Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Four stories by Mack Reynolds from the early 1960s

When I read Mack Reynolds' Commune: 2000 A.D. in 2011 I thought it was kind of lame.  In the same year Joachim Boaz reviewed Reynolds' Rolltown and thought it deserved 2 of 5 stars and "isn't worth the effort of procuring" due to an "average plot," a "silly final twist" and "endless info-dump lectures...."  But you hear good things about Reynolds now and again (famous SF historian and critic Barry Malzberg praises him, and Reynolds at one point won a readers' poll and was thus proclaimed SF's most popular writer), so when I saw the thick (370 pages!) 1976 collection The Best of Mack Reynolds for sale for one dollar at Half Price Books, I bought it.  Maybe, I reasoned, Reynolds shines in the short form. Besides, Reynolds's own introduction to the book, about his life as a professional writer and his travels around the world, was charming.

What kind of exotic system of voting did they use that allowed Reynolds to beat Asimov and Heinlein?
  Ranked Choice?  Instant Runoff?  Range Voting?  Limiting the franchise to the Reynolds family?    
Last week I read four stories from the collection, which I chose based on their provocative one-word titles.  By chance, all turned out to have been published first in the early 1960s.

"Revolution" (1960)

A lot of SF stories ask you to accept things which don't make much logical sense and for which there really isn't much evidence, like hyperspace, psychic powers, and time travel.  Mack Reynolds' "Revolution" asks you to accept that the central planning and dictatorial rule of the kind of psychos who ran the Soviet Union could produce an economy that by 1985 was surpassing the economy of the United States.  Our hero in this story is Russian-born American agent Paul Koslov, who is sneaked into Communist Russia in hopes he will be able to spark a revolution, in the same way Lenin was sent to Czarist Russia back in 1917.

In the introduction to the volume (remember a minute ago when I told you it was charming?) Reynolds compares himself to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, major science fiction writers whose work focuses on the hard sciences.  Reynolds tells us he knows little of "the physical sciences," but has a background in "the social sciences...especially socioeconomics...." The impression I get from "Revolution" is that, in the same way Asimov or Clarke might use a SF story to talk about robotics or astronomy or oceanography (remember Imperial Earth?), Reynolds uses SF to talk about forms of government and different models of society, based on his readings in theory and history and his own travels around the world (in the intro he says he spent ten years travelling among over 75 countries.)    

So, "Revolution" starts out with discussions of MPorcius fave Somerset Maugham and anti-Soviet leftist intellectual Milovan Djilas, author of The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System with Koslov's boss in Washington.  Later, in Russia, we get a lecture from one anti-Soviet activist on the "three bases of government evolved by man": the family (example: Native Americans); property (example, European slave, feudal, and capitalist societies); and "your method of making your livelihood," (the activist hopes to replace Communist Party rule with just such a system, one in which each sector of the economy would elect representatives.)  Another Russian rebel gives Koslov (and us readers) a lecture on revolutions--we are told revolutions come from the people when they need them, not from leaders--great leaders are created by the desperate times they live in, and often struggle to stay ahead of the popular tide.
The story ends with the anti-communist revolutionaries, thanks to Western aid, in position to overthrow the Soviet Union.  But since these revolutionaries have chosen to maintain the USSR's nuclear arsenal and have not embraced British- or American-style democracy and capitalism, Koslov wonders if the new Russia he is playing midwife to might be an even greater threat to the West than the Soviet Union--maybe he should report his friends to the KGB and put the kibosh on the whole thing!

Reynolds tries to create an interesting character in Koslov, who, over the course of the story, realizes, despite his Russian blood and 15 years of single-minded dedication to liberating Russia from communism, that his upbringing in the USA has made a true American out of him.  Reynolds also tries to create an interesting relationship--Koslov and one of the Russian anti-communist rebels fall in love, but their love founders on their different loyalties (hers to Russia, his to the West) and political attitudes.  But these facets of the story are not very effective; most of the story is all those lectures and historical references.

Acceptable, but I wouldn't urge anybody to rush out and find it.  "Revolution" first appeared in Astounding-- the Galactic Journey blog earlier this year analyzed that entire issue.  Worth checking out.

"Freedom" (1961)

Each of the 22 tales in The Best of Mack Reynolds has a little introduction by the author himself.  In the intro to "Freedom," which was first published in Analog, Reynolds tells us that he has spent considerable time in Moscow and Prague, and that he has not heard from Czech friends since the 1968 invasion by a Soviet army which crushed Czech efforts to secure liberal reforms.

"Freedom," like "Revolution," is set in a hypothetical future in which socialist economics has worked and the Soviet Union and its satellites have achieved the world's highest GDP and standard of living.  Our main character, Ilya Simonov, is a security officer whose job is to kill and imprison Soviet citizens (without a trial, of course!) who oppose the rule of the Communist Party.  His superiors want to know why there are so many such people--aren't they grateful for the economic health created by the Communist Party and its policies?  The Kremlin assumes malign Western influence is the cause of their problems, and sends Simonov to Czechoslovakia to ferret out any possible Western sources of this inexplicable hostility to the Soviet regime.

In Prague, Simonov finds that government controls over speech and the press have loosened--people openly criticize the Communist Party, read Western books, even meet American journalists.  At first he is outraged, but over a period of months he not only realizes that the people he is investigating are not dupes of the West, but spontaneous seekers of personal liberty--he even comes to share their dreams of a free Eastern Europe.  Simonov returns to Moscow and shoots his boss and burns the official records of his mission (in order to protect his new friends back in Prague) but is then killed himself while trying to escape.

Obviously, I'm behind this story's ideological content--even if, in some fanciful way, the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union and the countries it had conquered had produced economic plenty, their murderous, arbitrary and unaccountable rule could in no way be morally justified.  But does this make "Freedom" a good story?  No.  The story is full of political lectures, even a page-long extract from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World Revisited, and the plot and characters fail to generate any real feeling.

Reynolds addresses interesting and important ideas here, which is presumably why John Campbell published it in his famous and important magazine Analog and Judith Merril included it in one of her famous and important The Year's Best S-F anthologies, but as a story I'll have to judge it as merely acceptable; it does the job you'd expect of an article in an opinion magazine, not what you hope a piece of fiction does.  

"Subversive" (1962)

This one, which also first saw light of day in Analog, is even more lecture-heavy than "Revolution" and "Freedom."  The foundation of those stories was the dubious assertion that the command economy of the Soviet Union could outproduce the market economy of the United States.  In "Subversive" Reynolds presents what he perhaps considers one of the advantages of the command economy over the free economy--the money and manpower devoted to such things as advertising and TV shows in a market economy.  We get long lectures on how one bar (or "cake," as I guess people said in 1962) of soap is much like another, and is manufactured very cheaply.  Likewise for electric razors and loaves of bread (!).  These products sell dearly to the consumer because of all the advertising costs and middlemen.  (This reminds me of Bernie Sanders' apparent belief that it is immoral for there to be several brands and types of deodorant on the market.)

A company is formed that can sell soap and razors and bread cheaper than the other middlemen because it eschews advertising.  Such competition will make the American economy more efficient, so Soviet agents attack the new company, killing everybody involved.

This story is like 19 pages of lectures with 2 pages of plot.  There is no effort at presenting a human story, and Reynolds even dispenses with the historical anecdotes and quotes from intellectuals with which he peppered "Revolution" and "Freedom." I'm going to have to give this one a thumbs down.

"Pacifist" (1964)

"Pacifist" was a cover story for The Magazine of Fantasy of Science Fiction, even though the cover illustration apparently depicts a scene from the magazine version of Damon Knight's Beyond the Barrier, the paperback edition of which I read, more or less on a dare from Joachim Boaz, back in the summer of 2014.  "Pacifist" takes place in an alternate universe much like our own but in which the Cold War is between the Northern and Southern hemispheres.  The brainiacs of this world have determined, Hari Seldon-style, that, unless government policies change, nuclear war will break out in three years.  Instead of working through the media and the democratic process, presenting their ideas and hoping the voters and their representatives are swayed by them, these elitists form a secret society called The Pacifists and engage in terrorism designed to change government policies.  They eschew no tactic in their quest for peace, no matter how outrageous: they kidnap a Senator's son and threaten to murder his friends and family if he refuses to resign, they strafe a military academy graduation ceremony with a hijacked jet fighter, and more.

The point of the story, I guess, is to examine this paradoxical strategy for achieving peace; does the noble end justify the murderous means?  Would such a campaign hope to succeed?  Reynolds may also have hoped to shock the reader with characters who suggest that strategic bombing (like the British and Americans inflicted on the Axis countries less than 20 years before the story was published) is no different than the cold-blooded murder of children and that in modern war conscientious objectors are more brave than volunteer soldiers.

The plot follows the lead "hatchetman" of the Pacifists, Warren Casey, the guy who actually gets his hands dirty threatening, beating, kidnapping, and killing people whom I (and who could be more reasonable than me?) would consider innocent.  Casey joined the Pacifists after his experience as a bomber pilot in this universe's equivalent of World War II, which led him to the conviction that war should be outlawed at any cost.  Over the course of the story he becomes skeptical of the Pacifists' strategy of using violence to end violence.  Casey is killed while trying to escape from police officers because he didn't take an opportunity to shoot the police in the back, an ambiguous ending.

The audacity of this story, and the effort put into the psychology of its main character, makes it probably the best Reynolds story I am discussing today.  Mild recommendation.


These stories are not appallingly bad, but they lack literary value; their value is in the ideas they present.  (I'll leave aside the fact that the more you think about their ideas, the goofier the ideas appear.)  Reading four of them over the space of three days in the 21st century probably doesn't present them in the best light; for one thing, you easily notice a sameness about them (e.g., all four stories are about agents and include meetings between the agent and his boss; Koslov and Simonov are almost the same character: both had little time for women before the story begins because they were busy fighting for or against communism, and during the story they fall in love with a woman with a different political point of view; Simonov and Casey have almost the same fates and their stories the same ending: both are shot dead while trying to escape government forces and then subjected to musings on their psychologies by their killers.)  SF fans who read only one of them a month or so, during the height of the Cold War, decades before we knew how the Soviet empire would collapse, perhaps found them very thought-provoking.

In our next episode more science fiction short stories, but I hope and expect these stories will have (what I consider) literary value: a distinctive style, human feeling, vivid images.  I highly doubt they will have much to say about the Soviet Union or economics, but you never know!

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