Monday, June 22, 2015

The cases for and against The Case Against Tomorrow

Frederik Pohl's The Case Against Tomorrow makes no such case and is not nearly as good as its title. These six stories work hard at giving the appearance of satire without ever being funny, the appearance of being "political" without ever having a single political thing to say beyond what any "apolitical" work does. In their perspectivelessness they scream "status quo" all the more loudly for the fact that they say it sarcastically. (Witness the fact that they can shift the locus of their elementary "if this goes on..." reasoning from consumer capitalism to prisons to baseball without any corresponding shift in register or urgency.) Sometimes they feel like the spectacle of a liberal fully understanding the absurd monstrosity that is liberalism without understanding that there exists any alternative; sometimes — and this is probably more biographically accurate — they seem like that of a never-fully-committed socialist collapsing, at last, with an embarrassed, awkward giggle, into the relative ease and comfort of liberalism. (The final story, "My Lady Greensleeves" — the whole thing, but particularly the fate of Lafon's head and the uses of the joke at the end — should be studied closely by anyone interested in the role of race in mainline white liberal sf, assuming they can stomach the story's more violent moments and, probably more unstomachable, the writing's blithe, bland unawareness of just how violent it is.)

Despite this the stories always seem excruciatingly certain of themselves: in the way they carry themselves, in the way there is never any imaginable alternative to what they recount, and even less to their perspective on it. Strangely, this might be the strongest thing in their favor — the mind that seems reflected in this writing feels as though it is teetering on the edge of an abyss, liable at any moment to collapse and fall into nothingness, into a full awareness of the irremediable contradictions it requires to go on being what it is (though we know, biographically, that it never did) — but there is something in the way that the stories perch themselves precisely at this moment, almost never stepping even slightly to one direction or the other, almost never even fidgeting, that is — what? Banally moving? Movingly banal? In part?

There is often a metaphorical conflation of the states "nakedness" and "honesty" but here I want to distinguish between them and say that maybe what I like about these stories, even though I hate them, is that while they're never honest — they are in fact vehemently dishonest — they're always naked. They're terrible, embarrassing, philistine, ideological nightmares, but somehow, paradoxically, by so being they lay bare aspects of writing and being that most other writing, even putatively truth-telling writing, tends to work so hard to conceal. (And yet this is not a recommendation — I don't recommend this book — it is nothing more than a fumbling attempt at explaining, if only to myself, why I don't regret having read it.)

No comments: