Rocket pioneer Max Valier on the case for women (but not the working class) in space

Max Valier im RaketenautoAustrian physicist and rocketry pioneer Max Valier became a friend and populariser of Hermann Oberth, and working with Fritz von Opel became the first person to test-drive a liquid-fuelled rocket-propelled car (he should also have been the first person to fly a rocket-propelled plane, but Opel was a bit of a dick about it all). He also wrote fiction, including ‘Auf kühner Fahrt zum Mars’ published in Die Rakete (1928), and then translated by Francis Currier as ‘A Daring Trip To Mars’ for Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories (July 1931). Valier’s preface boasts of the accuracy of the ‘mathematical parts’, which ‘as based on careful calculation’, which I believe, although his claim that the story is ‘entertainment’ is debatable. Unless he means the bits where he raises gender and class politics in relation to spaceflight:

          ‘What, your wife is going with you [on your experimental spaceflight]?
‘Somebody must do the housekeeping, even in the rocket. That is not work for men. And then who knows whether other planets are not perhaps inhabited? She would surely not want me to succumb to the enticements of the beautiful dwellers in other worlds.’

Later, four months into their journey, thanks to ‘the unescapable boredom’, it’s all getting a bit claustrophobic and intense:

They quarrelled, merely in order to quarrel and to prove to themselves that they were actually still alive and not lying in an eternal sleep. These mutual torments slowly took on a more threatening form. When the science fiction novelists have written about space flight and depicted a mutiny of the crew or something of that sort, they have shown something psychologically well founded. But among the engineer, the doctor, and Inge it went no further than rudeness, but rudeness which they would never have pardoned under terrestrial conditions. In the case of baser stock there would actually have been mutiny and stabbings.




The City in Fiction and Film, week four

SH_BLUE-01One of the many other things to take into account when designing a coherent degree programme is when and where to fit in all the other things that a HEI is now often expected to provide during scheduled classes – things like study skills, careers, etc, etc. So rather than screen a film this week, this module was responsible for the first library training session, beginning with basics (such as where the library is and what resources and services it provides) and building up to a detailed online workbook (locating different kinds of sources, assessing their reliability, how – and why – to quote and/or paraphrase them, how to reference them, etc). The workbook takes maybe two hours to complete – and in a couple of weeks, students will have their first assignment – an online quiz that tests their knowledge of the library, referencing, etc. Our Faculty Librarian designs and presents this workbook and the quiz, and machines mark it for me!

Back in my day, you were given a library card and told the card catalogue was probably quicker to use and more reliable than the rather basic computer catalogue… Kids today, honestly they don’t know they’re born!

Class began with an informal test about all the semiotic terminology encountered last week – students were free to draw on any resources to help them reformulate the ideas in their own terms to a) probe their understanding of those ideas; b) probe the ideas themselves; and c) tame an alien vocabulary and make it useful.

Next, we took on the James Bond exercise we did not have time for last week. At the start of chapter 25 of Ian Fleming’s From Russia, With Love (1957), called ‘A Tie with a Windsor Knot’, Bond is joined on the Orient Express by psychopathic SMERSH assassin Red Grant posing as an MI6 agent sent by M called Captain Norman Nash. After an exchange of codewords, we are treated to a description of Nash through Bond’s eyes from which Bond extrapolates the character and life story of his new acquaintance. Several codes are evoked to suggest that Nash is untrustworthy or at least unseemly.

He has ‘thick lips’ which writhe briefly rather than forming a smile – whether a friendly greeting or an ironic grin at the ‘childish’ password ‘ritual’. Those lips suggest a racialised sensuality – rather than possessing the British character associated with a stiff upper lip, Nash has stayed behind in the Mediterranean after the war, to ‘avoid the rigours of England’ and to take a foreign girlfriend or marry an Italian.

It gets worse. Not only does he speaks with ‘a hint of … cheap brogue’, so perhaps his off-whiteness can be traced to Irish ancestry, his curious accent is probably also a consequence of speaking a ‘foreign language all the time’. He has simultaneously “gone native” and let the veneer of English civilisation slip sufficiently to reveal beneath it a not-Englishness. Perhaps that is why his calling card mentions his rank, Captain, and that he is a member of the RAC. They are desperate attempts to assert an identity he does not quite possess; and they give themselves  away as such to Bond’s trained – or perhaps merely bigoted –  eye.

Nash’s lips might be given to bestial writhing, but his eyes are at once dead – there is ‘no light in them’ – and a ‘very pale blue’, watery perhaps and lacking resolve. Certainly the career trajectory Bond imagines for him – from ‘minor public school’ (so not from one of the best English families, maybe even from an Irish family) through the Royal Engineers (perhaps not the most frontline of wartime active service, and a bit close to skilled manual labour) to stumbling into a position with MI6 because all the more senior and more qualified men returned to the ‘rigours of England’.

His clothing suggests some mismatching of colours – reddish-brown tweed, pale yellow shirt, blue and red regimental tie, a red bandana handkerchief (that flops out of his breast pocket), a ‘gold signet ring with an indecipherable crest’, a battered silver watch with a leather strap. And then there is that tie tied in a Windsor knot. To Bond, the knot signals Nash’s vanity; it is after all ‘the mark of the cad’ – and was in popular consciousness linked to Edward VII, who after his abdication was seen as a potential pretender to the throne (especially as he was not exactly as unsympathetic to Hitler as one might have hoped).

Throughout, the meanings generated by Nash’s appearance rely on the connotations evoked by specific word choices and combinations, which in turn rely on shared codes through which we understand those connotations. And we can push beyond codes to what Roland Barthes called ‘myth’ – especially around class, masculinity and the colonial imaginary – and thus to ideology.

As Jonathan Bignell explains, for Barthes, ‘myth’ refers

to ways of thinking about people, products, places or ideas which are structured to send particular messages to the reader or viewer of texts … Media texts often connect one signified idea with another, or one signifier with another, in order to attach connotations to people and things and endow them with mythic meaning. (Media Semiotics, 2nd edition, 16, 17)

Fortunately the British press, British Prime Ministers and Fox News never let you down when you want a contemporary examples, so we began by questioning why The Times (14 September 2015) described Jeremy Corbyn’s favoured mode of transport as a ‘Chairman Mao-style bicycle’. Why would a right-wing newspaper want to connect the new moderate centre-left leader of the Labour Party with the head of a brutal communist dictatorship?

We then took a look the first half at this segment from John Oliver, in which he explains why it is problematic for David Cameron to call refugees ‘a swarm’, and why Fox News cannot heavily imply all muslim men and/or refugees are terrorists while claiming that they are not implying precisely that.

In each of these examples, signifiers connote and those connotations draw upon and reinforce Barthesian myths. (We also took a look at Barthes’s own famous example of the Paris-Match cover in which a young black cadet salutes the French flag, thus apparently justifying colonialism.)

After all this (and a break!), it was time for some urban fiction, beginning with Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892) – the one in which a lost hat and abandoned Xmas goose lead Holmes to solve the theft of the eponymous gem. Our main focus was on the passage in which Holmes performs a semiotic analysis of the hat (though we also considered the simple techniques Doyle uses to persuade us of the accuracy of Holmes’s reading).

There were some indexical signs: several tallow splashes on the hat suggest its owner, Horner, lives in a house where gas-lighting has not yet been installed; and, more ridiculously, the size of the hat leads Holmes to conclude that Horner has a large head and therefore must be ‘highly intellectual’ – later, Horner’s mannered expression and use of the term ‘disjecta membra‘ will serve to confirm this absurdity. (The story was published the year before HG Wells’s essay ‘The Man of the Year Million’, which led to the design of his Martians and thus all those later big-brained aliens with puny bodies – so clearly something was in the air, not least because Horner is also sedentary and out of shape.)

There is also plenty of evidence of myth, as the connotations Holmes draws from his perusal of the hat reach out into the dimension of Victorian morality. Horner, who is no longer as foresightful as once he was, who has fallen on hard times, who  is not as attentive to his appearance as he used to be, and who has taken to drink, is obviously undergoing ‘a moral retrogression’ and has a ‘weakening nature’, though there are vague hopeful indications that ‘he has not entirely lost his self-respect’. In this aspect of Holmes’s analysis, meanings are converted into values – myth, and behind it ideology, in action.

This can be seen even more starkly in Holmes’s conclusion that Horner’s wife no longer loves him.

This hat has not been brushed for a week. When I see you, my dear Watson, with a week’s accumulation of dust upon your hat, and when your wife allows you to go out in such a state, I shall fear that you also have been unfortunate enough to lose your wife’s affection.

Patriarchy, anyone? Normative gender roles much? (It took mere seconds to come up with a half a dozen other reasons for Horner’s hat not having been dusted recently.)

We also took a quick look at the sequence from the first episode of Sherlock, in which Frumious Bandersnatch explains his initial reading of Bilbo’s character, history and current situation – culminating in a moment in which his reliance on heteronormative codes leads him to mistake the gender of his new friend’s sibling. (Other parts of his semiotic analysis were also questionable – were Iraq and Afghanistan really the only sunny places overseas British troops were stationed in 2009/10? why are scratches around the port on the phone evidence of the previous owner having a drink problem when we already know the current owner has a hand that sometimes shakes uncontrollably? Etc.)

We also took a look at the start of Holmes’ crime-scene analysis (damp clothes indexing rain, etc). And the handy bit when we see Holmes work along syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes to make sense of the victim’s message scratched in the floor with her fingernails: RACHE. In what languages is that a word? German, meaning revenge. Doesn’t seem very likely. What letter could be added to it to complete an English word? An L? Rachel! It’s a name. That’ll do nicely.

We finally took a look at William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981), but we were all flagging a little by this time. Its main significance for this class is twofold:

  • that there came a point – Gibson argues for the 1930s – when design started to dominate function in the construction of commodities and thus we started reorganising the way we purchase things in terms of their readable connotations;
  • and that that we live in built environments which are to varying degrees designed, and can thus be read for their meanings, which may well change over time. (And that all around us lurk semiotic ghosts.)





Primer (Shane Carruth USA 2004)

primer-movie-poster-2004-1020241222[A version of this review appeared in Foundation 98 (2006), 152–6]

From a garage in Dallas, four men run a business in their spare time, using scavenged components and their knowledge of physics, computers and engineering to devise patentable tweaks to existing technology in the hope of getting rich. Two years, fourteen patents – and the best they have managed is disenchantment with each other and a marginal mail-order business selling JTAG cards. However, while experimenting with superconductors, Aaron (Shane Carruth) stumbles upon something peculiar – the system they have built puts out more energy than they put into it. He and Abe (David Sullivan) keep it secret from Phillip (Anand Upanhyaya) and Robert (Casey Gooden). They realise that ‘the easiest way to be exploited [is] to sell something they did not understand’ but also, over following weeks and months, that they are ‘out of their depth’. Until one day, Abe takes Aaron step-by-step through what he has learned – they have actually created a kind of time machine. If they switch it on at time A and enter it later at time B, they can return to time A; but this also means that between times A and B there are two of each of them coexisting. Abe is anxious to avoid messing around with causality, but things start to go awry when the much less cautious Aaron begins to fantasise about getting revenge on an investor who messed them around: Aaron imagines assaulting him and then going back in time to tell himself not to do it. He dreams of acting with impunity, of becoming so rich that he is above the law.

Actually, things go awry much sooner (or possibly later) than that: Aaron grasped the machine’s potential more quickly than Abe realised and has been deceiving him, carrying out his own agenda. Aarons and Abes multiply, attacking other versions of themselves. Disagreements escalate. Aaron and Abe appear less frequently in the same shot, and when they do they are often separated not just by distance but by the vertical lines of background architecture or ominous black shapes.

Placing all that has passed under erasure, the story ends – I think – at some point between the start of the film and Abe’s first use of the time machine. An Abe is sabotaging the machine while the original Abe (or possibly the same Abe, only earlier) is building it, in the hope that he will give up (read backwards, his surname, Terger, provides a clue). An Aaron, somewhere overseas and apparently with corporate or state backing, is constructing a much bigger machine, while the original Aaron (or possibly the same Aaron, only earlier) continues to live with his family. I think.

Writer-director-editor and co-star Carruth (he was also responsible for casting, production design, sound design and the film’s original music) is rumoured to have shot a scene in which everything is explained, but if so, he was wise to cut it – and not only because it must have contained long and stilted dialogue (and probably lots of diagrams). The film is effective because of its refusal to clarify what we see and hear. Fresh but often elliptical information demands that we, like the protagonists, revise our understanding of earlier scenes, which in turn alters our understanding of the information. Multiple viewings are required for those who wish to figure it out, but, like Videodrome (1983), I am not certain it can be – and this renders it probably unique among American time-travel fictions. For example, unlike the Back to the Future ( 1985–90) and Terminator (1984–2003) trilogies, it is not easily reducible to an oedipal primal scene fantasy; and however much their final reels might prattle about the future not being fixed, they lack Primer’s more thoroughgoing destabilisation of temporality, duration, narrative, memory and identity. This contingency of meaning and self-conscious ambiguity is more akin to modernist European time-travel fantasies like La jetée (1962), L’anné dernière à Marienbad (1961) and Je t’aime, je t’aime ( 1968) (Primer’s womb imagery, aural rather than visual, seems to allude to the latter in particular).

Like these nouvelle vague films, Primer is also a meditation on cinema itself. Although it is a coincidence that the Lumière brothers ‘invented’ cinema in the same year that Wells published The Time Machine: An Invention (1895), there is a complex interconnection between time-travel and motion pictures that goes beyond the Wells/Paul patent for a never-constructed fairground ride/exhibition space that reconstructed the Time Traveller’s voyage. The projected representation of past moments, undercranking and overcranking the camera so as to produce fast- and slow-motion, editing out frames or editing them together – these are all experiments in altering time, reconstructing it so as to be experienced differently. (And it is worth recalling that Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script for Marienbad was inspired by Aldolfo Bioy Casares’s neglected sf novel La invención de Morel (1940), whose title nods to Wells but whose story of a man who falls in love with an unattainable woman in a virtual projection of a recorded past was itself inspired by the author’s fascination with silent movie actress Louise Brooks.) Early in Primer, when the garage door rolls shut, the inventors remain visible through four windows in it: the image looks like four frames of film unspooled across a black background. In several scenes footage overlaps, repeats from the same and different angles, the action apparently stuttering; perhaps a consequence of shooting insufficient coverage, it nonetheless disrupts and thus becomes instructive about the ways conventional editing creates the illusion of continuous time and space. Elsewhere, jumpcuts compress time, to similar effect. Reality becomes subject to multiple takes, events can be revised and erased; a key incident is ‘reverse-engineered into a perfect moment’.

Technical errors during filming left much of the sound recording unusable; the post-synchronised dialogue and ambient sound often just don’t sound quite right, further alienating the viewer, especially during scenes dominated by hard-sf speak. The film contrives to hold the viewer at a distance while its characters do little to evoke a sympathetic response, making it something to scrutinise rather than wallow in – not that one would want to: the world it creates is far from appealing (shot on super-16mm, and blown up to 35mm via a digital intermediary, it is dominated by sickly greens and yellows), and not just in terms of its appearance.

Roger Luckhurst argues that the figure of the heroic scientist – whether Ralph 124c41+ or Thomas Edison – emerged in popular culture just as the real-world efforts of the latter and his ilk were industrialising and commodifying the processes of technological innovation, effectively removing it from the realm of the individual creator. Just as La invención de Morel explores capital’s colonisation of the unconsconscious in terms of the articulation of desire through the commodified image of an actress, so Primer sees the logic of capital spread into every aspect of its protagonists’ being. They work 30 hours per week in the garage on top of their day jobs. Robert proposes a project which might be fun, but Aaron and Abe dismiss it because it is unlikely to reach a marketable stage. Alienated from their labour and from whatever pleasure they derived from tinkering with things in the garage, all they want to do is produce the tweak that will make them rich. They have instrumentalised their skills and desires, and compartmentalised their lives. Unable to produce a profitable device, they instead use time-travel to pick up information on stocks and shares. The fantasy of free energy (and self-replication) turns into the fantasy of immaterial capital boundlessly reproducing itself. By explicitly rejecting the lottery in favour of the stock market they throw themselves into capital’s annexation of our future.

That their experiment is doomed is suggested throughout by the sense that life cannot be compartmentalised, that causation is complex rather than linear. At one point, Aaron ‘accidentally’ reproduces his cell phone, and when it rings he has to work out whether the network will contact both identical phones or just search grid by grid until it finds one of them. Elsewhere, inexplicably, the father of a girl they know suddenly appears with two or three days of facial hair despite being clean-shaven just a few hours earlier. ‘There’s always leaks,’ Abe tells Aaron, and consequences seem to come not in chains but webs which reach in all directions.

Ultimately, this is where Primer differs from nouvelle vague time travel fantasies. They are primarily backward-looking, concerned with memory and the props which secure bourgeois identity. Primer looks to the future, but instead finds a complex present already out of control. Its garage inventors resemble the utopian writers described in Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future (2005), but unlike them Aaron and Abe are unable to imagine change, the radical break – the first negation – that makes utopia possible. They are so woven into the fabric of late-capital that they can only conceptualise using this fabulous new technology to leave everything – apart from their bank balances – exactly the same. The market might pretend it is homeostatic, orderly and inevitable, but a fragment of hope can be found in how thoroughly Aaron and Abe are made to learn that the status quo is complex, dynamic and riddled with contradiction.

Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

200px-ModernElectrics1912-02First published: Modern Electrics, April 1911-March 1912
First edition: Boston: The Stratford Company, 1925
Edition used: Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000

In the year 2660, when the world’s population has reached 90 billion people, Ralph 124C 41+ is

one of the greatest living scientists and one of the ten men on the whole planet earth permitted to use the Plus sign after his name. (9)

writing5In the opening chapter, a serendipitous malfunction with his Telephot system and some quick thinking enable him to save Alice 212B 423 from an avalanche thousands of miles away. When Alice and her father travel to New York to thank him, Ralph and Alice fall in love. During an extended guided tour of the magnificent future city Alice is kidnapped, rescued and then kidnapped again by Fernand 60O 10. Before Ralph can rescue her, she is again abducted, this time by the Martian Llysanorh’ CK 1618. When Llysanorh’ realises Ralph is about to capture him, he kills Alice. In a desperate gamble, Ralph performs an experimental procedure on her to preserve her body until he can return to Earth and revive her. A week after the emergency operation, Ralph visits his recovering sweetheart:

‘Dearest,’ she said, ‘I have just found out what your name really means.’
Ralph twined a little tendril of her hair around one of his fingers.
‘Yes?’ he asked with a quizzical smile.
‘Well, you see,’ and the lovely color deepened to rose, ‘your name is going to be my name now, so I keep saying it over to myself–’
‘My darling!’
( 1     2     4       C     4       1 )            (293)

As the above plot description suggests, Gernsback’s fix-up novel is deficient as fiction and frequently unspeakably banal. It is nonetheless a major text in the development of the modern American pulp-and-paperback tradition of sf – although arguably more for what it signifies than for what it achieves. As an editor, Gernsback famously advocated a variety of

‘scientifiction’ … the Jules Verne, HG Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision. (Amazing Stories, 1 (April 1926): 3)

Ralph 124C 41+, written over a decade before the launch of Amazing Stories, is perhaps best understood as an earlier effort by Gernsback to describe that formula. The naïvely-depicted romance between Ralph and Alice, and the various rescues and abductions, alarums and excursions, are the very stuff of Romance, if conceptualised and presented in a cack-handed, juvenile manner. Ralph_Alice_roller+skatesInterspersed among the narrative elements are plenty of scientific facts, pseudo-scientific information, and scientific-sounding patter – including diagrams and footnotes about experiments. And the future New York offered by Gernsback constitutes prophetic vision.

One of the most obvious failings of Gernsback’s prophetic vision is his inability to extend imagined social developments beyond the realm of the technological, to allow for changes in human institutions and ideologies. Thus we get a condemnation of industrial action understood merely in terms of workers’ alleged greed and irresponsibility:

 our governor had some trouble with the four weather-engineers of our district, some months ago, and they struck for better living. They claimed the authorities did not furnish them with sufficient luxuries, and when their demands were refused, they simultaneously turned on the high-depression at the four Meteoro-Towers and then fled, leaving their towers with the high-tension currents escaping at a tremendous rate. (18)

The adulation Ralph receives, and that which is lavished upon the ‘light-picture of the Planet Governor’ (118), indicates that for all the supposed improvements that technological advancement has brought to humanity, society remains deeply hierarchical. Also, the central action of the novel is concerned with Alice being exchanged between men and avoiding miscegenation, culminating in her swapping her father’s name (212B – ‘to want to be’?) for Ralph’s.

This inability to imagine human relationships lies behind not only Gernsback’s utilisation of a debased Romance narrative, but also behind the characters’ suppressed sexuality. This is most obvious in the opening chapter, in which Ralph finds Alice alone, about to be engulfed by an avalanche. Throughout this chapter and its aftermath, we find the kind of fascist body imagery analysed by Klaus Theweleit.[1] Ralph has

a physique much larger than that of the average man of his times and approaching that of the huge Martians. His physical superiority, however, was as nothing to his gigantic mind. (9)

His phallic body is matched by his phallic house,

a round tower, six hundred and fifty feet high, and thirty in diameter, built entirely of crystal glass-bricks and steelonium, … one of the sights of New York. (33)

His body is subordinated to the will of the state, and he demonstrates no interest in the crowd of well-wishers, either individually or collectively. Fluid and tempestuous nature often operates as a metaphor for female sexuality. It is frpaul_02_amazquar_1929win_ralph124csignificant then that Ralph uses all his rational-technological powers to spurt energy from his aerial to melt the tide of snow and ice threatening to overwhelm Alice. This sexual displacement is made obvious (and ridiculous) by Alice’s father simultaneously racing home to ensure nothing untoward befalls her, and by Ralph’s tactful withdrawal when he burst in.

In this context, it is important to take account of the primary characteristic shared by the many inventions, techniques and marvels Ralph shows Alice: flawless steelonium streets, liquidised food, perfect climate control, floodlit sportsfields, the bacillatorium, giant double-glazed geothermically-heated greenhouses, artificial milk produced direct from the grass without having to pass through a cow, a city floating in the sky, an antigravity circus. In all of these, it is possible to see Gernsback’s vision of science as a means of abstracting people from nature, and interposing technology between them so as to keep them Frank-R.-Paul-Ralph-124C41+-Resurrectionseparated. This finds an obvious resonance with the lengths to which Gernsback goes to distance his hero from physical intimacy with Alice, even killing her off so as not to leave her alone with Ralph in a spaceship together for fifty days – she is only permitted to recover when it is possible to banish intimacy beyond the end of the novel.

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

See Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, volume 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History (1977; trans. 1987) and Male Fantasies, Volume 2: Male Bodies: Psychoanalyzing the White Terror (1978; trans. 1989).

Jack London’s The Iron Heel

This wasn’t due to go up until tomorrow, but with the fucking Tories somehow re-elected this morning…

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

51FHCMEP0MLFirst editions: New York: Macmillan, 1907; London: Everett, 1907
Edition used: Edinburgh: Canongate Books (Rebel Inc. Classic), 1999

The Iron Heel is the incomplete memoir of Avis, written in 1932, on the eve of the Second Revolt. It recounts how, in 1912, she and her wealthy father met the revolutionary socialist, and her future husband, Ernest Everhard, and were won to his cause. Within a year, their lives are in disarray as the capitalist interests who dominate institutions and an increasingly tyrannical government seize complete control of America. This plutocratic oligarchy – dubbed ‘the Iron Heel’ by Ernest – forces the socialists underground. The novel ends with horrific descriptions of the destruction of Chicago in the failed First Revolt, and breaks off abruptly, leaving no account of the subsequent fifteen years. The memoir is introduced and edited by Anthony Meredith, writing in the year 409 B.O.M. (Brotherhood Of Man), the socialist era that follows three centuries of the Iron Heel.

6e75ede3299bc0149a0073dba92eb6d6In the first issue of Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback described the sf story as ‘a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision’. To his list of exemplars – Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe – Gernsback could have added Jack London. The Iron Heel reworks the ‘guided tour’ typical of the utopian novel: Avis, her father and Bishop Morehouse enter a new world – that of the immiserated, impoverished working class – and Ernest, their guide, explains in detail its logic and inner workings. The novel also anticipates the hard-sf which emerged from the pulp tradition (and which can still, arguably, be defined in Gernsback’s terms). The science in question is not, however, physics or astronomy but London’s idiosyncratic version of scientific socialism. The near-future events of the novel are predicated on a (vulgar) Marxist analysis of the process of capital accumulation and the cyclical crises it inevitably produces.

London’s extrapolative premises and technique are most obvious in the chapter ‘The Mathematics of a Dream’. Beginning with the ‘ABCs of commerce’ (108) – the production of value by labour and the extraction of surplus-value (profit) by the capitalist – Ernest takes his audience step-by-step through the logic of capital accumulation which leads to periods of overproduction and mass unemployment. His satiric proposal – that destruction of surpluses would be an effective way to deal with cyclical over-production, as in Frederik Pohl’s ‘The Midas Plague’ (1954) – is dismissed as absurd. But in a world in which, for example, agricultural subsidies are paid for deliberate underproduction to stabilise prices and ‘surplus’ crops are routinely destroyed (while people elsewhere starve), The Iron Heel’s prophetic value is difficult to ignore.

A curious aspect of the novel, and of its socialism, is the treatment of the all-but-absent proletariat. Avis’s conversion commences with an investigation into the fate of Jackson, a man who lost his arm in an industrial accident. The machine that maimed him is revealed to be part of a much larger apparatus, an economic and social system which – through coercion, collusion, corruption and conspiracy – denies him justice and subordinates and perverts other ‘slaves of the machine’. Years later, Avis meets a foreman who dishonestly testified against Jackson in order to protect his own job and provide for his family, and is now a member of a group of fanatical assassins. This is not to avenge his dead wife and daughters, he declares, but

‘’tis revenge for my blasted manhood’. (206)

Thus Avis’s career as a revolutionary is circumscribed by images of castrated workers. And when she describes one worker who has been a socialist for over twenty years, it is as

phlegmatic, stolid to such a degree that one could not but wonder how the Revolution had any meaning to him at all … He could obey orders. (198)

a4fa9708a0f91a712cdf60581558931aThis denial of agency to the working class is indicative of the peculiar type of socialism, blended with aspects of Friedrich Nietzsche and with Herbert Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’ misunderstanding of evolution, advocated by London (who puts at least one of his own speeches/essays, ‘Revolution’, into Ernest’s mouth).

As his name suggests, Ernest Everhard possesses a phallic intensity of focus and purpose. He physically overwhelms Avis. When she first mentions him by name, he is linked to images of penetration, engorgement and assimilation (6). Her fantasies and desires are ripe with the language of domination (22). Her feelings pulsate with attraction and repulsion, until she is swept off her feet

by the splendid invincible rush of him. (55)

She conceives of him as a messiah – he is an eagle, a lamb, a lion, ‘the spirit of regnant labour’ (63), Christ – and longs to melt before him, to merge her ‘life completely into his’ (138). When they are on the run, Avis learns to take on a completely different appearance through controlling her body whereas Ernest requires cosmetic surgery to transform him: she is fluid, he is hard.

Avis, then, despite her origins, exemplifies what London’s socialism requires of the working class, ‘the People of the Abyss’.[1] In the Chicago uprising, they are not only depicted as dumb beasts but as an inundation, a surging fluid mass. Without form or identity, they are to be shaped or sacrificed by the revolutionary party.

TheIronHeelCapitalV.Labour565This system of images – rigidly armoured male bodies; women and the feminised masses as a threatening flood – is typical of the literature produced by the German Freikorps in the 1920s, many of whom later played significant roles in the SA and SS.[2] And so at the heart of this ‘small folk Bible of scientific socialism’ we find a form of fascism.

Or perhaps not.

London’s novel depicts failed revolutions. This suggests an anxiety about the revolutionaries’ terroristic vanguardism, and the novel does not claim that the final revolution is of that ilk. Rather, the post-revolutionary editorial framework emphasises Ernest’s relative insignificance, Avis’s ‘errors of interpretation’ (1), the ‘equal futility’ of the First and Second Revolts and the

many Revolts, all drowned in seas of blood, ere the world-movement of labor should come into its own. (4)

North America and Asia are beneath the Iron Heel of the Oligarchs for 300 years, but as early as 1912 a wave of socialist revolutions swept the world, inspired and empowered by the general strike which prevented a war between the US and Germany. Perhaps it is such collective action and international solidarity that leads to the Brotherhood of Man.

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

This expression, which London also used as the title of his 1903 book of reportage on the London poor, is borrowed from HG Wells’s Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Human Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1901).

See Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, volume 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History (1977; trans. 1987) and Male Fantasies, Volume 2: Male Bodies: Psychoanalyzing the White Terror (1978; trans. 1989).