#6: Limbo (1952) by Bernard Wolfe
“So then: Immob started as a joke. A joke that miscarried. But every one of the big Salvationist movements in history--from the Ten Commandments all the way down to the Mormons’ Later Day Sainthood and Christian Science and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Fletcherism and Bolshevik-Leninism and Dianetics and Orgonotics and Santa Monica Vedanta and Mandunga--every one of them started out as a great Swiftean joke. That some humorless man got hold of and took literally.”
Wolfe (1915-1985) is an interesting figure with a diverse background. A BA in psychology from Yale, he spent 2 years in the Merchant Marine before working as an editor, writer, and journalist. He also served for a time as one of Leon Trotsky’s bodyguards, and, judging by this novel, he was a raging misogynist. But with that said, I must say that Limbo is clearly one of the best sf novels ever written by an American in terms of ideas and literary value, which makes the fact that it’s a very, very difficult book to find that much more sad and frustrating. I have to admit that I myself had never heard of the book until I picked up David Pringle’s text five years ago, and I’m not sure why that is. Wolfe’s investigation of the possibilities of cybernetics predates similar issues addressed by cyberpunk writers by almost 30 years. How has this book been so forgotten?
The story revolves around the figure of Dr. Martine, a neurosurgeon who went AWOL from the military 18 years prior to the novel during a time when World War III is being waged by the States and the Soviets, both controlled militarily by EMSIAC: MAD computer strategists bent on total victory. Martine spent those eighteen years performing lobotomies for a tribe of pacifists (who are such because of the lobotomies) on a secluded island near the Indian Ocean. Martine has mixed feelings about the surgery because it removes not only aggression but also its “Siamese twin” the ability to orgasm. Martine flees when a group from the Island Strip (the remnants of the United States) arrives. Oddly, the folks that show up are all quad amputees wearing powerful mechanical prosthetics.
Martine eventually ends up on the Island Strip and finds a world where men (and only men) voluntarily have their limbs amputated as a sign of their pacifism (know as “Immob,” as in immobilization). Philosophically these men are split into two groups: pro- and anti-prosthetics. The pro-pros are comprised of folks like the ones who arrived at Martine’s island. The anti-pros spend the rest of their lives in baskets, cared for by sisters, wives, mothers, etc. Martine is horrified by all this, and he becomes almost delirious when he finds out…Immob’s principles are based on Martine’s own journal writings from his time in the military! Satirical jokes he made about the sacrifices of young men were taken seriously, and he is held up as a martyr for the cause. The fascinating conceit here then is the idea of a society’s savior being able to return “after death” to witness the distortions of his writings and thoughts and then comment on them. One can only imagine if someone like Marx was able to do the same thing.
Limbo is loaded (pun intentional) with sexual frustration, Freudianism, metaphorical castration, and even a couple of highly disturbing rape scenes. There’s no question that Wolfe knew Civilization and Its Discontents backwards and forwards, and that’s equally true of his character Martine. It often seems that Martine’s major qualms with Immob are its progression towards voluntary castration and its resultant flip-flop in sexual predation. Of course, women are not really up to the task of being sexual hunters for Wolfe, and Martine suggests that “when a woman [is] cavalier in her handouts, the suspicion [arises] that what she [has] to offer [is] less a rare gourmet’s delicacy than a soggy free lunch.” And there’s a lot more of that type of thing in the book, which is a fascinating and quite disturbing look into the mind of a writer dealing with the tensions and frustrations of the cold war, women’s lib, and the beginning of modernism’s slow death. But by no means is that a reason to throw the book on the fire. Wolfe’s sexual dwellings are at least honest, and I think it’s awfully difficult to separate ideas about human/machine relationships, international conflicts, and power relations between developed and developing nations from sexuality and gender. And sex isn’t Wolfe’s only focus. The book is filled with the complexities of pacifism, the individual’s responsibilities to society, and just what handing culpability over to a machine (namely a computer) means. But as LeVar Burton says, don’t take my word for it…