Interlude: Bad Day at Work
“The Russian propaganda system began to blast us as soon as they had worked out a new line. The whole thing was an ‘American Imperialist fantasy.’ I wondered why the titans had not attacked Russia first; the place seemed tailor-made for them. On second thought, I wondered if they had. On third thought, I wondered what difference it would make.”
Let’s get something straight, Robert Heinlein (1907-1988) was a great writer--he’s known as the “Dean of Science Fiction” for god’s sake--but he was also an irritating, perplexing, stubborn son of a gun, too. His novels overflow with machismo, radical individualism, libertarian ideology, and militarism. But if you can stomach the ride, it’s fantastic.
The Puppet Masters is from an early part of his career (he didn't start writing until he was 32) and one of his most entertaining novels. A page turner about slug-like creatures that invade Earth (landing first in that Mecca…Grinnell, Iowa), attach themselves to the spines of humans, and rule their “puppets,” body and mind. Anti-communist propaganda? You bet. The affected zones are red (gee, what color is associated with communism?); the liberated zones are green (what’s the color of money?). The slugs are intellectual but devoid of culture and physical ability. They secretly take over positions of power, they scare citizens with false news stories and misinformation, and they are sexless (what could be worse? One of the main characters, a hottie named “Mary,” is able to “sniff” out the “hagridden” men by seeing if they are attracted to her or not. Yikes!). On top of that, there is a subplot about a freaky human commune gone bad, people run around naked to prove they are free of parasites, and there are some not too subtle jabs at American liberalism. It’s always a political feast with the H-man!
The book is written in first-person, with a feverish narrative that seems to be fed on the hardboiled writers of the time. It gives a particularly delicious entertainment to the novel, especially when the narrator becomes the host for his own sluggy parasite. There’s also the strange, typically Heinleinian characters: a strong and resourceful woman who’s ready to bootlick her lover like a pet after he treats her like dirt (“I’ve loved you ever since you slapped me.”), the cold father figure who uses his “children” like Kleenex and later claims it’s to build character, ineffectual members of Congress, a perception-driven President, and a narrator who’s as likely to crack a terrible joke as cry (Heinlein’s idea of a strong man).
I’ve got much more to say about Heinlein (like the Socialist party membership he tried to hide evidence of later in life), but there’s plenty of time for that--this is the first of a couple of his novels on David Pringle’s list. And with reason. Heinlein is one of the heavy hitters from one of the most popular periods in sf’s history.
(P.S. There’s a really bad movie version that stars Donald Sutherland…don’t bother.)
Since Heinlein is next, I thought we might all enjoy this visually pleasing trailer for an adaptation that’s not really being made.
"They came because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, because they felt like Pilgrims or did not feel like Pilgrims. There was a reason for each man. They were leaving bad wives or bad jobs or bad towns; they were coming to find something or leave something or get something, or dig up something or bury something or leave something alone. They were coming with small dreams or large dreams or none at all. But a government finger pointed from four-color posters in many towns: THERE’S WORK FOR YOU IN THE SKY: SEE MARS!”
Some favorites of mine:
“The Earth Men”: When the second expedition lands on Mars, the native Martians find the human astronauts crazy and put them in a mental institution.
“The Third Expedition”: The third Earth party finds Mars populated by humans from the 1920s, including several dead family members and friends. As they reunite with their lost loved ones, the captain spends a sleepless night next to his formerly dead brother pondering the best way to execute a sneak attack on foreign invaders. Wouldn’t...really take them by surprise? Still makes my skin crawl.
“Night Meeting”: A human and a Martian from the past (maybe?) meet at the crossroads of space and time. Whose perception of the “present” and “truth” is most valid? Does it matter?
“Way in the Middle of the Air”: All the black folk in a southern town board rockets for Mars to flee Jim Crow. A sole white taskmaster tries to stop them.
“There Will Come Soft Rains”: Probably one of the most famous and popular science-fiction stories ever. A self-sufficient house continues its daily chores after its inhabitants are vaporized in the explosion of an atom bomb.
“The Million-Year Picnic”: The last refugees of war-torn Earth meet the next generation of Martians.
"Generations come and go, but the earth abides forever." --Ecclesiastes 1:4
Stewart (1895-1980) was a literature professor at the University of California, and he’s thought to have used the real-life case of Ishi (“man”), the last surviving member of an American Indian tribe who surfaced in California in the early 20th century, as inspiration for the main character in Earth Abides, Isherwood “Ish” Williams. Ish is a graduate student in geography who’s out in the hinterlands when a terrible viral plague washes out most of the human population. When he comes to find what’s happened, he looks at the incident in almost Malthusian terms and decides to become the documenter of the natural world sans humanity. Later, he becomes the leader of a new community called The Tribe, along with his lover/partner Em (who is clearly, though not explicitly said by Stewart, black--how amazing is that for a 1949 science-fiction novel?). The rest of the novel sees Ish’s frustration in trying to instill culture and creative thought (i.e., what he calls “civilization”) in a group that’ll have none of it--food and supplies are too easy to get from the stores, and who needs book learning when there’s no human society outside the small group? In the end, we see the real direction of humanity after civilization fails, and you’ll have to find out for yourself what that is.
This is truly a lost classic. Once a book taught in high school and college English classes, try finding ten people who’ve even heard of it now. And that’s a shame because it’s fantastic. The post-apocalyptic subgenre, along with dystopian literature, has been the backbone of sf writing during large periods of its history. This particular member of that subgenre is unique. No biker gangs warring over gasoline or large insects prowling the Arizona desert or apes ruling over humans in slavery. Stewart instead ponders the effects humans have on the natural world, and he takes a refreshingly pragmatic view on how easily/difficultly the leftover humans would survive if 99.9% of us kicked it tomorrow.
"War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength."
I must embarrassingly admit that I don’t know if this was the first time I’ve read 1984 cover to cover or not. I’ve certainly tried to read it a couple of times in the last few years and never made it through to the end for one reason or another. And really there’s no excuse because it’s not that long of a novel and the language is simple yet poetic. Most everyone is probably familiar with the plot: Winston Smith mentally and physically sins against a future government, which regulates top down through surveillance, manipulation, and torture. Orwell (aka Eric Blair 1903-1950) originally titled the book The Last Man in Europe, in reference to the fact that Smith appears to be the only human who still hides his real self…in a tiny section of his brain no less. And if he really is the last, then humanity is royally fucked because... Well, I can’t really tell you that, can I?
I’ve come to agree with Neil Postman’s argument that the world we live in is much closer to (or perhaps actually is) the world of Huxley’s Brave New World and not 1984, though the fear of Big Brother runs rampant through pop culture, conspiracy theories, and the political fears of the far right and left. While reading the book this time, I couldn’t help but think the novel is more of a reflection of European fears and despotic fantasies in the 1940s than America in the 21st century. I don’t think most Americans would recognize or understand Orwell’s portrayal of European socialism (as both he wishes and fears), proletarian culture, or Goldstein’s concepts of class consciousness and division of power as anything other than being part of something they know as “fascism.” But that’s not to say that parts of American culture aren’t seen in the novel.
1. Newspeak--the idea that language is more malleable by the elite when vocabulary is shrunk and ambiguities and shades of truth are eliminated through word choice and word corruption. This makes me think of two things in American culture. The first is the current executive administration, particularly its figurehead--limited vocabulary, black and white definitions, shrewd word choice. His inelegance creates meaning which is shielded from criticism by pseudo-pragmatism, jingoism, and fantastic constructions of “strength.” The second thing is advertising. If anything is a direct reflection of Newspeak in our culture, it’s this. Let’s all call it Adspeak for god’s sake.
2. Internal class warfare. Whether Americans want to admit it or not, the US is a class-based society. Perhaps there aren’t the same minute delineations as there are in a society like Britain’s, but Goldstein’s rather simplistic but bell-ringing truths about the three main strata of society and the realities of internal conflict are present. One out of every three US Senators is a millionaire. That’s compared to the less than 1% who are in the general population. And, of course, just by being in Congress, every member receives a six-figure salary from that job alone. But the US isn’t really ruled by the rich, is it? Certainly middle-class values don’t have an effect on urban decay, civil design, and social services, right?
3. Surveillance. I won’t even get into the federal standards on the issue. Instead, I’ll just mention that it’s my belief that the up-and-coming generations are becoming more and more comfortable in handing their privacy over. Look at any site for teen blogs. They’ve become confessionals--including biographical data, personal writings once reserved for “Dear Diary,” photos, and intimate video--that can be accessed by everyone from classmates to strangers halfway around the world. I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but I do worry about where this is headed, particularly if polling data does accurately reflect the belief in the general population that safety is more important than liberties and rights.
**But all this leads right back into my initial point that Brave New World might be here--a society governed by soft fascism and too entertained to care.**
Orwell's novel is fascinating, even if an incredible downer at times. Proof of his writing’s power is in all the words we’ve incorporated into everyday speech from it: Big Brother, Orwellian, Thought Police, doublethink, and so on. Now it’s certainly speculative fiction, but is it science fiction? Rocketships and space aliens? No. Future technology like all-seeing televisions, speculation on humanity’s future and the future of warfare? Yes. Does it really matter considering it’s a thought-provoking, well-written novel? Not really.