15 July 2017

A Doomed System: A 1972 Essay Revisited


I
n the 15 July 1972 issue of Saturday Review appeared one of the most idiotic godawful articles I have ever wasted my time on. The title was “Chic Bleak in Fantasy Fiction” and the author was listed as Bruce Franklin, described as a former professor of literature at Stanford. The article’s description read “Why do science fiction writers scare themselves with visions of a brutal future? A leftist critic dismisses such Chicken Little visions as mere capitalist despair and sees a bright future in which workers—and  writers—are heroes.” Sadly, that is an accurate description of the article—something that is not always the case with those brief prose snippets intended to drag a reader into the piece.
Franklin’s basic difficulty is that he fails to recognize the problems posed by mankind’s dominance over the earth (in line with the doctrine that most leftist thinkers of the time espoused). A paragraph towards the middle of the piece makes this transparent:
When you get right down to it, we are dealing with a ridiculous question: Is the world really coming to an end? This is not the place to argue fully theories of ecology and population. But we should be aware   that scientists throughout the noncapitalist world recognize that there is now more food and available resources per capita in the world than ever before, that the average standard of living is rapidly rising, and that the means of production are developing tremendously faster than the rate of consumption.
This childish view (which is shared by present-day oil company executives and global-warming denialists) was de rigueur in the bad old days of the early seventies, but it was crap then and it is crap now. In Franklin’s ideology (shaped by the idealistic fantasies of the now thoroughly-discredited Maoist “thinking”) human beings are the be-all and end-all of the universe, its consummate triumph, the goal of all its strivings, and it is therefore unacceptable to even imagine a world in which insects vie for dominance.
And his examples of this mind-excursion are revelatory of the limitations of his research: The Hellstrom Chronicle and Them. He complains (with as far as I can tell a straight face) that the “notion of insects conquering and replacing people” is “totally preposterous”. “The plain truth is that insects have never posed a threat to man’s existence, and we now have unprecedented means for controlling them.” And this he apparently considers a deep thought and a serious objection to a screwball documentary—an excuse for showing off spectacular photographs of insects—that nobody is supposed to take seriously. He considers Mary Shelley’s 1796 “literary fantasy of universal plague” to be absurd since smallpox and bubonic plague have “been virtually eliminated”. The trouble is, according to Franklin, that bourgeois critics … can’t conceive of anything interesting to do in a decent society”.
And what does he think fantasy writers should write about? Rather than the Burgess/Kubrick dystopian vision of youth run amuck, what about a film depicting “a Puerto Rican street gang transformed into a revolutionary party, setting up a drug program and a medical clinic, and organizing and educating their people to win”? Wouldn’t that be more fun than watching a movie about “the transformation of people into living zombies as their bodies are taken over by vegetable beings grown in giant pods seeded from an alien world”? (Personally I’m not that taken by either vision, but if I had to choose one I think I’d go with the living zombies over the revolutionary street gang. Is this what TV is like in hell?)
The trouble is, Franklin thinks, that “[w]riters inside the empire … identify with a doomed system and ruling class and then imagine the possible forms of their own doom.” But the objective reality, according to Franklin, is that capitalism is dying and “the people are winning, from Vietnam to Lordstown, Ohio.” Well, we’ve seen how that played out in the four and a half decades since then. And the people of Lordstown, Ohio—those “makers of cars, typewriters, clothes, movie cameras, houses, and bourbon” that you so idealized—they voted for Donald Trump.
[Note: According to Wikipedia Howard Bruce Franklin “has written or edited nineteen books and three hundred professional articles and participated in making four films. His main areas of academic focus are science fiction, prison literature, environmentalism, the Vietnam War and its aftermath, and American cultural history. … He helped to establish science fiction writing as a genre worthy of serious academic study.” It does not mention this blitheringly idiotic article among his accomplishments.]

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