Monday, January 17, 2011

SciFi And The Disguised Left Of The Cold War Days

By Paul Buhle
January 17, 2011

Book Review: It Walks in Beauty: Selected Prose of Chandler Harris. Edited and with an introduction by Josh Lukin. Seattle: Aqueduct Press, 2010. 358pp, $19.95 pbk.

Chandler Harris, octogenarian, HUAC and campus red scare victim, civil libertarian radical and scientist, was also a promising science fiction writer of the 1940s-50s, before he gave it up for other pursuits. The recovery of some of his best fiction recalls a world of left-wing SciFi now long forgotten, but never irrelevant for the gloomy reality of our present.

A little history here. Socialist champion Jack London, Populist champion Ignatius Donnelly, and a forgotten pulp star writer George Allen England all made themselves famous and a little prosperous with predictions of world war and associated disasters that happened, though not with sweeping results for Americans, after 1914.

Fascism did come, at least in Europe, and thanks to Woodrow Wilson's Great Red Scare of 1919-21, London's Iron Heel got some details right or at least more nearly accurate than the optimists of the day. Drop down to the Depression era and the Futurion Club of rabidly radical teens in Manhattan, including Isaac Asimov, hoped for socialism as the scientific society of the future, but feared it would not happen. In the McCarthy Era, EC Comics' Science Fiction lines wonderfully caught the popular dread of nuclear war (and after), a view elaborated with brilliance by a Berkeley dropout and record store clerk of the day, one Philip K. Dick.

Of course, there was much, much more to critical or subversive science fiction as literature, films, comics, radio, and television. The moon landing reputedly killed off the bulk of the pulp magazines that had carried the most short fiction, and the easing of the Cold War pushed back the Doomsday nuclear intimations. Famed feminist SciFi (Ursula LeGuin and so many others), socialist outer space adventure (Kim Stanley Robinson), and so on, not to mention the cult SciFi films following the success of Planet of the Apes (the original film actually written by a victim of the blacklist, Michael Wilson, hiding behind a novelist who could not write in English), had meanwhile made major headway. Notwithstanding, that is, the endless Space Opera (Star Wars, etc.) vehicles, most recently shifting into 3-D.

Chandler Harris is placed nicely in the volume under review, the more nicely for an extended 2003 interview where he discusses his family background (father Horace B. Davis was a noted socialist intellectual), his avid teenage reading of SciFi mags, and his entry into the Manhattan circle that survived wartime and postwar engagements and disengagements. Science fiction readers my age would remember, among this group, writers Fredrick Pohl (now ninety and still writing!), James Blish, and Theodore Sturgeon, among others. This group, eclectically radical, got him going and kept him going (Pohl was his agent for a decade) until he was blacklisted -- and a few years after. By 1959, when left-wing ideas came back into fashion and he was nominated for an award (for the story that gives this volume its name), he was about finished with fiction. Thereafter, it was science in exile -- he let the U.S. for Canada -- and political engagements in the university.

Davis's SciFi stories here stand the test of time; perhaps they have a horror or gothic/fantasy twist that saves them from technological outdatedness. The story of the title was published in 1958 but in a different form; this is the original, and no doubt the best version, about a future where much else may have changed but women are most likely still a slice of meat for the male gaze, and the more intelligent they are, the less they like it. Davis could have predicted thongs.

Much of the rest of the volume is non-fiction, including an extended interview with Davis from 2003, a recollection (in 1995) of the blacklist years in academic life, several introductory-like essays and an afterword by the editor, Josh Lukin. One might say that Davis is a fellow of so many parts, they don't all seem to fit in a single volume. But a remarkable life led, stories told, make for a fine volume.

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