Monday, May 7, 2018

The Disappearance by Philip Wylie

A great sci-fi premise bogged down in preachy social criticism
The Disappearance, a science fiction novel by Philip Wylie, was originally published in 1951. I had previously been very impressed by Wylie’s 1930 novel Gladiator, but found The Disappearance to be much less satisfying. More than many of his sci-fi contemporaries, Wylie aimed for highbrow literature by infusing his work with philosophical depth. In The Disappearance, however, he goes overboard and smothers his own story with deep thoughts.

Bill Gaunt is an eminent philosopher who lives in Miami. His wife Paula is a brilliant former student of his, but like most women of her time she gave up her career to manage a home and family. The couple have two grown children, Edwin and Edwinna (ugh, really), and a young granddaughter. One day without warning, as Bill is working at his typewriter, all the women on Earth instantaneously disappear, leaving him in a world inhabited solely by men. In chapter two, however, we see the same incident from Paula’s perspective, and it is the men who disappear. Thus, the two sexes live in parallel worlds, ignorant of each other’s existence. While each makes attempts to discover the cause of the disappearance and perhaps reverse its effects, the survivors of each gender must rebuild civilization to serve the needs of its half of humanity.

What an excellent premise for a science fiction novel! Wylie, however, only provides the thinnest of plots while concentrating most of his efforts on social commentary, using the disappearance to critique western civilization’s ideas on sex roles, sexuality, education, and religion. As one might expect, Wylie chose to make Bill Gaunt a philosopher in order to give himself the opportunity to philosophize, and that’s what he does, tediously so. The centerpiece of the book is a long essay in which Wylie exhaustively enumerates his grievances against the present state of society, and much of the rest of the novel either comments or elaborates upon this essay. The plot, consisting mostly of wordy conversations and debates, is almost an afterthought, and Wylie lazily wraps it up with an ending that is the epitome of the phrase “deus ex machina.” Though a complete list of Wylie’s philosophical issues are too extensive to enumerate here, among them he lobbies for greater equality between the sexes, more openness about sexuality, greater independence for women, and a freer attitude toward marital infidelity.

Many of the ideas that Wylie expresses come across as progressively feminist for 1951. Upon closer inspection, however, it’s a very selective brand of feminism. The book has only one truly positive female character—Paula Gaunt—who presents a very idealized picture of womanhood. All the other female characters are depicted as stupid, flighty, self-serving, shallow, and/or incompetent. It’s as if Wylie were saying I believe in equal rights for women, as long as they have a PhD intelligence, speak six languages, display exemplary leadership, and maintain their good looks well into their forties. The rest of womankind is written off as shoddy products of the faulty society in which they were raised. Meanwhile, the depiction of the “colored” characters in the book, who even after half of humanity disappears continue to work as servants for the whites while living in tents and shacks, indicates that racial equality was not among Wylie’s concerns.

All great science fiction has a philosophical component, but The Disappearance so relentlessly beats its readers over the head with its diatribes, one wonders why Wylie didn’t skip the science fiction and just write the essay.
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