100 sf

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

#13: Ring Around the Sun (1953) by Clifford D. Simak

“It had been the blade at first, the razor blade that would not wear out. And after that the lighter that never failed to light, that required no flints and never needed filling. Then the light bulb that would burn forever if it met no accident. Now it was the Forever car.”

Ring Around the Sun (1953) is a yarn about androids, parallel earths, mutants, and the death of capitalism. Now Clifford Donald Simak (1904-1988) wasn’t a socialist, but he was certainly a believer in some kind of sf agrarian populism--cornfields, barns, and robot labor. Simak grew up in rural Wisconsin, which would explain both his philosophy and the fact that most of his stories take place, at least in part, in rural Wisconsin. RATS is no exception.

Things start off simple enough. We see the day-to-day life of Jay Vickers, a Wisconsin native living the writer’s life in rural New York. Vickers lives alone, has a friendship with the odd old man on his street, and pines for a high-school sweetheart--straight out of a John Mellencamp song--who disappeared one day after a cinematic walk in the valley. Then things get a little Twilight Zoney. First, everlasting gadgets appear: razors that don’t need to be sharpened, light bulbs that never burn out, lighters that perpetually light. Then big ticket items: cars that run silently forever and houses that function solely on solar energy. World governments secretly fear a coup behind the appearance of these things, even more so when their makers start giving away free food substitutes. Vickers is mysteriously drawn into this milieu by a secret government agent.

Along the way, Vickers finds the door to the ring suggested in the title (a metaphor for a series of parallel earths that circle the Sun in separate timelines), and the key is a child’s top. The worlds are waiting, limitless and virgin expanses suited to cure humanity’s need for lebensraum. A genetically separate strand of humans with extraordinary abilities (“mutants”) have a population redistribution plan that involves these earths. They figure giving away cheap housing, everlasting goods, and free food will ruin Earth’s economy and cause a revolution (so the governments were right to be afraid!). The revolution will bring folks to these parallel earths (it’s complicated). Actually, folks are already waiting for something like this. There are rumors in the media about time travel, and many citizens spend their free time in Pretentionist clubs--groups that pretend to be living in a different time and place. For instance, one club lives like the world is as described in Pepys’ diary (perhaps they are called Pepys Peeps). Anyway, the mutant plan also happens to involve Vickers.

Growing up in a rural Midwestern town myself, I must confess that I sometimes have Simakian fantasies, though I’m not a true believer. Agrarian life is fine in Thomas Hart Benton paintings, but it can be a real bitch in reality. That’s not to take away from Simak’s work though. I find his concept of time interesting in particular. Time travel isn’t possible, rather there are unique timelines that can be traversed, in the case of RATS, by (paranormal?) mental capabilites. And I think his fantasy of elbow room would appeal to many, no? How often do we hear murmurs of overpopulation, overuse, and a human-caused environmental instability? And of course, city life can be a drag.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

It hits better than I do

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

#12: The Space Merchants (1953) by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

“Increase of population was always good news to us. More people, more sales. Decrease of IQ was always good news to us. Less brains, more sales.”

“But--and here’s what makes this campaign truly great, in my estimation--each sample of Coffiest contains three milligrams of a simple alkaloid. Nothing harmful. But definitely habit-forming. After ten weeks the customer is hooked for life. It would cost him at least five thousand dollars for a cure, so it’s simpler for him to go right on drinking Coffiest--three cups with every meal and a pot beside his bed at night, just as it says on the jar.”

Frederik Pohl (b. 1919) and Cyril Kornbluth (1923-1958) first met back in the 30s as members of an influential group of sf fans in New York known as the Futurians (also in the group were Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, and James Blish). The pair, which Thomas Disch referred to as “magnificent smart-alecks,” was unique. Kornbluth, for instance, was rumored to never brush--his teeth were literally green--and he drank black coffee not because he liked it but because writers were “supposed to.” The Space Merchants (originally serialized in Galaxy as “Gravy Planet”) was the first collaboration of many between Kornbluth and Pohl, though their partnership abruptly ended when Kornbluth died at the age of 34 from a heart attack.

I had always heard SM was a funny novel, a humorous take on Wall Street advertising agencies and corporate culture. While the humor is there, I fear readers don’t take Kornbluth and Pohl, who himself worked in advertising for a time, seriously enough. SM is deeply disturbing in its accurate, though metaphorical, depiction of a world handed over to marketing firms.

The narrator is Mitch Courtenay, a high-powered ad man in the dominate agency of the time. He’s given the task of marketing Venus to consumers in order to create a workforce that will strip the planet of its resources. Like all commercial goods and ideas in society, Venus’ true value to the consumer is not revealed through advertising; rather the planet is portrayed as an escape for the individual, a greener-grass community. In reality, Venus is barely inhabitable, and its future residents will live in industrial slums, work long hours, and garner very little pay. Mitch’s obstacles, however, are not the minds of the consumers. Rather, he fears two things. First, the competition. The world of SM is one in which corporations operate in a manner similar to the mafia. Hits are taken out on competing companies, a made man (i.e., executive) can only be offed by permission, etc. So will the Venus account be forcibly taken from him? Perhaps even by another executive from within his own firm? The other obstacle is the “Consies” (Conservationists). Consies believe environmental exploitation is wrong, and they act as a cell-based terrorist organization to stop it. Almost immediately, there are attempts on Mitch’s life.

Eventually, Mitch is given a taste of the consumer life when an enemy (internal office competitor? competing company official? the Consies?) switches his identity to that of a worker in a Costa Rica plant. This plant harvests a genetically manufactured, organic meat substitute known disgustingly as “Chicken Little.” Working in this plant is indentured servitude with all the trimmings: perpetually growing debt to the company, inflated charges for all services and goods (including bathroom time), malnutrition, and a dangerous work environment. But does this experience shake Mitch out of his well-fed corporate haze?

Pohl and Kornbluth’s world is fascinating: police are private agencies who have enforcement contracts with citizens, marriages come in varying degrees of contractual length, Congress represents corporations and not states, and the biggest celebrity in the US is a little person who’s the only human who’s actually been to Venus and who happens to be a womanizing drunk. Short marriages, ridiculous celebrities, corporate control of government, advertising that appeals to sex and death urges…no, it’s nothing like our world. Thank god it’s just science fiction.

Harryhausen Menagerie

Friday, December 08, 2006


Nothing's more sf than a bunch of South American kids (the Gauchos) playing the Iron Maiden classic "The Trooper."