By John Clute
22 October 2012
Working all day for the sugar in my tay, I've spent most of my hours in recent years helping complete the third edition of an encyclopedia of science fiction whose first version was conceived in 1975, when it was a different world; and during this extended period have found myself increasingly banjaxed by the death/not-death of SF, less like death than Frankenstein splitting his trousers. Which means plenty of entries to write: nobody reads SF any longer but everybody does. So trying to follow the spoor of fantastika in 2012 is an obvious part of the job description. The perplex is the twentieth century: trying to describe the past as though it were real, to anatomize the frog that was galvanized into Frankenstein without succumbing to the Whig fallacy that Gary Shteyngart was an inevitable improvement upon Hugo Gernsback, to honour the frog qua frog so perfectly adapted to its pond. It's hard all the same in 2012 not to describe the pond without going on about the pesticides that poisoned the good life, the poison manna that we sucked like tit: readers, writers, scientists, we all bought the dream without considering the mortgage, utopia minus Trump. Indeed, we half thought we had created something called the future. We may have been a quarter right. It is the task of any encyclopedist to honour that fragile seed of rightness, while keeping in mind that nobody today—except the occasional planet-owes-me-a-living libertarian in his fuel-hungry keep—can really think 1940 would have gone according to plan if it hadn't been betrayed. Whatever happened to the World of Tomorrow?
This is not really the place (it's not SF as such) or time (it appeared in 2009) to say much about Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, Brian Fies's neat elegiac graphic novel about how America tried to create the future mapped out in the 1939 New York World's Fair, especially as the only SF writer mentioned is Arthur C. Clarke; but it might be worth noting that Fies's is an anatomy with love, you hardly feel the scalpel, and there is a sense of healing. Not a single page is visually complex, or seems to pose any verbal conundrums, but in fact a pretty complicated structure gradually unfolds. A man and his young son go to the World's Fair. They are bowled over in particular by the General Motors Futurama, a giant three-dimensional representation of a car-driven, centralized, utopian future:
On all express city thoroughfares [Fies is quoting directly], the rights of way have been so routed as to displace outmoded business sections and undesirable slum areas whenever possible. Man continually strives to replace the old with the new.
Fies does not need to tell us what this kind of thinking led to. We have been living with its consequences all our lives.
As the years pass—magically, the man and his son age very slowly, almost as though the future they begin to inhabit were a kind of diorama; and indeed the expositional panels remind one of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (1993)—the Future History laid down in 1940 seems at points almost ready to come true: the Interstate system begins to transform America, bypassing "meandering old trails and the obsolete towns"; the space race flourishes; the great democracy readies itself for the planned future. But Fies accompanies the glowingly simplistic narrative of these changes with a telling counterpoint: four issues, between 1939 and its termination in 1975, of an imaginary comic called Space Age Adventures, in which Commander Cap Crater and his sidekick The Cosmic Kid save first the World's Fair and subsequently all of America from the attempts of the villainous mad scientist Dr Xandra to impose his tyrannous dystopian vision of great centrally controlled cities, governed by him and his technocratic minions. But Cap Crater defeats him again and again, until the "Last Amazing Issue!", when it turns out that Xandra cannot be prosecuted for (in so many words) creating EPCOT.
By now the space race has ended in disillusion, and Americans have begun to sink into the solitudes of utopia, SUV time. An old story, nothing new except for the loving kindness of its telling. Fies's message, simply drawn (though his parodies of evolving superhero comic idioms are exceedingly evocative and generous), is not entirely simple, however. We had tools, we had a dream, we had what Fies affectionately calls "tall tales"; we may have confused Future History with the territory, but we made the world in good faith (most of us) and lived our lives with good will (like the man and the boy, who age too slowly not to notice the world leaving them). So what next? Fies thinks nanotechnologies and new energy sources, and a chastened memory of Cap Crater pointing outward to the stars, will sustain us through the bad times. Hey. Good to hear. I won't say no. But what do we do till then?
Salvage and demolition, demolition and salvage, or something like. Not that Tim Powers's tight shapely heartache of a novella pretends to supply a modus vivendi for those of us still around half a century after the story of the future began to unravel, though it is certainly all about the passage of that half century. Salvage and Demolition is a simple time travel tale: hardly a hint of the thousand cuts of entanglement typical of most examples of the form, out of which reality leaks as though from a Subtle Knife. We start here and now. A rare book dealer in San Francisco named Blanzac is evaluating some boxes of memorabilia sent him by the family of a dead 1950s poet named Sophia Greenwald, who succumbed to cholera in Mexico in the late 1960s. There are some finds, a first edition of Howl inscribed to her by Allen Ginsberg (worth rather more than the $5000 he thinks it might bring), some letters from Jack Kerouac. And an Ace Double. And a manuscript, which turns out to be part of Greenwald's translation of an ancient document from somewhere before the Before which transcribes the message of a "dead mad god" from before Sumer, one of whose later names is Aker and another the Horned God. The burden of his message is of "self-unrealization": that the highest goal for any human is to seek unbeing, to unwrap the accidents of self in nothing, to enter some ultimate negation of the aleph. But the manuscript itself is a basilisk: to read it is to obey it. Which is why Greenwald has only translated a fragment of the whole. A 1950s sect is attempting to gain access to a full translation, in order to die fully. Time travel happens. Blanzac is hauled back to the 1950s, cigarette smoke perfuming the world, a journey only possible because Nada swings. While shuttlecocking from the past to now and back, he meets and falls in love with Greenwald, who is the anonymous author of the Ace Double. She cannot initially believe he is from the future, especially when he begins to tell her about the World of Tomorrow:
"It's very like this, actually" [he tells her in 1959]. "Cars, gas stations, traffic signals, TV, movie theatres. The only difference you'd notice is that everybody in 2012 has a computer no bigger than a TV set."
She rested her elbow on the bar and cupped her chin in her hand. "Why do you all need computers? Are you forever calculating trajectories to other planets?"
Well, no, he says gently. They make love. They defeat the sect. As it's a Tim Powers tale, there's no chance of their staying together, and Blanzac is soon shot back to the joys of now. Still, neither of them is crippled, though Greenwald's survival past her faked death into extreme old age may seem punishment enough for fucking out of wedlock. And they love each other for the rest of their lives.
Salvage and Demolition may seem a bit Noir Grimoire in synopsis, but over its fletched and speedy course towards bullseye it conveys a lot of the storytelling geniality I (for one) began to miss in Powers's work after The Anubis Gates, back when the consitutedness of story did not curse its bearer. Perhaps it's because I remember when. . . .
There is either very little or altogether too much to say about Jeffrey Ford's most recent and superb collection, Crackpot Palace, every tale told in the bottom-of-the-throat sad-savvy, you-know-me voice he mastered long ago, and which can still fool you; because he is a wise writer who knows how to write wisely, there is a lot to learn. I don't think I came across a single tale in this volume that didn't fool me, one way or another: a turn of plot maybe, a shift from something like urban fantasy to something like horror; a change of perspective in the turn of a sentence that shivers your timbers; an abyss beneath New Jersey, where several seemingly domestic tales are set, especially those displaying versions of Ford himself as narrator and Lynn his wife as wife, tales like "Down Astion Road," or "The Double of My Double is Not My Double," or "86 Deathdick Road," all of which colonize (or retrofit themselves into) the America which replaced the heart of America: the America brought us by the folks from the World of Tomorrow. Dormitory towns or degutted small cities or already ancient unincorporated tapeworm suburbs unable to digest the poison Interstates they hold onto for dear life: it is good to see these places inhabited by an author whose every word is deeper than surprise. Some George Saunders stories live here. Kelly Link does something similar. Paul Di Filippo says I know I know: but later. But none do the voice.
It is the voice—the chthonic bardic basilisk voice in your mind's ear that makes you think you're inhabiting a club story impossible to deny—that ties you down to these tales, this world you suddenly remember. It is the voice that makes you want to find out what is going to happen here.
The future has been with us a while now. I Burn Paris was first published in magazine form in Paris as "Je Brûle Paris" (1928 L'Humanité). Its author, Bruno Jasieński, an emigre Pole, a Futurist poet who became moderately well-known in his early twenties in his native land, came to France in 1925, but was booted out after his one novel appeared. It was published soon after in the USSR, where it was enormously successful, unsurprisingly perhaps, as it climaxes in a proletarian revolution that conquers Europe. Jasieński was executed in Moscow—or died of a year of torture—on 17 September 1938.
I Burn Paris is a masterful work of art, superbly translated (as far as I can witness) from the 1929 Polish edition by Soren A. Gauger and Marcin Piekoscewski, and attractively published by the small but acute Twisted Spoon Press of Prague. It is masterful, even though the author's programmatic needs force a slackening of the pace after the first 200 pages. We begin a few months into the future. Young Pierre loses his job and his woman, almost starves in a Paris whose underworld is described with a cannibal relish that prefigures Céline, meets an old friend who works in a research establishment, steals a deadly combination of bacilli he mixes together and uses to lace the water supply. Those who are infected invariably die. Pierre himself finds his lost woman (who has been sleeping with plutocrats) but she dies before he can attack her; and is beaten to death within a page or so.
We go back several years to China, follow the childhood and growth into activist communism of a young boy. He reaches France eventually. He dies. Paris is divided into guarded keeps: British, American, bourgeois, communist, Jewish. Sooner or later everyone dies, except the 30,000 members of the proletariat who, having been incarcerated by the government and left in total isolation, are uninfected. Working magnificently together, they fool the rest of the world into thinking Paris is lifeless, and live in peace—as workers of the world will do when they are left alone by their oppressors—until a danger point is reached out there, with the powers of Europe massed along the Polish-Russian border and preparing to invade. At which point the workers of Paris reveal themselves, and the workers of the world unite, and universal peace seems inevitable. Wisely perhaps, the novel itself ends just short of heaven, in a flood of gerunds:
And under the swollen sails of the song the masses shuddered like titanic ships, creaking in their joints, swaying in the shallows of the roadway and heavily pushing forward.
We know this is a couple of gerunds short of a full verdict. We know that the author died in the heaven he could not quite bring his novel to inhabit. We know lots and lots. And we learn here, in the charnel-house lunges of the writing of this 85-year-old novel, something we may have already known, but which it is good to know again: that the engine of the twentieth century was not about to obey the bit; that we were never going to ride those years to victory; that the seismic gerundival of the world shook off all the Worlds of Tomorrow like foam off a heaving stallion. That we never had a ticket to ride.