off nine lesser-known novels that illustrate the breadth and depth of what was happening in science fiction during that decade. With its crisply typeset cloth volumes totaling almost 3,000 pages, the sturdy box is a welcome reminder of past joys for some readers and a striking introduction to fresh futuristic wonders and Cold War chills for others.
What American Science Fiction first does right is tacking immediately to lesser-known waters. Note that the collection’s title and subtitle say nothing about the “Greatest” and just calls its material “Classic.” By removing himself from the need to quantify the cream of the era’s crop (like the Library’s near-definitive 2009 Jonathan Lethem-edited set of Philip K. Dick novels), Wolfe avoids putting together a decade’s greatest-hits package that would have made for phenomenal reading — Fahrenheit 451, Foundation, Time Out of Joint, Childhood’s End, and Canticle for Leibowitz, would be a few obvious inclusions — but held fewer surprises. This makes for a less-than-perfect set, with at least two of the nine novels (Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time and Algis Burdys’s Who?) not quite deserving classic status, fun as they are. Many of the others, though, are long-overdue for reappraisal.
The opening novel is Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953). It’s a spry satire on consumerist manias, groupthink, and advertising, in which an ad man working on the account to convince the people of Earth to emigrate to faraway Venus gets caught up in a plot that sees him stripped of his wealth and identity and plunged down the socioeconomic ladder (much more slippery in this starkly Malthusian future). The sly jabs at the inner workings of Madison Avenue feel spot-on due to Pohl’s work as an ad man after the war and could have been easily used in a non-genre novel of the time. But more ingeniously subversive is the book’s scabrous view of that unholy nexus of propaganda where consumerism almost becomes equated with patriotism; a dark shadow of the modern era that Pohl and Kornbluth could well see growing already in postwar America.
The only woman among these nine authors, Leigh Brackett was an anomaly in her field for other reasons. The classic image of the twentieth century science fiction writer is one barely removed from the Parisian garret, a writer churning out stories and novels that quickly disappear from print for extremely meager rewards. Brackett, however, was a respected Hollywood institution who knocked out scripts like Rio Bravo and The Long Goodbye when she wasn’t writing for the pulps. (The wit that she honed on films like The Big Sleep also showed up in her late-career work on The Empire Strikes Back.)
The characters in Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955) are far removed from her fast-talking smartass movie stars, though it contains many elements familiar from her Westerns. Interestingly the only post-apocalyptic novel in the collection, it’s set a couple generations after a nuclear war has decimated America and left behind a bone-deep aversion to technology. Her teenage protagonist Esau lives in a straight-laced Ohio village of the so-called New Mennonites, whose quasi-Amish ways had once been thought “quaint and queer because they held to the old simple handcraft ways” but proved an evolutionary success after the destruction. Because of fears that any technological progress or urbanization will put humanity back on the ladder to nuclear war, settlements over a certain size are prohibited. Young Esau is, of course, curious about the outside world, particularly the long-rumored Bartorstown, a secret city where pre-war technology is supposedly still used. Brackett uses Esau’s Western-style adventures away from his little village (complete with torch-wielding mobs, wagon trains, and threatening bands of wanderers on the high plains) as a kind of cautionary tale of a cautionary tale. Fear loops back in on itself in her story where dreams are systematically dashed and a perfectly logical cautionary principle turns quickly into stifling conformity and lynch-prone crowds. Society’s inherently contradictory impulses have rarely been more stark.
While Brackett put her humor on hold for more serious things, for the quick-witted Double Star (1956) Robert Heinlein shelved the half-baked philosophical ponderings that can make works like Stranger in a Strange Land such strenuous undertakings. The novel is a brisk adventure about a jumped-up actor (“The Great” Lorenzo Smythe) who gets hired by some mysterious operatives to pretend to be a famous politician. It’s all told from Smythe’s preening point-of-view, which veers from arrogance (“If a man walks in dressed like a hick and acting as if he owned the place, he’s a spaceman”) to the prideful reflections of a man who considers himself the next coming of John Barrymore. Although the story is set in a future where the solar system is ruled by a Moon-based parliament presided over by a ceremonial Emperor and includes a race of curious, Ent-like Martians, Heinlein’s more interested in snap-crackle-pop political comedy and thespian satire. Like most of the best science-fiction, he keeps the futurisms working in the background and lets his characters move the story. According to the editor’s notes, Heinlein had actually hoped the novel (originally titled Star Role) would “finally crack Collier’s, the Post, or some other adult and not-SF-specialized market.” It’s a sign of how cut off from mainstream literature science fiction was at the time that even a swift-paced story like this with such a rousing the-show-must-go-on vibe couldn’t vault the genre barrier.
A book that was more successful at breaking through into the mainstream market was Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man (1956). Later made into the film The Incredible Shrinking Man, and sometimes republished under that title, it takes a stupendously simple premise — a man named Scott starts shrinking one day; nothing the doctors do can stop it — and investigates all of its physical and emotional effects with precise and empathic acuity. Like many of the novels in this set, Matheson’s story focuses on people trying to adapt to impossible circumstances. Most of the novel is set in the basement of Scott’s house, where he has been lost ever since shrinking down to a few inches in height. While he battles each day to survive — trying to avoid drowning in tiny drops of water, nibbling on giant cracker crumbs, evading a monstrous spider — Matheson weaves in flashbacks about his descent from husband and father to curiosity, annoyance, and finally mystery. Matheson’s best work, like I Am Legend, has always had a depressive, existential quality to it, and this is no different. There’s very little of that stereotypical gee-whiz factor here that one would associate with science fiction of the era, and quite a bit more horror about losing one’s humanity.
The what-is-human? question gets gnawed over in a couple other novels here. The lesser of the two is Algis Burdys’s Who?. It’s a comparatively straightforward Cold War-styled story that translates Le Carre’s Smiley / Karla dialectic into a slightly futuristic setting where the worldwide conflict of stasis is being waged between the Allied Nations Government and Soviet Socialist Sphere. An Allied scientist, Lucas Martino, who was horribly wounded in a lab explosion and somehow ended up in Soviet hands, is returned to the Allies as a heavily metalized cyborg creation. Theoretically he’s Martino, but nobody quite buys it. There are plentiful possibilities for exploration here, but they’re hampered by some square-jawed dialogue (“Aren’t we all human beings?”) and a less-than-thrilling plot.
Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1953) also digs into this investigative conundrum, but with many novels’ worth of imagination. With the care of the true master and the audacity of a magician, Sturgeon weaves together the stories of several young people who discover they have some form of telekinetic abilities and then merge into a unit that’s part-family and part post-homo sapiens multi-unit being. Together, the near-silent idiot savant, the developmentally disabled baby who can’t speak but mentally communicates like a genius, and the teleporting twins must both fight to survive in a threatening world and also understand the limits of their awesome powers. What thrills in the novel isn’t the wow factor of what they can do (teleportation and the like), it’s the dark chill of Sturgeon’s prose. It careens from gothic, Shelley-esque views of the monster-at-loose to the anguished Steinbeck-ian trauma of the outsider, cockeyed humor, fairytale wonder, and some potent examinations of morality (it’s easy here to see the influence the book must have had on Thomas Disch’s work), this is very simply a marvelously resonant and haunting work that can stand easily among the other great novels of the decade.
In A Case of Conscience (1958), James Blish also tackles themes as weighty as Sturgeon, but with much less impact. One of the few books here that spends any substantial time off-Earth, Blish’s novel has a scientific commission studying whether the distant planet of Lithia is good for colonization and whether its twelve-foot reptilian natives are safe for human contact. A potentially dynamic plot about the first Lithian coming to a crowded Earth — moved mostly underground after pollution and war — and fomenting revolution gets lost in knotty theological arguments put forward by a Jesuit member of the commission. It all ends in an anarchic and potentially xenocidic muddle, but Blish at least keeps his prose passionately engaged throughout.
More of a muddle is Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time (serialized 1958, published as novel 1961). One of his “Change War” stories about an epic conflict being waged across all time periods by two vaguely delineated groups (the Spiders and the Snakes), it takes place in a so-called “Recuperation Station” for soldiers returning from their hopscotch missions. Narrated by Greta, a former Chicago girl who works there as an entertainer, the novel begins with high promise:
Our Soldiers fight by going back to change the past, or even ahead to change the future, in ways to help our side win the final victory a billion or more years from now. A long killing business, believe me.
Leiber brings the fast-talking brio of his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser tales to this high-concept piece, using Greta to give it a raggedly funny and sad voice. But as the story progresses, with concerns rising over the increasingly shredded fabric of time and the possibility of deeply cynical manipulations behind the scenes, Leiber’s volleying dialogue tends to spiral out of control and blur his already tangled narrative. There’s almost more vision here than Leiber know what to do with; there are worse problems.
The jewel of this collection is Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956). A rocketing fantasia alight with apocalyptic Blakean visions and flights of fancy (it was published in England as Tiger! Tiger!), it’s the “vengeful history” of one Gulliver Foyle. Sole survivor of an attack on his spaceship, he is spotted and then left for dead by another ship that happens to come by. Burning with supernova rage, he becomes a singleminded machine for revenge, a spaceshifting precursor to Donald E. Westlake’s Parker. Tearing through Bester’s kaleidoscopic vision of a future where now-commonplace teleporting, or “jaunting,” has fundamentally altered society (in one instance: nobody bothers building fences anymore), Foyle is one of the great science-fiction antiheros. Around him, Bester crafts one of science fiction’s most memorable worlds, a gilded time of corporate clans (Sherwin-Williams, Esso, Greyhound), disappearing racial differences (again, jaunting), and outlawed religion. It’s a baroque style unusual for science fiction of the time, but instead of weighing down the story, Bester’s decorative lines help it sing. His opening lines seem just as fresh now as then:
This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying… but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice … but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks, but nobody loved it.
At its best, science fiction is always considering history, where we stand in it, where it’s taking us, how we’re mangling or ignoring it. This is a collection that does all of that, and delivers some of the American century’s most sparkling fiction, to boot.
It would seem that Ray Bradbury’s sole association with the Middle East was the spurious allusion to his most famous novel in the title of Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing documentary screed against the Iraq War, Fahrenheit 9/11. (Bradbury abhorred the allusion, even calling the left-wing film-maker a “screwed a-hole.”)
Little did Moore know that Bradbury’s bond to the Middle East was actually a strong one, especially to Baghdad, the city his imagination inhabited. “We must be,” he often liked to say, “tellers of tales in the streets of Baghdad.” According to the best known study on Bradbury, Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction, this was “the central notion of his authorship.” Bradbury saw himself in the same tradition as the fantasy storytellers of Baghdad, of The Thousand and One Nights.
Most critics will find the notion that Bradbury’s stories owed anything to the Arabic literary tradition as startling as the stories themselves. But Bradbury’s self-definition as an Arab storyteller mustn’t be ignored. Indeed, the science fiction tradition to which he by all rights belonged arguably began with a story by the medieval Arabic physician Ibn al-Nafis, whose 13th-century novel, translated as Theologus Autodidactus, is cited as the first science fiction novel, not to mention the science fictive attributes of the Theousand and One Nights themselves, as noted by writers from Robert Irwin to Gilbert Adair.
Their imprint on Bradbury’s work is little-noted and buried beneath subtle allusions. Unlike his colleagues in the canon, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein , or Isaac Asimov, little of Bradbury’s narrative concerns futuristic, dystopian descriptions, preferring, as Gerald Jonas puts it, “cozy colloquialisms and poetic metaphors” — which happens also to be a succinct summary of the Arabic oral tradition Bradbury claimed for himself. The Martian Chronicles narrated the conquest of Mars with little technological detail — as one astute blogger notes: “He didn’t focus on the engineering, his rocketship stories were clearly more influenced by the Thousand and One Nights than by the moon landings.” Bradbury acknowledged this debt more openly in his short story collection, The Illustrated Man, which adopts the frame narrative of the Nights, weaving unrelated short stories together, all told by the eponymous protagonist’s talking tattoos; the Illustrated Man, of course, is a re-invention of Scheherazade.
But like The Thousand and One Nights, his stories were no mere fantasies; they pretended to entertain, all the while scabrously censuring not just the societies its characters inhabited, but those its audience inhabited too. Be it Scheherazade in the ancient past or Guy Montag in the distant future, they are concerned with abuses of authority in the present. Guy Montag’s role as a book-burning fireman was once most relevant to a McCarthyite America whose censorship of dissident views began to resemble the totalitarian tendencies it supposedly opposed. That was the 1950s. Today, Fahrenheit 451’s lessons are less relevant to America than they are to another region, a region close to Bradbury’s heart.
Michael Moore so angered Bradbury because the film Fahrenheit 9/11, with its provocative subtitle, “the temperature at which freedom burns,” trivialised his warnings. Bradbury believed America had truly recovered from her perturbing past proclivities. “I don’t believe that any of the governments of the past 60 years, including the current one, are guilty of using war to aggrandize their power.” he once said. But the film’s concern with the Iraq war did edge the novel’s relevance towards the region where those perturbing proclivities are these days most widespread.
For it is the Middle East that now has most to learn from Bradbury. I don’t mean his whimsical solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “to create a new Jewish homeland in South Florida,” even if many in the region are likely to sympathise. The Middle East remains by far the most censored place on earth with more banned books than the library of a Roman Catholic parochial school. Where flag-burning and cartoon-burning are well-documented, the escalation into book burnings is a justified fear.
This refocusing of Bradbury’s relevance is only to be expected. When writing Fahrenheit 451, he was in fact thinking of the Middle East all along: “I wasn’t thinking about McCarthy so much as I was thinking of the library of Alexandria 5,000 years [sic] before.” In the Egypt I inhabit “5,000 years” later, voters are currently faced with a choice between Islamist repression or repression of Islamism, two authoritarian candidates with little appreciation of freedom of expression. No one has advocated book-burnings, but book-bannings — a less gruesome cousin — remain the order of the day, many politicians even calling for the infliction of that fate on Egypt’s own greatest novelist, Naguib Mahfouz. No wonder that a few years ago a cultural exchange promoted by the National Endowment for the Arts picked Fahrenheit 451 as the focus of reading groups in Cairo and, unmissably, Alexandria.
My Middle Eastern memorial to Ray Bradbury may seem an unorthodox one, but it is the one he doubtless desired. When asked how he would like to be remembered, he gave an answer that sadly none of the obituarists have recalled:
“Arriving in Baghdad,” he instructed, in Conversations with Ray Bradbury, “walk through the marketplace and turn down a street where sit the old men who are the tellers of tales. There, among the young who listen, and the old who say aloud, I would like to take my place and speak when it is my turn. It is an ancient tradition, a good one, a lovely one, a fine one. If some boy visits my tomb a hundred years from now and writes on the marble with a crayon: He was a teller of tales, I will be happy. I ask no more than that.”
Of course, like a medieval jester in Baghdad, he pretended to be a mere teller of tales. Let us in the Middle East not forget that he was also a teller of truths.
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