adventures in genre fiction

Notes on recent reading:

Fear (1951) and Final Blackout (1940), by L. Ron Hubbard. These pulp-era gems haven't lost their sparkle, especially if you can read them objectively as fiction and not as chapters in the larger story of the creator's life (although they can be approached either way). A project for science fiction studies would be a compare-and-contrast with an unlikely peer, Philip K. Dick. Final Blackout presents an alternate-future story a la Dick's Man in the High Castle, with a libertarian drift. In Dick's book the Germans and Japanese have won World War II and divided the US into eastern and western provinces dominated by the respective victors. In Hubbard's yarn, the US stays out of "the war" while Europe becomes a depopulated wasteland.

Both stories have more on their minds than military what-ifs. Dick revels in the Borgesian play of intersecting parallel worlds and Zen consciousness in his Occupied California, while Hubbard's tough-guy survivor character, The Lieutenant, achieves a kind of agrarian utopia in a UK slowly rebuilding from its ashes. By means of strong leadership, without the corrupt bureaucracy that fueled the war in the first place, the Lieutenant keeps the people busy and happy with reconstruction tasks, never allowing the jobs to harden into permanent organizational structures. He decides to forgo factories and re-industrialization, leading to a new, pleasant England resembling Tolkien's Shire, minus hobbits. Complications arise when the United States shows up with a flotilla of sleek, high-tech warships, saying that it wants to "help" war-ravaged England but actually planning to use it as dumping ground for its own burgeoning population. Hubbard sympathizes with the agrarians despite reverent descriptions of the US's Buck Rogers technology. The author's blueprint for leadership of an unorthodox group is of interest to the modern reader because, well, you know.

It's difficult to talk about Hubbard's other "classic" novella, Fear, without giving too much away. It starts off somewhat similarly to Fritz Lieber's novel Conjure Wife (1940), with a small town college setting and a professor-protagonist who scoffs at the existence of demons and magic. Soon after, step by step, inch by nerve-jangling inch, the main character's ordered life begins to come unraveled. While Lieber's professor eventually pushes back against the occult forces with the help of his wife's superior lore, Hubbard's character ventures deeper into the Dick-ian (or what later became thought of as Dick-ian) territory of a waking nightmare that may or may not be solipsistic.

The Santaroga Barrier (1968), by Frank Herbert. I lost all my Dune paperbacks but still own this book and gave it a re-read recently. A philosophical science fiction horror story, written in the mid-'60s as interest in psychotropic substances was, shall we say, peaking, once again presents us with a dilemma of an unorthodox group. The gripping tale keeps the reader's sympathies ping-ponging back and forth between the small town with enlightened ideals that has a repressive need for consensus and the wider world with messy uncertainties that nonetheless belongs to exploiters and propagandizers. Events don't reach the Waco/Branch Davidian stage but that end game is never far from the current reader's mind. With a minimum of speechmaking, and mostly through the unfolding of its suspense plot, Herbert opposes the idea of large, transcendent, archetypal knowledge not channeled through language -- poetic beauty as seen by the mystics, which sounds like schizophrenic ravings when encountered by outsiders -- and the dull, weaponized language and manipulative metrics employed in TV and marketing. By the end, there is no shortage of doubt regarding the town's methods of preserving its collective innocent honesty.

The Lonely Silver Rain (1985), by John D. MacDonald. The last Travis McGee book meant to introduce a new chapter to the long-running character's saga: "Trav" discovers he has a daughter out of wedlock, who gives him renewed purpose. Henceforth (we're led to believe) he'll be doing his urban detective "salvage" work -- taking 50% of funds he recovers from clients who have been swindled, conning the con men, as it were -- to put money in his daughter's trust, and not just working for his own selfish pleasure. Then the author died, at age 70, leaving the series on a melancholy note despite this 11th hour revelation. Trav does quite a bit of self-lacerating, aided by his mouthy offspring, about his "adolescent" lifestyle. Living on a houseboat, engaging in serial romantic relationships (Trav was too noble to be a mere "womanizer"), enjoying the music collection he recently laboriously converted from vinyl to cassette tape (ah, 1985, when could you be more disastrously wrong in your consumer choices). In the earlier books MacDonald included eloquent justifications that the 9-to-5 life was actually horribly worse -- this being the same regimented and materialistic America that disgusted the town of Santaroga and menaced Hubbard's Lieutenant -- but there's none of that here. Unquestionably the series presented escapist fare for the deskbound, steeped in assumptions of the Mad Men era, but surely there was a way to evolve the character without indicting, as mere immaturity, the reader's dreams of leaving the rat race.