Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Adventures in Time and Space: Lester del Rey's "Nerves"

Adventures in Time and Space series table of contents

The work of art does not refer immediately back to the person who presumably made it. When we know nothing at all about the circumstances that contributed to its production, about the history of its creation — when we do not even know the name of the person who made it possible — it is then that the work comes closest to itself. This is its true direction; it is this characteristic which is expressed in that superlative phenomenon, the masterpiece. Perfection, in the sense given this word by estheticians, is not what distinguishes the masterpiece, nor is the mastery which belongs to the artist and not to the work. Valéry is right to say that mastery is what permits one never to finish what one does. Only the artisan's mastery culminates in the object he fashions. For the artist the work is always infinite, unfinished. And thus the fact that the work is, the singular event of its being absolutely, is disclosed as not belonging to the mastery we associate with achievement. It belongs to another order. ...
        But: does an object fashioned by an artisan or with a machine refer to its maker any more than the work of art does? It too is impersonal, anonymous. It does not bear any author's name.
        Yes, this is true; it does not refer to the person who presumably made it, but neither does it refer to itself. As has often been observed, it disappears altogether into its uses. It refers to all it does, to its utilitarian value. The object never announces that it is, but how it serves. It does not appear. In order that it appear, — this too has often been said — a break in the circuit of usage, a gap, an anomaly has to make it leave the world, leave its senses. And it seems then that, no longer there, it becomes its appearance, its image — what it was before being a useful thing or a significant value. This is also when it becomes, for Jean-Paul Richter and for André Breton, a veritable work of art.
—Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (trans. Ann Smock)
Where others were primarily storytellers, he [Hugo Gernsback] was a didacticist who framed his expositions either as mild japes on fascinating facts or as guided tours through the technologically marvelous world of the future. Although he came to reprint Verne, Wells and Burroughs, he personally did not aspire to literature; he aspired to something much more like propaganda.
        To some, it was potent propaganda. The significance of Amazing Stories is not in having been the first all-speculative-fiction newsstand magazine; it was not, Weird Tales having been founded in 1923. The primary significance lies in that it was the first such magazine to employ the new technological optimism as distinguished from older, classic foci for speculation.
—Algis Budrys, introduction to Lloyd Arthur Eshbach's Over My Shoulder: Reflections on a Science Fiction Era
[Erle Melvin Korshak, founder of Shasta Press] began reading science fiction in 1934, regularly getting issues of Astounding Stories and Wonder Stories from an older cousin after he had finished reading them. (The cousin later became an oil geologist, a logical development for a Depression teenager who started on science fiction magazines.)
—Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, Over My Shoulder
After this, what more need be said about Lester del Rey's story "Nerves"? I am constitutionally incapable of leaving it at that, but I encourage you to stop reading now. Everything that follows is mere elaboration — perhaps dilution — of what has been said in the juxtaposition of these quotations.

There is a subclass (not a "subgenre") of sf that "disappears altogether into its uses." A strange fact is that as far as I can tell no writer specialized in this subclass, no writer was always an artisan — for all that many of them insisted that they were "only" craftsmen; indeed almost all of the major (or at any rate majorly productive) writers of the first several decades of sf regularly produced both it and the "broken" works that become something else.* I always think of Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote many works that seem intended only for use (Prelude to Space, for example) alongside many others that "announce that they are," the grand visionary works like Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood's End that he's loved and loathed for. The same goes for del Rey; a story like the famous "Helen O'Loy," odious as it may be, has that break in the circuit, where "Nerves" truly does disappear altogether into its uses.

*I want to make very clear here that to say that there is a difference between art and craft is not to say that a work of art is "better" in any way except that it is better at being art. In the specific case(s) I'll be talking about in this post I'll be speaking negatively of those works that "disappear into their use," but that is because of the nature of their use. I'm also aware that these kinds of distinctions have often been used in very damaging and oppressive ways, but even if they've been misidentified and misused the distinctions do exist; if we can't acknowledge that between a tool, in itself as a tool, and a painting, in itself as a painting, there is a fundamental difference of kind, then we can't talk about paintings at all.

The defining characteristic of this type of sf is that it does nothing other than to present something which does not currently exist, but which maybe could soon, as if it does in fact exist, and then proceed to examine some parts of its workings. And by "nothing else" I mean nothing else. So for example Prelude to Space has absolutely no interest whatsoever in anything other than examining how a manned space vessel might be launched from the surface of the earth, and "Nerves" has absolutely no interest whatsoever in anything other than how a nuclear facility might deal with an accident.

(In his essay on sf, Blanchot writes: "A good work of science fiction, to the same extent that it purports to anticipate the future on the basis of genuine knowledge, has interest only in and for the present. Posterity stops here at ten years. The more authentic the creation, the more rapid its descent into the commonplace. There remain literary merits, the pleasure of reading; the book then moves on to a different shelf, having betrayed its kind by hypocritically staking a claim on eternal values." It would be easy to take him here as engaging in the old "if it's good it's not sf," but I believe he is referring instead to what I'm talking about here, what he was talking about in the passage from The Space of Literature, and is suggesting that by "betraying its kind" the work of the artisan becomes the work of art. I would use different terms to make the observation, but the observation itself is sound.)

The use that I'm claiming for this type of sf work, in case my recourse to Eshbach (whose blithe assumptions, and what they reveal about sf, I've discussed briefly here) and Budrys did not make this clear, is propaganda.

Nerves was written early in 1942, when atomic power was discussed publicly only in the science-fiction magazines. It presupposes a world where atomic power is an accepted fact, where atomic-power plants are as commonplace as automobile factories. Writing in a curiously prophetic vein, Mr. Del Rey has furnished some very plausible — albeit fictional — answers to the questions in everyone's mind. What is an atomic-power plant like? How does it operate? What would happen if things got out of control?
—blurb introducing "Nerves" in Adventures in Time and Space
It is important to remember, now and for the rest of this post — indeed for the rest of this series of posts — that every move this anthology makes is one of active canon-creation, not passive canon-reflection. To overstate: it was this anthology and not the age itself that called "the golden age" into existence.

Keeping that in mind, what fascinates about this blurb is how completely inaccurate it is, in the strictest factual sense. The story is not about atomic power plants but rather about facilities for the production of atomic byproducts for use in industry and agriculture.* In the world of the story these atomic facilities are neither accepted nor commonplace. Rather, they are deeply contested, though the contestation occurs almost entirely outside of the story, and the few facilities that exist are operated mainly by one company, in a near-monopoly. The story itself deals far more with the possibilities of near-future medicine than with "prophecies" about the practical functioning of atomic facilities. And indeed, del Rey is writing not in a "prophetic" but rather, to borrow an observation from Samuel R. Delany, in an incantatory vein: he wishes to call what does not exist into being merely by describing it.

*From here on I'll keep using "atomic" even where we'd normally say "nuclear" to help distinguish the setting of the story from what we might be familiar with now from real life.

The several ways in which the blurb is factually inaccurate are revealing, though, because in a broader sense it is entirely accurate. How does a story that looks always slightly to the side of, seldom directly at, the functioning of a facility for the production of atomic byproducts, while focusing much more directly on the brutal violence these byproducts can do to the human body, manage to be read as, far from a dire warning of the inhumanity to come, a "prophecy" of the exciting coming world of atomic power?

"There's an answer somewhere, has to be!"
—Dr. Jenkins, in "Nerves"
And indeed there is. There always is. Science and technology create a problem (an atomic accident kills and maims hundreds, and threatens to destroy a vast swathe of North America if some way of averting disaster is not found quickly), and science and technology are there to find a solution, over and over and over again as "Nerves" careens through its seventy interminably action-packed pages. Radioactive substances have infiltrated a man's nervous system, causing his limbs to jerk so spasmodically that bones break and he may literally die of exhaustion? Not to fear, science has found a way to synthesize curare in doses far more controllable than nature (and the "South American primitives" to whom it was known "for centuries") ever dreamed, and it can dull the motor function long enough to effect a cure; and the pain can be stopped safely with "neo-heroin." A man's heart has stopped due to his exposure to intense radiation and heat? Send for the new machine that can be used to get it going again, and it will be helicopter'd in within the half hour. Byproducts of the accident due to decay within hours into substances that will react and blow up most of the continent?
        "You've got sort of a river running off behind the plant; get everyone within a few miles of it out of there, and connect the blower outlets down to it. Where does it end, anyway — some kind of a swamp, or morass?"
        "About ten miles farther down, yes; we didn't bother keeping the drainage system going, since the land meant nothing to us, and the swamps made as good a dumping ground as anything else." When the plant had first used the little river as an outlet for their waste products, there'd been so much trouble that National had been forced to take over all adjacent land and quiet the owners' fears of the atomic activity in cold cash. Since then, it had gone to weeds and rabbits, mostly. "Everyone within a few miles is out, anyway, except a few fishers or tramps that don't know we use it. I'll have militia sent in to scare them out."
        "Good. Ideal, in fact, since the swamps will hold stuff in there where the current's slow longer."
For the first time the story looks directly at the heart of the problem — the atomic facility and the accident itself — and for the first time the solution is not to throw a scientific-technological fix at the scientific-technological problem, but — "the land meant nothing to us" — to throw the scientific-technological problem into the natural world. (The way it ends up working is that the dangerous byproducts mixed with the water form a colloid that keeps the individual molecules far enough apart to stop them from reacting; they can then be treated with a substance that reacts with them more safely, generating nothing but heat that the water can absorb — "It'll cook the river bed up and dry it, but that's all!") Despite this very telling change, though, the cycle of problem-solution problem-solution continues, and only extremely rarely is there any suggestion that it might even be possible — let alone desirable — to step out of the cycle.

And every time there is such a suggestion, it comes always from the stupid mob, sf's traditional enemy. We've just seen them in the passage I quoted just above, the landowners (and other users of the land) whose fears of radioactive contamination somehow remain foolish (the dismissiveness fairly oozes out of that word, "trouble", and har har, look, they were willing to take money) even in the face of a potentially world-historical catastrophe caused by precisely that radioactivity. A few pages earlier we've seen the competent scientists and technicians and engineers and doctors who are running things fretting about the fact that "the population" (always a group separate from those who matter) might resort to "lynch law" if forced to evacuate, even though the scientists and technicians and engineers and doctors know, as one of them says to the plant manager (on whom "the mob's" anger would likely focus) that "it wasn't your fault." And then of course there are several disparaging references to the delays and restrictions imposed by "Congress," a body sf writers often misunderstand as having some relation to "the people," which serves the convenient propaganda purpose of convincing budding technocrats that government can never facilitate business and technology enough, that it is always restricting and should be pressured to be more helpful.

You might be interested to know that at the party one very bright young woman described her adolescent reading of SF as a genuinely subversive force in her life, a real alternative to the fundamentalist community into which she had been born. This alternative had nothing to do with the cardboard heroes and heroines or the imperial American/engineering values which she had skipped right over. What got to her were the alien landscapes and the alien creatures.
—Joanna Russ, "On the Fascination of Horror Stories, Including Lovecraft's"
But of course "Nerves" doesn't even have those, or anything equivalent. All it has is the cardboard heroes (and, after a fashion, heroines) and the values. (The jokey male camaraderie of the last page, the "ribbing," the slapping on the back and the winking...) Now, I'm not arguing that "Nerves" is bad because it wants a world I think is bad, or even because it's dishonest in its methods of trying to call that world into existence. (If that disqualified a work of art for me, I wouldn't — couldn't — be an sf reader, nor could I be a reader of much else.) Much of the analysis I've just done, of the ways in which "Nerves" is politically dangerous, is of a kind that I find — in isolation — tedious and pointless. That the sf of the first half of the 20th century hated the greater mass of the people, manufactured itself and its readers as an elite, and desired a technocratic nightmare world that it in many ways successfully effected, is, or should be, obvious. That it also did other things, things that often manage to achieve a kind of depth and truth difficult to articulate (and Russ's young woman articulates only a small portion of it), is perhaps less obvious but is nevertheless true. The difficulty here, looking at "Nerves," is trying to understand how it is that it, unlike many stories just as reprehensible, has nothing — nothing — to offer apart from its hideous incantations.

Is it a matter of setting? Most of the problems I've been talking about are difficult to imagine arising in anything but a near-future story; on the other hand, space operas and other far-future settings come with their own problems.

Is it a matter of technique? I have tended to argue that the most important defining characteristic of any given work of sf — the single thing that most sets it apart as its own work and that most drives what it is capable of doing — is the way it alternates between exposition methods, here infodumping, here incluing, here mixing the two in this way, here in that. Perhaps it is not insignificant that "Nerves" is almost 100% infodump, with incluing playing almost no role. It's not that infodumping is in itself "bad" (a foolish, meaningless thing to say) but that in the absence of any counterpoint with incluing (which even the sfnal "essays" of a writer like Lem have in abundance) the work succumbs to the kind of intellectual weakness that Delany identifies in the utopia, a form which no amount of clueless academic criticism can make identical with sf* but which this particular story comes very close to, in terms of structure at any rate.

*To say that works of sf can be utopian is to say something entirely different than to say that sf is utopia, or that utopia is sf.

Or is it a matter of outlook? The attitude toward technology I've been looking at in this post is very much the kind of mystification Russ was referring to in her "SF and Technology as Mystification," where the notion that technology is some force of nature that just "advances" on its own, without human input, is a cover for the machinations of capitalism; whether this mystification is presented by a booster, as here, or a nominal opponent, as in the academic panels Russ discusses, is essentially irrelevant: the mystification serves its purpose either way.

Of course it's all of these things — they all contribute — and none of them — many stories that live and breathe do some or all of these things and somehow manage to be more than propaganda.

We know that all ancient art was other than it seems to us to be. The white statues deceive us, but if we restore their colored coating to them, it is then that they appear false to us (and they are false, because this restoration disregards the power, the truth of time, which has erased the colors). A painting ages; one ages badly, the other becomes a masterpiece through the duration that decomposes its tones, and we are familiar with the fortuitousness of mutilations: this Victory to which only the flight of time could give wings, the heads from Bardo, of mediocre craftsmanship, that the sea has resculpted, has made fascinating. Moreover, the very means of our knowledge transform almost at will that which they help us to know: through reproduction, art objects lose their scale; the miniature becomes a painting, the painting separated from itself, fragmented, becomes another painting. Fictive arts? But art, it would seem, is this fiction.
—Blanchot, "The Museum, Art, and Time" (trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg), in Friendship
Obviously not nearly as much time separates us from "Nerves" as from the statues, but in the terms of modernity, of modern science, and of science fiction (again: "Posterity stops here at ten years," and though this has not in actual fact been the case, the observation remains true of the writing itself), 1942 was several eternities ago. The colors have worn, duration has decomposed the tones; and then, too, the story's being ensconced in an authoritative (and, in my secondhand copy, solidly built but heavily battered) hardcover from a major press, rather than in the disposable newsstand magazine it originally appeared in, makes it lose its scale, separates it from itself.
Plastic art is first in the service of religious sentiments or invisible realities around which the community perpetuates itself; art is religion, says Hegel. At this stage one finds it in churches, in tombs, under the earth, or in the sky, but inaccessible, invisible in a way: who looks at Gothic statues? We do; the others invoked them. The consequence of the disappearance of prayer was to make monuments and works of art appear, to make painting an art within reach of our eyes.
—"The Museum, Art, and Time"
To combine Blanchots, and to reassign the values attached to his observations all willy-nilly:

I tend to suspect that the difference between "Nerves" and, say, "Forgetfulness" — or indeed even "Requiem," which for all its self-serving propagandistic sentimentality, for all that I hate it, is something other than that as well — was largely invisible when these stories were first read. It is easy now to laugh at early sf readers (and tempting to compare them to contemporary ones in this regard) but what at first appears a simple lack of discernment may conceal something deeper: where we "look at" these stories, their first readers invoked them. They all disappeared into their uses, and the uses of all of them were, in a sense, propagandistic; it was these stories, after all, that made it "a logical development for a Depression teenager who started on science fiction magazines" to take his place in the oil industry — for countless like him to take their places anywhere in the emerging technocracy.

The stories, as "stories", were invisible. It is only the passage of time, the change in context, the coming to pass of what has, indeed, come to pass since they were written — and the way this changes the stories' "futurity," the way it transforms them into something that can laughably be called "prophetic," or just as laughably not — that makes them appear. It is only this that brings them within reach of our eyes. The passage of time and the change in context have transformed all of these stories, some into art, some not. However much I like to imagine that, had I been an avid sf reader in the era of Campbell's Astounding, I would have dismissed "Nerves" as garbage while recognizing "Forgetfulness" as a masterpiece, I'm not so sure. Perhaps "Forgetfulness" was always "broken" in the way it is now, and "Nerves" never was; perhaps not. Perhaps it is impossible to say.


WM said...

Excellent thinking, Ethan. I think part of my frustration with SF&F these days is that it seems so stuck in the technocracy even if it's doing a better job of representing gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc. Great, we've improved representation and imported some techniques from lit-fic. But are the underpinnings any different?

It seems to me that the mainstream liberal and the mainstream conservative (really more libertarian) authors are both engaging in propaganda and for all that they think they're opposed, it's still all under the techno-utopian umbrella. Or if not utopian, technocratic inevitability (via mystification).

Perhaps it's me reading the U.S. political situation onto the field, but it's kind of the sense I get.

Also: one of my first thoughts after reading this was to reflect on the perennial reactions to the switch to DST. Almost everyone decries it as a tyranny but it's left as this almost mysterious ritual that gets forced upon us. Something to do with the farmers.

Ethan Robinson said...

It makes you wonder how current work will age.

It's like something I've been vaguely thinking lately with respect to "cyberpunk" - sometimes you see arguments that because it "predicted" the modern world so well (which, in some ways, it did, if we sign on to the notion that sf is "predictive") it's therefore proven that it was great literature. As far as I'm concerned this argument is obviously stupid nonsense, but recently it's occurred to me that my problem with it is deeper than that. That the contemporary world reflects some of what cyberpunk writers wrote about is if anything an indictment of cyberpunk! The kindest possible interpretation is that it failed to avert what it saw coming (and to the extent that sf is supposedly "predictive" it has to be judged according to usefulness - another problem with the "predictive" model); and imo the much more accurate interpretation is that it helped bring this world about in much the same way that "Nerves" helped bring what it "predicted" about.