Mack Reynolds' avoidance of his own Eighteenth Brumaire: a note of caution for would-be utopians.
Karl Marx, "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte." (436)
* It was 1984 when I somewhat illegally procured a copy of Mack Reynolds' Commune 2000 A.D. from a pile of books in my middle school library marked "Not to Circulate--inappropriate material." Likely I don't need to comment that it was because my librarian considered the material "inappropriate" that made the book so attractive to my eighth-grade brain. It certainly also helped that in the first few paragraphs the novel's protagonist is depicted waking up one morning and trying to recall the name of the woman in his bed. It was more than enough for me: the book found its way into my backpack and was read within a day. Imagine my surprise a few years later when I learned that the book had been considered "inappropriate" not because of the depictions of sexuality, but rather because, in the words of that same librarian, it had a "commie story."
I rather suspect that an analysis like the one provided by my school librarian would have been both uproariously funny and perhaps a little scary to Reynolds. While he certainly wrote about socialism (and capitalism, and many other--isms), Reynolds himself noted the term socialism had "become so elastic as to be all but meaningless" (Reynolds, "Afterword," 54). Yet Reynolds did something with his fiction that very few other writers of SF have tried: he made sociological change central to his plots. While it is true, as Hassler and Wilcox have noted, that SF "frequently includes a sophisticated depiction of political interactions" (1), it is also true, as the same authors point out, that often "the politics are secondary to another story line" (ibid.). Or, as Reynolds complained about much of the best SF stories and their examination of socioeconomic change, "often they don't even have capitalism, they've gone back to feudalism!" (Reynolds, "Afterword" 54). For Reynolds this was not the case, especially in his "utopian" novels of the 1970s and early 1980s, all usually based in or shortly after the year 2000 and centered on updated (or "remakes" of) versions of Edward Bellamy's famous 19th century utopian novels Looking Backward (1888) and Equality (1897).
At the time I first read Reynolds the year 2000 seemed an awfully long way off, and Reynolds' predictions in those novels published in the 1970s and early 1980s (before his death in early 1983 (1)) seem both prescient and somewhat pedantic. The work of Bellamy is notable for his foretelling of the coming of the age of the industrial manager, and its very popularity at the time of publication (at least with Looking Backward) makes it worth serious study. Reynolds, however, seems to have slipped underneath the radar of critics, though his work is easily as rich in details, designs, and future dreams. Indeed, Reynolds and Bellamy seem to fit together, in part, because they seem far less removed from each other than the near century of their publishing history would indicate. This may also be the reason for Reynolds' noticeable absence from the SF canon (2) today.
In many ways Reynolds can be considered one of the last of the larger-than-life Modernist pulp SF writers. A prodigious traveler, as well as writer, his author's biography in Commune 2000 A.D. claims he had been in "more jails than he can count off-hand" and was "persona non-gratis in no fewer than seven different nations." Publishing during the ascendancy of the "literary SF' period, his novels seem, at first reading, to be stylistic throwbacks to an earlier period of stiffly drawn characters, presented to serve the plot extrapolations that were the raison d'etre of each book. His sharply staked-off area of expertise, especially in his later career, was that of sociological SF. It goes without saying that this is an area that is all too often ignored even today by SF writers. Writing a sort of classic space opera, without the "space" or the "opera," Reynolds' characters bear a striking resemblance to the scientist-heroes of "Doc" Smith and other early SF writers. Only these heroes are not physical scientists , plumbing the depths of chemistry or physics, but social scientists examining the similar depths found in human individuals and human societies.
The one major critical reply to Reynolds' work--utopian and otherwise--is that of Brian Stableford. Stableford, in comparing Reynolds' work to Bellamy's, notes that the two "clearly [retain] a basic commitment to the Marxian (3) model of human nature, but it is interesting that throughout [Reynolds'] work he seems to find great difficulty in believing it" (48). Not to suggest problems with Stableford's excellent analysis, but it would appear that, like my librarian, he takes Reynolds' work to be essentially a story based on a homogeneous and hegemonic reading of Marx as well. Then, with this Marxian paradigm fully in place, he finds fault with Reynolds' failure to accept the utopian assumptions inherent in all such work. Indeed, the central irony of Reynolds' utopian work is that "difficulty" which Stableford finds so problematic. However, while Stableford is perhaps partially correct, and indeed his contention remains part of an excellent analysis of Reynolds (which is to be expected from Stableford), this i mplied central irony of Reynolds dissolves when one re-examines his purpose in his utopian novels, as well as their relationship to Bellamy's earlier work.
Obviously, in order to accomplish this, a brief overview of Bellamy's utopian work--in Looking Backward especially--is necessary. As Reynolds retells the story in his versions of the novels in almost identical detail, an overview of Bellamy's work acts as an overview of Reynolds as well. Looking Backward tells the story of Julian West, a Bostonian who, Rip Van Winkle-like, sleeps 113 years and awakes in the year 2000. "West's amazement at the simplicity, efficiency and justice of the [new economic system of that year] is so great that its workings have to be explained to him in great detail" (Parrington 73). That new system is one in which the distribution of wealth and labor is wholly equalized and the country has become "completely socialized" (ibid. 74). A very similar system is also in place in Reynolds' version of the same year, and in it Stableford notes that both Reynolds and Bellamy adhere to "the Marxian model of human nature" (48). This Marxian model, of course, is one predicated in human perfectibi lity. However, it is vitally important to note that neither Bellamy nor Reynolds present a Marxian utopia in the strict sense. The main difference between Marxian socialism and that developed by Bellamy and Reynolds is in the position of class and revolution. As Engles noted in his "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific," a strictly Marxian critique of utopian schemes presented by Bellamy and Reynolds, is that they achieve their status without a revolution of the proletariat. Both Looking Backward novels present year 2000 in which, as Marie Berneri noted in her critique of Bellamy, "all the means of production and distribution [is] to be held in common," but this situation is one in which a revolution is not necessary to "bring this about." Both novels assume that "the State can take over the economic machinery of a country in a peaceful manner, when the majority of the population sees that it is the most sensible solution (208).
It is this distinction between Marxian utopian thought, and a more generalized paradigm of utopia, that separates the work of both Bellamy and Reynolds from the critique that their work fails for a lack of Marxian conviction. Where Bellamy and Reynolds differ, however, is another matter altogether. Bellamy, predicting in an almost Smithian economic mode, concluded that people would act in their own economic best interest, and that ultimately that would be the centralization of the modes of production. Reynolds posits a similar situation.
But unlike Bellamy, Reynolds sees in that possibility the potential for the best economic interests of the individual--in maintaining their own power--to be separate from that of the society as a whole.
As a result of this difference, the Hegelian-Marxian idealism Reynolds employs is purposely tempered with his own brand of human realism. If one steps only slightly back, and considers the political metanarrative of Reynolds' utopian work from a more traditional Hegelian-Marxian perspective, this perceived "difficulty" of his work evaporates quite nicely, for it is no longer a question of his adherence to any kind of socialist utopia, but a warning of the possible dangers of such a system, and of such panaceas in general. Indeed, Reynolds' views on both major governmental systems of his time (the Capitalism of the West and "Communism" of the Soviet-bloc) are both critiqued in The Earth War (1963--originally published as "Frigid Fracas" in Analog). In that story the protagonist, Joe Mauser, finds himself on a mission inside the "Soy-World" in an attempt to undermine the socialist government(s) there. What he finds is a system all too much like the one of the West that he works for, in which the ruling class "p erpetuates its life as though like a living organism" (131) with the same consequences under both socialist and capitalist systems: the centralization of power in the hands of a few. Reynolds' difficulty with this notion will become the central theme of all his utopian fiction.
Where The Earth War leaves off, Reynolds moves forward with his more traditional utopian works of the 1970s. In Looking Backward from the Year 2000 and Equality in the Year 2000, he rather strictly follows the characters and plots as laid down in the original novels by Bellamy. But in his other "Year 2000" utopian novels, Reynolds diverges somewhat, and in ways that offer more of a critique to traditional Marxian thought than an adherence to it. And in each case, this critique is based on Reynolds' fear of the bureaucratic centralization of power.
Strictly speaking, it isn't possible to consider Reynolds' Year 2000 books a classical SF "future history" series. Indeed, though there is so very much in terms of socio-political theory that connects them, there is enough differentiation in terminology to suggest that they might not all be taking place in the same "future." These changes, it should be noticed, are best explained through an understanding of the evolution of Reynolds' thought on the subject, as well as a reflexive understanding of the evolution of the very socioeconomic system he is describing overtime. Yet, while they do follow a very slight historical progression, they are all essentially the same thematically, and rather than describe them within the framework of a "future history" they are best dealt with ahistorically. In each novel the United States (variously: "of America," North America" or "of the Americas") is presented as a near-utopian place following from Reynolds' initial conception of his retelling of Looking Backward. Thus, the industrial efficiency of this future is such that the majority of citizens need not work. These individuals support themselves with what is called either their "Universal Guaranteed Income" or "Negative Income Tax." They are allowed, then, in Hegel's words, the "Consciousness of freedom" (39). The few with the abilities and desire to work are selected through their "Ability Quotient," an "updated form of the I.Q." that also tests for:
[V]erbal ability, verbal fluency, numerical ability, spatial ability, perceptual ability, memory, speed of reflexes, accident proneness, digital dexterity, analogizing power, mechanical aptitude, clerical aptitude, emotional maturity, veracity, tone, discrimination, taste sensitivity, even natural charm, color blindness, accuracy, persistence, drive, neurosis, powers of observation, health, and a few others. (Reynolds, Ability Quotient, 6)
In short, in this Utopian future the entire person has been essentialized to the extent that the classical Marxian stereotype of "from each according to their abilities" has been quantitatively realized. The A.Q. is Reynolds' main attempt at overthrowing the possible inequalities of a centralized socialist system, and his major update of Bellamy's ideas. However, for Reynolds this is not quite workable, and into each of his utopian narratives a strong caution becomes the center of the plot.
In Police Patrol: 2000 A.D., the protagonist is, obviously enough, a police officer, while in Ability Quotient that position is occupied by a former military officer. In Commune 2000 A.D. a young archaeological historian takes center stage. In Rolltown, a mobile art community's unofficial law officer acts as the protagonist. Yet, regardless of plot specifics, each character is essentially the same. He (for the protagonist is invariably a "he") is a person who is either marginalized in the utopian workforce, or denied work altogether, in either case because of his slightly low test scores. Whatever plot device is used to propel the story hardly matters, because the outcome is always similar. Through various plot events in the novel the central character comes to realize two major "truths" about the utopian society in which he lives. These are:
1. While the system pretends to be a meritocracy, it is, in fact, not. Those who through their high A.Q.'s have come to be leaders in this new society have in some fashion meddled with the system so as to promote the continuation of their own power, either individually or as a group.
2. The protagonist, in whatever role the narrative has placed him, is actually far more worthy of the power than others above him in the socioeconomic hierarchy.
Thus it is not possible to fully claim that Reynolds' utopias are fully utopian. Rather, Reynolds presents a cautious utopian theme, in which utopia is not what has been achieved, but the goal. Yet Reynolds' conception of bureaucracy and human nature might very well make this goal impossible. For Brian Stableford this represents the problematic issue in Reynolds' work and may point to the very failure of Reynolds' utopian vision. For Stableford, Reynolds' visionary caution, his abandonment of the "myth of the perfectibility of man and its replacement by the assumption of the essential corruptness of human nature, is fatal to the very idea of [a] utopian" future (52). Obviously, I don't think this to be the case. Rather than envision a socially hegemonic utopian future, and an "end of history" (to use Francis Fukuyama's now often overused phrase), Reynolds vision of utopia is at once more reasonable and more practical. And, as a result, perhaps, less Marxian and more Hegelian.
For Reynolds, utopia bears a striking resemblance to a classic problem in physics. If one stands on point 'A' and wishes to proceed to point 'B,' knowing that each step will take you exactly half the distance to your goal, the question then becomes "how many steps are needed to reach the goal of point 'B'?" The answer, of course, is no amount of steps will get you there, but each step will take you closer. For Reynolds, that utopian future is the goal, and through his employment of socioeconomic and socio-political change, it does become possible to approach the goal of utopia, even if it remains forever beyond our grasp.
Yet this does not mean that it is not a goal worth our attention, and Reynolds' fictional utopias are not necessarily designed to remind us that the goal is unattainable, but merely to remind us to be weary of panaceas. This is why the utopian dreams of his works are often merely facades of a perfect society. In After Utopia, for example, the protagonist Tracy Cogswell finds himself in a situation similar to that of Julian West in Reynolds' Looking Backward. However, instead of waking in the future as a plot device with which to explain the socioeconomic changes that lead to a future society, Cogswell is awakened to become a revolutionary leader (and plot device) against such future utopian/distopian dreams. Further, while the plots vary, both The Towers of Utopia and Day After Tomorrow present similar futures with similar problems. In both cases, as in all other Reynolds' utopian fiction, those problems can be reduced quite simply to either corrupt or inept bureaucracies.
The message of Reynolds' utopias, then, is not one of the perfectibility of humanity. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. Reynolds rewrites Bellamy, but does not remake him, for to do so would be to become the victim of the same criticisms. Rather than simply updating Bellamy, Reynolds instead offers a hope of a better future, while simultaneously warning of the dangers of simple, utopian solutions. I began this essay with a rather famous quote by Karl Marx that all events in history occur twice, the second time as farce. It is through his cautions, and through his concerns, that Reynolds is able to avoid the farcical aspects that would otherwise be such a danger in reworking such classic utopian structures. And it is in the same fashion that he offers something that, while not strictly utopian, is, at least, progress.
(1.) Reynolds was a highly productive writer, often publishing multiple novels each year. For the purposes of this paper those works which largely deal with the sociological implications of and around the year 2000, as well as those of his works with highly similar themes to that first group, are considered while other works are ignored. Also, many of Reynolds' works-in-progress were finished posthumously with the help of Dean Ing among other writers. Though Ing's obvious fealty to Reynolds' ideas is hard to ignore, for the purposes of this paper I do exactly that in not including them.
(2.) I won't even try to assess what constitutes the canon in SF, though it is important to note that critics for many good reasons make canonical distinctions. This work is part of a larger and still somewhat amorphous project that is an attempt to assess the works of SF authors and understand why they have not been canonized.
(3.) Trying to define what is essentially a "vulgar Marxism" is quite impossible here. Later I will suggest that Reynolds would be best described as a Hegelian-Marxian, but this, too, imagines a vulgar form of Hegel. I take my reading of Hegel for this paper from his own The Philosophy of History, Lowenberg's classic selections, as well as from the work of Peter Singer. I suggest Lloyd Spencer for those not fully familiar with the epistemological differences between Hegel and Marx.
Bellamy, Edward. Equality. New York: Random House, 1933 (orig. 1897).
-----. Looking Backward. New York: Random House, 1933 (orig. 1888).
Bemiri, Marie Louise. Journey Through Utopia. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1950.
Engles, Fridedrich. "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific." In Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-En gels Reader. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., (1972) 605-639.
Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and The Last Man. New York: The Free Press, 1992.
Hassler, Donald M. and Clyde Wilcox. "Introduction: Politics, Art, Collaboration." In Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox, eds., Political Science Fiction. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press (1997): 1-6.
-----. Political Science Fiction. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Philosophy of History. New York: Dover, 1956.
Loewenberg, Jacob, ed. Hegel: Selections. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929.
Marx, Karl. "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte." In Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-En gels Reader. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., (1972) 436-525.
Parrington, jr., Vernon Louis. American Dreams: A Study in American Utopias, second edition. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964.
Reynolds, Mack. Ability Quotient. New York: Ace Books, 1975.
-----. After Utopia. New York: Ace Books, 1977.
-----. "Afterword." Science-Fiction Studies. 16.1 (1979): 54-55.
-----. Commune 2000 A.D. New York: Bantam Books, 1974.
-----. Day After Tomorrow. New York: Ace Books, 1976.
-----. The Earth War. New York: Pyramid Books, 1963.
-----. Equality: In the Year 2000. New York: Ace Books, 1977.
-----. "Frigid Fracas." Analog, March-April 1963. Cited in Stableford.
-----. Looking Backward, From the Year 2000. New York:: Ace Books, 1973.
-----. Police Patrol: 2000 A.D. New York: Ace Books, 1977.
-----. Rolltown. New York: Ace Books, 1976.
-----. Satellite City. New York: Ace Books, 1975.
-----. The Towers of Utopia. New York: Bantam Books, 1975.
Singer, Peter. Hegel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Spencer, Lloyd and Andrzej Krauze. Introducing Hegel. New York: Totem Books, 1996.
Stableford, Brian. "The Utopian Dream Revisited: Socio-economic Speculation in the SF of Mack Reynolds." Science-Fiction Studies 16:1 (1979): 31-54.
Matthew Kapell teaches Behavioral Sciences at the University of Michigan and has published before in Extrapolation.