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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