Monday, June 29, 2015

Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac

For love or money
Eugénie Grandet is one of the better known works from Honoré de Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, and for good reason. This enjoyable novel, originally published in 1833, shows Balzac at the height of his storytelling powers. It boasts a memorable cast of stars and supporting characters, and makes some valuable and insightful points about love, greed, and loyalty.

The story begins around 1816, with occasional references to incidents of earlier times. In the quiet, picturesque village of Saumur dwells Monsieur Grandet, a master cooper with a talent for purchasing profitable vineyards and a shrewd eye for investment opportunities. Through hard work and intelligent dealings he has become a wealthy man, and is rumored to have amassed an enormous hoard of gold. Despite his riches, however, Grandet lives like a pauper and forces his family to do the same. He is an inveterate miser who gathers gold for gold’s sake and never parts with a single sou if he can help it. His home is furnished in squalor rather than splendor, and he rations out the family’s daily portions of sugar as if they were threatened with starvation. Though his habits may be ridiculously frugal, Grandet isn’t fooling anyone. His neighbors consider him the richest, most prominent, and most formidable man in the arrondissement, and they all long for a way to get their hands on some of his fortune.

Families with bachelor sons see the surest way to the old man’s treasure is through his daughter’s heart. Eugénie is an innocent girl, somewhat of a plain Jane, though not without her charms. Every young man of Saumur would be happy to take her for his bride, particularly given her eventual inheritance of her father’s money. Two families in particular offer eligible candidates for Eugénie’s hand. The Cruchots and the des Grassins are frequent visitors to la maison Grandet. Monsieur Grandet has no intention of marrying his daughter to either of these small-town oafs, but he humors both sides in order to see what favors he can drag out of them. Eventually, however, when a man enters Eugénie’s life that truly does captivate her heart, Grandet begins to lose his hold on his daughter.

There are some powerfully moving scenes of joy and sorrow in Eugénie Grandet, but this is by no means a sappy love story. Balzac’s bitingly cynical humor permeates the novel, and this reader found himself laughing out loud on more than a few occasions. The cast of characters is as vividly drawn as an assortment of Daumier caricatures. The reader derives vicarious pleasure through Grandet’s wily schemes. In his own despicable way, he is more likable, and more fun than Balzac’s other famous miser, Gobseck. Eugénie, in contrast, is the embodiment of chastity and naiveté. She begins the book as almost a fairy tale heroine, but becomes more real and more aware as the story progresses. The reader can’t help wishing her the happiness and love for which she seeks.

The downside to Eugénie Grandet is it’s a bit long-winded at times, and Balzac frequently indulges his preoccupation with financial wheelings and dealings, stocks and bonds, legal briefs and the like, which aren’t really my cup of tea. Notwithstanding such nitpicking, this is one of his best works. Though not quite as good as Père Goriot or Lost Illusions, it’s still a great read for the author’s diehard fans or an excellent introduction to Balzac’s work for those who’ve never read him before.
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Friday, June 26, 2015

Dragon’s Teeth by Upton Sinclair

Lanny Budd meets Hitler
Dragon’s Teeth, published in 1942, is the third book in Upton Sinclair’s eleven-volume Lanny Budd series. It won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1943. The story takes place from 1929 to 1934. Lanny and his wife, the multimillionaire heiress formerly known as Irma Barnes, are back to their life of leisure, ensconced in their villa on the French Riviera when they’re not out yachting or motoring around Europe. Lanny’s political views are becoming more and more openly Red, much to his bride’s chagrin. In addition to playing classical music on the piano and dealing in valuable artworks, one of Lanny’s hobbies is keeping abreast of political matters. On one of their trips the Budds venture into Germany, and what else should a young married couple do on a visit to Berlin but attend a Nazi rally? Thus Lanny, the curious dabbler, finds himself present at one of Hitler’s most important early speeches. Later, through a mutual acquaintance, Lanny is introduced to the Führer himself.

While looking back now we may wonder why on earth anyone would want to hobnob with Hitler, keep in mind that this was prior to World War II and the Holocaust. In their early days, many people around the world saw the Nazis as either a harmless fringe group that would never amass any real political power or just another useful tool for keeping the Bolshevik menace out of Western Europe. Lanny, on the other hand, catches a glimpse of the madman to be. Sinclair chronicles in detail the political struggle between various factions in Germany in the early 1930s and Hitler’s eventual rise to power. Though Lanny is an American and his family is safely tucked away in France, his old friends the Robin family are residents of Berlin, and as Jews they do not go unscathed by the Nazi ascension. Using his occasional career as an art dealer as cover, Lanny must venture into Nazi Germany and undertake a perilous mission on their behalf.

As is typical of the books in this series so far, it takes forever to get there. Despite the obvious excitement value of the subject matter, I actually found Lanny’s adventures among the Nazis less harrowing than his encounters with Mussolini and Italian Fascism in the previous book of the series, Between Two Worlds. Part of the problem here is too many distractions. Just when we are getting caught up in Lanny and Irma’s German intrigue, we get pulled away to focus on their families’ financial troubles. Also, as in Between Two Worlds, there’s at least a hundred pages unnecessarily devoted to the paranormal. Séances were apparently all the rage, and Lanny and his friends are constantly consulting the dead for news and advice. Sinclair expresses skepticism towards a medium’s ability to make contact beyond the grave and speculates that what may actually be occurring is telepathy, a subject with which he was fascinated. (In 1930 he wrote a book on telepathy called Mental Radio.) Regardless, it’s out of place here, and the novel would have been better served without this lengthy, dull hurdle to jump over before arriving at the good stuff.

After three Lanny Budd books, I can say for certain that they are consistently good, but I haven’t yet met one that really blew me away. You definitely learn a lot about history, though. Because of its Pulitzer, Dragon’s Teeth may be the most famous book in the series, but if you want to read this novel, you really need to go back and start with the first installment, World’s End, or you’re going to be lost. I, meanwhile, though not without some reservations, will be moving on to book number four, Wide is the Gate.
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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Dust by Emanuel and Marcet Haldeman-Julius

A forgotten gem of American literary regionalism
Emanuel Haldeman-Julius is best known as the publisher of the Little Blue Books, popular inexpensive paperbacks on a variety of subjects that sold hundreds of millions of copies. For several years he was also the editor of the most prominent socialist newspaper in America, the Appeal to Reason. His wife Marcet Haldeman-Julius was his partner in business as well as family matters. Though best know for their publishing company, headquartered in the little town of Girard in southeast Kansas, the two were also writers, as evidenced by their jointly authored novel Dust, published in 1921. Dust is set in the fictional town of Fallon, Kansas, a surrogate for Girard. From the title and its setting, I was expecting a hard-scrabble agricultural epic, perhaps a farmer fighting for his family’s survival against a pitiless soil and unforgiving climate. There’s definitely a little of that here, but mostly Dust is a novel about marriage. And judging by the marriage from hell depicted in this book, the Haldeman-Juliuses must have had one complicated union.

When Martin Wade was a young man, he came to Kansas from Ohio with his parents and siblings. They picked out a patch of unwelcoming dirt and called it their own. Through years of struggle and toil the family built a farm from this dust. A lot of time passes in chapter one, and soon Martin is a grown man and master of his agricultural domain. His farm is one of the most respected operations in the county, yet Martin feels like it’s missing one important element, a wife. He soon convinces Rose Conroy to fill the position. Martin is an active but stern man with an atheistic and materialistic view of life. He willingly does the work of several men because he recognizes that work is the most effective distraction from the pointlessness and hardship of life. Rose’s outlook on life is not so harshly constructed. She believes in traditional virtues like love, happiness, and beauty, while all Martin believes in is stock, feed, and dollars. Once united in marriage, Rose feels more like a servant in Martin’s household than a wife. Like any bride, she longs to be loved, or at least appreciated. Instead, she finds herself a prisoner to his unrelenting and emotionless devotion to toil.

Though the setting and subject matter may be similar to writings by Hamlin Garland or Willa Cather, stylistically Dust has more in common with the blunt and brutal naturalism of Frank Norris’s novel McTeague. The language is plain and straightforward, not in a pedestrian way but in an insightfully precise descriptive manner devoid of superfluous flourishes. The psychology of the characters is intricate and authentic. They unapologetically behave the way real human beings would behave, regardless of fictional conventions or the desires and expectations of the reader. There’s not a lot of sentimental nostalgia for the good ol’ farming life in this book. In fact, it may be one of the more depressing novels you’ll ever read, but it’s certainly never boring. The reader becomes riveted to the characters’ plight, and it’s never clear what’s going to happen next. In its own way, the book is rather inspirational for its depiction of how not to live your life. It really compels the reader to consider the relative importance of work, family, money, and love in his or her own life.

As a transplanted Kansan, the Haldeman-Juliuses are sort of local heroes of mine, for the little Parnassus of the Plains they established in Girard. I knew they were both writers, but I had no idea they could write this well. Dust may be largely forgotten today, but it deserves to be remembered alongside the works of Garland, Cather, Norris, and other great American realists of the early 20th century.
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Monday, June 22, 2015

Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis

Poverty as poetry
When one thinks of socially conscious realism in American literature, what usually springs to mind is the heyday of the “muckrakers”of the early 20th century. Before famous authors like Jack London, Upton Sinclair, or Frank Norris turned their attention to societal ills, however, the trail had already been blazed by a host of earlier writers now largely forgotten by the American public. One such author was Rebecca Harding Davis, a prolific writer for social change. Her novella Life in the Iron Mills, originally published in the April 1861 edition of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, is now considered a pioneering work in American realism. In the long run, however, ground-breaking works don’t always translate into enduring works, and Life in the Iron Mills has not passed the century and a half since its publication entirely unscathed.

As the title indicates, Davis’s novella describes the living and working conditions of laborers employed at an iron mill somewhere in the American South. Hugh Wolfe is a “puddler” at the mill. Despite the back-breaking toil of his occupation, Hugh has the mind of a dreamer and the soul of an artist. He lives with his father and cousin Deborah, who also works in the mill. Deborah, a hunchback, is in love with Hugh, though he offers no indication of reciprocal feelings other than friendly or familial kindness. Both are Welsh immigrants, and their dialogue is transcribed in their native accent, which is sometimes hard to decipher with its sprinkling of apostrophes and ubiquitous pronoun “hur” [you]. One day when Deborah brings Hugh his lunch at the mill, the laborers are visited by the mill owner and some of his higher class colleagues. At first they observe the iron workers much as if they were watching animals in a zoo. Then, as a conversation develops between Hugh and the visitors, Hugh’s mind is opened to the idea that his life could possibly consist of more than just slaving in the mills day after day.

For today’s reader, the problem with Life in the Iron Mills is that the perspective that Davis offers into the lives of the working poor isn’t markedly different from that of these upper class visitors to the mill. Unlike later depictions of similar subject matter such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Jack London’s “The Apostate,” or even Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, the reader never feels like he’s amongst the workers, sharing their experience of filth and toil. Instead, it feels like we’re looking down from above, as if they were subjects in an experiment. This is heightened by the language that Davis uses, which is overly flowery and poetic for her topic. Though she talks a lot about smoke and ash and sweat, you never really feel it, because it’s all expressed in a prose style better suited to describing some sylvan grove. Though Davis may have turned the corner into realism by tackling such gritty subject matter, her writing stye is still very much rooted in the romanticism of the past. Her attempts to introduce religious imagery, offering up Hugh as a modern-day Christ, feel forced and overblown. The ending is as gratuitously drawn out as any melodramatic opera. As later realists would come to learn, who needs all these dramatic and linguistic flourishes when the drama of real life is enough?

Life in the Iron Mills may have shocked in its day, but today’s audience is likely to find it a bit tame. Davis was decades ahead of her time with this attempt at naturalism, but it’s still just an attempt, and a precursor of better things to come.
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Thursday, June 18, 2015

After London; Or, Wild England by Richard Jefferies

Everything old is new again
Richard Jefferies’s 1885 book, After London, is often described as a post-apocalyptic novel, but readers who approach this work with expectations of visionary science fiction are likely to be disappointed. The story is told by a third person narrator who exists presumably centuries in the future. At some point an ecological change took place, possibly the result of a traveling celestial body that approached too close to the Earth and thus affected the tides. England’s ports silted up, accompanied by a deviation in sea level. Though not a deadly catastrophe, this affected industry and trade, and therefore the British economy, so most of Britain’s inhabitants just packed up and moved away, leaving a small part of the population behind to carry on civilization. The land is still lush and green, but apparently agriculture isn’t enough to maintain a healthy society. Such is the woefully unimpressive and unrealistic apocalypse that opens the story.

Over several generations following this mass exodus, the abandoned land eventually begins to look a lot like England during medieval times. Victorian Brits need have no fear that their social hierarchy has been disrupted by the “end of the world.” The descendants of nobles are still nobles, the only people who can still read and write. The descendants of England’s indigent population, on the other hand, have devolved into Bushmen, who live in the forest and prey on travelers foolish enough to venture into their woods. Jefferies introduces us to Felix Aquila, the son of a Baron, who is destined to inherit his father’s title. Though of noble lineage, Felix’s family has fallen on hard times and suffers the condescension and derision of wealthier nobles. Despite his aristocratic pedigree, Felix chafes under the strictures of feudalism, and longs to set out on his own and determine his own course of life. He builds a dugout canoe and plans a solo voyage into the unknown, in hopes of finding adventure and fortune. So despite its post-apocalyptic premise, After London is essentially just another medieval coming-of-age story, like Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel, though not nearly as good as either.

If you want to tell a story about life in a medieval society, why not just set your story in the Middle Ages? The whole futuristic angle is unnecessary. About 80% of the way through the book, there are two chapters that deal with some original, post-apocalyptic matters, but by that point I was bored beyond caring. The book proceeds at a painfully plodding pace. Jefferies was primarily known for his nature writing, and he spends an inordinate amount of time describing every creek and sylvan path. When Felix goes to see his girlfriend, for example, there’s two chapters devoted solely to his walk in the woods to get there. Though skilled at descriptive writing, Jefferies has no conception of how to create plot momentum or suspense. As Felix wanders aimlessly, the story feels random and unstructured. Felix is too whiny and sullen to be a satisfying hero, so every time Jefferies rains good fortune upon him the reader feels he’s undeserving. This culminates in a ridiculously optimistic ending that defies belief.

I enjoy reading early science fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I don’t expect such literature to compare with the fantastic visions of later authors. In fact, I enjoy that older books are grounded in the fundamentals of traditional storytelling. After London, however, is just too traditional, too familiar, and too dull. What little new ground it breaks is not worth the reader’s time and effort.
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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Stories by American Authors, Volume V by Henry James, et al.

Four out of five fail to impress
F.D. Millet
This is the fifth book in the ten-volume Stories by American Authors series published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884. It opens with a selection by Henry James, who is easily the most famous author included in the series. Somehow I’ve managed to get this far in life without reading any Henry James, so I don’t have any basis for comparison, but based on his reputation alone I’m guessing his story “A Light Man” is not one of his better works. The narrator of the piece reunites with a former classmate who is serving as a secretary to an aged man of wealth. After moving in with the rich geezer, both old friends begin to compete for his affection and imminent bequest. There are some opportunities for suspense here, but James mostly squanders them in favor of pretentious verbosity. The result is too much description and not enough plot.

The second entry fares much better. In “Yatil” by F.D. Millet, an artist makes the acquaintance of a circus performer whose nickname serves as the story’s title. Their paths coincidentally cross in Turin, Paris, and New York. While the artist/narrator leads a relatively secure and comfortable existence, the performer lives a pathetic life of hardship. Nevertheless, his optimistic perseverance is quite touching. There’s some unnecessary digression into Yatil’s personal superstitions, but as a whole you really feel for the guy and become personally invested in his struggles.

“The End of New York” by Park Benjamin could best be described as a “What if?” story. Written in 1881, it foreshadows the Spanish-American War of 1898. A diplomatic incident ignites conflict between Spain and the U.S. which leads to a Spanish naval attack on American shores. New York City is bombarded by the heavy guns of the Spaniards, while the outclassed American military is powerless to stop it. Benjamin, a former Navy man, intended this story to serve as a warning of the inadequacy of the U.S. fleet. The story is an interesting historical artifact of its time, but Benjamin’s preoccupation with the details of armaments and munitions deadens the plot. This novella-length work is by far the longest piece in this collection, and it feels totally out of place in a literary anthology.

Usually the weakest links in these collections are the humorous stories, and this volume is no exception. Nineteenth-century humor just hasn’t held up well over the years. George Arnold’s “Why Thomas Was Discharged” is a formulaic romantic romp in which two foppish idlers attempt to woo a pair of beauties at a beachside resort. It’s pleasant enough, but too long and drawn out for such frivolous subject matter. In “The Tachypomp: A Mathematical Demonstration” by E.P. Mitchell, an underachieving student tries to win the hand of his mathematics professor’s daughter. In order to do so, his prospective father-in-law requires him to solve a seemingly impossible math problem. There’s some fun bits along the way, but Mitchell tries too hard to be clever and ultimately the story gets bogged down in mathematical jargon.

This fifth installment of Stories by American Authors is indicative of the series as whole so far, which consistently fails to impress—except for Volume III, which was pretty good. This overview of late nineteenth-century American fiction is particularly disappointing when you compare it to Scribner’s 1898 series Stories by Foreign Authors, which is far better overall. I’m only halfway through the American series, however, so it still has five volumes left to prove to me it hasn’t been a waste of time. Hopefully, it will redeem itself in its latter half.

Stories in this collection
A Light Man by Henry James
Yatil by F.D. Millet 
The End of New York by Park Benjamin 
Why Thomas Was Discharged by George Arnold 
The Tachypomp by E.P. Mitchell

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Monday, June 8, 2015

The City of the Sun by Tommaso Campanella

Fantasy island
The City of the Sun was written in 1602 by Tommaso Campanella, an Italian philosopher and Dominican brother. It is a utopian work, obviously influenced by its predecessors, Plato’s Republic and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. Compared to those earlier works, Campanella’s ideal society is more imaginative, less practical, and as a result more fun for the modern reader. Campanella structures his political and philosophical discourse in the form of a dialogue between “a Grandmaster of the Knights Hospitalier and a Genoese Sea-Captain, his guest.” The former says very little, while the latter regales him with details of a fascinating foreign land referred to only as the City of the Sun. This perfect metropolis is located either on or near the island of Taprobane, which is part of Sri Lanka.

The city is built upon a high hill in the form of seven walled concentric circles. Within the highest and innermost circle sits a temple where resides the city’s highest official Hoh, also referred to as Metaphysic. Beneath him rules three princes named Power, Wisdom, and Love, who act as cabinet ministers over their respective domains. Subordinate to them are a number of lesser “doctors” named after their areas of influence—e.g. Cosmographus, Arithmeticus, Poeta, Logicus, etc. The economic system at work is essentially socialistic, similar to More’s Utopia, but the political structure is rigidly hierarchical, with authority trickling down literally and figuratively from the top of the hill. Each official seems to have totalitarian rule over his underlings. The rulers of the City of the Sun are not just politicians, they are also priests, so their authority is reinforced by their altitudinal proximity to God himself. The religion practiced in this theocratic society is a form of Christianity, but one rendered almost unrecognizable by its obsession with astrology. The seven known planets, a frequent motif in their architecture and ceremonies, are in fact the inspiration for the seven-tiered city.

For today’s reader, two positive aspects of Campanella’s ideal city really stand out. One is the devotion to knowledge. Despite their isolated location, the inhabitants of the city are familiar with the scholarship of the world, and great philosophers and religious leaders are venerated. The seven walls of the city are painted with educational murals depicting the arts and sciences. The second remarkable characteristic of this society is its commitment to physical health, both through diet and exercise. Even among the women, strength is admired over delicate beauty. The citizens practice a sort of universal military discipline that’s reminiscent of ancient Sparta. In fact, much of life in the City of the Sun seems strictly regimented, which, despite the religious and poetic touches, leans unpleasantly towards fascism. Even in matters of love and sex, Campanella advocates a system that sounds a lot like eugenics.

The City of the Sun is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. The magistrates with all their illustrative titles, the astrological imagery, and the architectural grandiloquence create an experience equivalent to stepping into a beautiful allegorical painting. In the long run, however, one would likely chafe under this authoritarian hierarchy. This is one society that’s just begging for a rebellion. Such is the appeal of utopias, nevertheless. Regardless of its feasibility or practicality, The City of the Sun is a splendid, trippy dream. Over 400 years after its creation, it still stirs the imagination.
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Friday, June 5, 2015

Utopia by Sir Thomas More

Imagining the ideal society
Sir Thomas More’s book Utopia was originally published in Latin in 1516. This was during the reign of King Henry VIII, under whom More served as a councillor and diplomat. The book was first translated into English in 1551. This review is based on the English translation of 1684 by Gilbert Burnet. On a diplomatic mission to Flanders, More and his fellow officers of the King meet Raphael Hythloday (English spellings my differ in different editions), a learned raconteur who has traveled the world and explored many of its civilizations. After some heated debate over the policies of European governments, Hythloday tells his listeners of a perfect commonwealth which sets an example of good and virtuous governance that all nations should follow. This ideal nation, a crescent-shaped island in the South Atlantic, is named Utopia. 

Though this may be the book that named the genre, Utopia is not the first utopian narrative. That distinction would likely go to Plato’s Republic. More was obviously familiar with Plato’s work and in many ways used The Republic as a template for how he describes his ideal society. Nowadays, we expect our utopias to be accompanied by science fiction or adventure stories, like Aldous Huxley’s Island, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, or James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, but prior to the 20th century, utopian writing, though fictitious, had more in common with political or philosophical treatises. Hythloday’s discourse on Utopia is divided into categories such as Of Their Trades, and Manner of Life; Of Their Traffic (i.e. commerce); and Of the Religions of the Utopians. 

In Utopia, More critiques the disparity between the profligacy of wealthy aristocrats and the abysmal living conditions of the laboring poor that existed in Europe in general and England in particular at the time the book was written. The political and economic system in practice on the island of Utopia is essentially a simple form of socialism in which private property does not exist and all the productions of agriculture and industry are held communally and distributed equally. More’s description of the legal code, health care system, and a sort of primitive form of social security are remarkably modern for their time. One institution of Utopia that’s not so progressive, however, is slavery. The marriage customs of Utopia are particularly interesting. Though premarital sex is punished severely, the bride and groom are allowed to see each other naked before committing to the nuptials, just as if they were each buying a horse. The general moral code of the Utopians resembles that of the ancient Stoics or Epicureans. They live for beneficial pleasures like health and knowledge, but hold no store in frivolous pleasure like gold, luxurious clothes, gambling, or hunting for sport. The Utopians tolerate all monotheistic religions. As long as a faith is devoted to the one true God, whom they call Mithras, the means of worship is unimportant. 

Reading Utopia almost five hundred years after its publication, I wouldn’t call it a fun book, but for the most part it’s still quite interesting. The Burnet translation is a pretty smooth and effortless read, though More does get monotonous at times. One can’t help but admire how forward-thinking More was, by 16th century standards, and how brave, for literally risking his head to publish this book. There’s no nobler purpose to literature than calling for a better world. Guys like Plato, More, and Sir Francis Bacon (New Atlantis) blazed the trail for countless others to follow. Whether you consider Utopia a work of criticism, satire, or simply a glorious pipe dream, it’s an important work that still resonates to this day.
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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Null-ABC by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire

To read or not to read

This novella, one of four collaborations between H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, was originally published in the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction, split between the February and March 1953 issues. Null-ABC takes place in the 22nd century, after the Fourth World War. In this dystopian vision of America, anti-intellectualism has reached its peak. An ideological schism exists between the Literates and the Illiterates. The majority of the population is illiterate, and literacy is publicly disdained. The Illiterates hold all the political power in the country, yet they still need the Literates to perform certain jobs for them. The Literates are organized into fraternities, sort of like labor unions or guilds, and are identified by their white uniforms. They work as public servants or hired brains, collecting fat paychecks from Illiterate employers. For example, the principal of the public school is a Literate, tasked with the job of educating his students illiterately through audio-visual methods.

Though the synopsis above may give the impression of a serious or heavy book like Fahrenheit 451, for the most part Null-ABC is handled in a very tongue-in-cheek manner. Senator Chester Pelton, an illiterate department store owner, is running for reelection under the Radical-Socialist Party, on the platform of “Put the Literates in their place! Our servants, not our masters!” His opponent from the Independent-Conservative party will do anything to defeat him, including resorting to deception and violence. In this future era, each party employs an army of stormtroopers. Even the department stores are built like fortresses, protected by their contingent of armed soldiers. Each party has spies in the other’s camp, and each has their own factional conflicts to deal with. Piper and McGuire introduce so many characters, it’s hard to tell them all apart or keep track of who is fighting for which side or what agenda. Frankly, after a while I just stopped caring.

This is the second joint effort I’ve read by Piper and McGuire, the other being Lone Star Planet. Both books are political satires, but each primarily uses their political ideas as a set up for ballistic mayhem. I’m not sure what exactly inspired the collaboration between Piper and McGuire, but I’m guessing they were both gun nuts. As the story goes on, the ideological struggle between Literates and Illiterates fades into the background, in favor of Die Hard in a department store. Nevertheless, like any Piper book, this one does have its merits. It’s amazing how the anti-intellectualism depicted in the story presages the revolt against book learnin’ that we saw in the two George W. Bush campaigns. It’s interesting, however, that here it’s the leftist party that most strongly opposes literacy. Another subject on which the book is remarkably prescient is that of weapons in our public schools. Back in the ‘50s Piper and McGuire probably thought they were being cheekily over-the-top with their comments about classroom massacres. Unfortunately recent headlines have proven them not so farfetched.

The idea of a society divided by literacy is a provocative one, but this shoot-’em-up story just doesn’t do it justice. After a few thoughtful notions and a couple of halfhearted chuckles, it devolves into a rather confusing mess. It’s not terrible by pulp fiction standards, but definitely not Piper’s best. In general, his solo work is far superior.
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