An Ode to New-Metal Man: David R. Bunch’s “Moderan”
By Rob LathamSeptember 11, 2018
Moderan by David R. Bunch
On the basis of Moderan, Bunch has acquired the reputation of being a writer’s writer, highly respected by his peers but more or less unknown to the larger genre readership. He is sometimes compared to Cordwainer Smith and R. A. Lafferty, due to the pixilated exuberance of their styles, their mock-heroic invocation of legends and tall tales, and their airy disdain for the niceties of SF exposition. Like Smith and Lafferty, Bunch is fond of teasingly extravagant story titles: “The Walking Talking I-Don’t-Care Man,” “A Small Miracle of Fishhooks and Straight Pins,” “That High-Up Blue Day That Saw the Black Sky-Train Come Spinning.” Like them, he is a master of baroque paradox, effortlessly mixing the rhapsodic with the grotesque, the ferocious with the whimsical, in the same story, often in the same sentence. Like them, he deploys poetic tricks — high-flown apostrophe, rampant alliteration — to evoke the strangeness of future worlds: “The vapor shield was scarlet August that burning month, the tin flowers were up in all the plastic plant holes, the rolling ersatz pastures were all aflutter with flash and flaunt of blooms.” Such a maverick talent is perhaps inevitably fated to be a minority taste.
But the elusive Bunch has always had his champions. In his introduction to the two stories included in Dangerous Visions, Ellison praised the author as “possibly the most dangerous visionary” in the volume, his “Dada-like” evocation of the fictive mindscape Moderan amounting to a striking “fable of futurity.” John Clute’s entry on Bunch for the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction claims that the author “resembles a diced, gonzo Walt Whitman, sampling (in a frenzy) the body electric.” This comparison was echoed by Brian W. Aldiss, who remarked that Moderan reads “as if Whitman and Nietzsche had collaborated” — a comment featured as a blurb on the cover of this new edition.
After ushering back into print a host of superb crime and suspense novels, NYRB Classics has recently branched out into SF, displaying a shrewd eye for neglected gems, such as D. G. Compton’s haunting satire of media obsession, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (a.k.a. The Unsleeping Eye, 1973), and Christopher Priest’s surreal tale of a perambulating city, Inverted World (1974). Bunch’s Moderan slots neatly into this eccentric list: it too is a near-forgotten “minor” work of the New Wave era that richly deserves rediscovery.
Bunch began publishing his Moderan stories in the late 1950s, in diverse venues, ranging from SF fanzines to literary journals like Shenandoah. The vast majority appeared, between 1958 and 1965, in the sister magazines Fantastic and Amazing, edited at the time by Cele Goldsmith. One of the most astute discoverers of talent in SF history, Goldsmith published the first stories of Thomas M. Disch, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Roger Zelazny, among other future luminaries, and Bunch’s fiction was right up her alley: daring, offbeat, unapologetically “literary.” Publisher Ziff-Davis sold the two magazines in 1965, whereupon they were converted into reprint-only publications, depriving Bunch of his favorite platform. Yet more tales of Moderan, like the one enshrined in Ellison’s anthology, continued to dribble from his pen, and by the early 1970s he had enough material on hand to produce a book-length version.
Moderan is thus, like many classics of modern SF, a “fix-up” text — a gathering of scattered stories stitched together with newly written sections that provide structural links and expository background. Of the 46 chapters in the 1971 edition, 19 were original to the volume, including 13 of the first 16, which established a dubious linearity for the episodes that followed. This stab at structure, however, failed to fully corral Bunch’s wayward imagination, and the narrative proceeds by lyrical leaps and picaresque digressions. Future Moderan is not really a spatiotemporal setting, not a feat of world-building at all, so much as it is a conceptual environment, impressionistically evoked, an inner-spatial metaphor for modernity along the lines of J. G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands (1971). And Bunch continued to burnish this arresting mise-en-scène even after the novel was published, as shown by this new edition, which adds a final section gathering 11 stories published between 1971 and 1989. Other tales of Moderan lurking in the periodical literature have never been reprinted; were it not for the fact of the author’s death in 2000, one could easily believe they are still being reeled out, endlessly, like old-style computer punch tape.
This retro reference is appropriate, since Moderan is very much a novel of the American midcentury. The title itself suggests the language of advertising and design, if not promotional hype: everything in Moderan is new and improved, including the people. The proud citizens refer to their domain as “New Processes Land” and the “Dream Realized,” grandiose monikers that bespeak a state of technical and psychological perfection. Moderan is a “land for forever, ordered and sterilized. That’s the Dream!”
It is 2064, or thereabouts. Following a sketchy series of “world wars” (“the bomb smear, the havoc far and everywhere”) and some obscure reverses in space (“the Million Saucer Battles on Mars, and that awful purple thing on Venus”), the Earth is being systematically remade into a synthetic demi-paradise. The poisoned seas have been frozen over and the polluted land smothered under a pristine shroud of “cool white plastic,” out of which tin flowers bloom. Weather cycles are administered by “Central Seasons,” and a “vapor shield” controls the atmosphere, changing the sky color on a monthly basis. The men staff military “Strongholds” bristling with high-tech weaponry while their estranged wives live in “bubble dome homes” in “White Witch Valley.” Ultimate power is wielded by the “Council of the Palest Greens,” shadowy bureaucrats who infest the “Needle Building in the Pale White Capital.” The social landscape of Moderan, though highly regimented, is often beset by aimless wanderers, from feral mutants scrounging for scraps to quixotic loners disenchanted with this glitzy, ersatz utopia (“ersatz” is one of Bunch’s favorite words).
The narrative set-up summarized here must be reconstructed from sly hints scattered through the chapters since, as noted above, the author is not particularly interested in conventional SF exposition. For Bunch, the trappings of genre are not ends in themselves but rather serviceable means to spin out his idiosyncratic worldview. Indeed, his fictive building blocks, rather than providing the solid contours of a rigorously extrapolated world, are themselves fluid, figurative elements in a complex allegory of gender, violence, and power.
Take the hulking Strongholds that dot the novel’s landscape. These are not simply combat machines — “the White Witch rockets firing, the wow bombs grandly falling, the wreck-wrecks trajectoring, the missiles far and wide homing and all the other hardware of our Joy-at-War beautifully functioning” — they are also, as this sexually charged rhetoric suggests, powerful metaphors for the male ego at its most pugnacious and destructive. Indeed, the men are virtually indistinguishable from the bunkers they inhabit: the narrator, for example, is known as “Stronghold 10.” Like his cherished citadel, this protagonist is literally armored, a “new-metal man” who has undergone a harrowing cyborgization; all that survives of his original body are scattered “flesh-strips” sutured into a metallic carapace: “I must look […] like a suit of old armor once would have looked if it had in the ancient days rolled in some thick-sliced bacon.” Terrified of his own vulnerability, Stronghold 10 rages against his “soft percentages,” those last remaining vestiges of his corporeal being: “I wish for more steel!” he roars.
An abiding tension between the sorry fallibility of flesh and the solid certainty of metal provides the main thematic thrust of the novel’s many episodes: “[M]y flesh-strips writhed and remembered, my steel parts seethed, rasped, wrinkled and shouted, so disturbed they were by the flesh parts quivering.” Stronghold 10 alternates between blasting away at other fastnesses — in a mindless cycle of paranoid violence, perpetually renewed — and worrying at moral conundrums and emotional predicaments incited by unexpected visitors to his redoubt — a little girl, reminding him of the animal pull of family; a metallic knight on horseback, evoking the allure of romance and the promptings of conscience. These encounters are saved from sentimentality by the sheer weirdness and audacity of Bunch’s storytelling, as well as by the scathing bouts of self-analysis they provoke in the narrator. Though he roundly scorns “the ancient garbage of love, togetherness, and the family stew,” trammels he imagines his cyborg self to have transcended, he cannot shake the suspicion that his grand existence is a hollow, loveless sham: “I cowered in my innermost Stronghold den, […] in the cowardly-careful peep-box of steel. Even in the days of my highest triumphs, when many a fortress rocked from my Big War guns […] I had this whiplash of dread.”
Above all, Stronghold 10 is petrified of women, especially his wife, “that tough strong little woman with the ice-blue terror eyes,” exiled to White Witch Valley along with the other spouses so the men can pursue their puerile war games. For all his high-tech replacements, however, Stronghold 10 still finds himself plagued by the itch of desire — an appetite he satisfies with his “new-metal mistress,” a lifelike love doll he can switch on and off at whim. Yet even this mechanical proxy inspires a surge of passion that startles and terrifies him, because it points up his own essential emptiness:
The blonde doll all turned on, the real and true-copied image of an old Dream in the mind […] there waiting in the body that science had made, the little bow of a mouth all moist and rosy red, the blue eyes blue-bulb blue and like small glass globes sliced carefully out of that heaven when June was all clear-and-bright. […] All the people who had written and overwritten about this thing — in the Old Days old Mailer and Hemingway, say — had they been right all along?
Since Bunch is here diagnosing the pathologies of toxic masculinity, his citation of two notoriously macho novelists makes some sense — though, as the gonzo tenor of this passage suggests, a more proximate influence on Moderan may well have been the Beat writers of the late 1950s and early 1960s, especially Kerouac and Ginsberg. While SF critics have acknowledged the sway William Burroughs exercised over New Wave authors like Ballard, not enough attention has been paid to the subterreanean influence of those other subterraneans. Moderan not only evokes Ginsberg’s incantatory indictment of Moloch, “whose mind is pure machinery,” it is also reminiscent of Kerouac’s lone work of science fiction. A Kafkaesque parable of a dystopian society, Kerouac’s 1963 story “cityCityCITY” is, like Moderan, peopled by faceless creatures who are wedded to strange machines — like the “Brain Halo, which divined equations, […] balancing them together, so skillfully, so complicated, a thousand wires running into a million larger ones that grew and snaked and vined their way in the tangled Wire Room of the Brain.” In its rambling prosody, its spastic goofing, its wise-ass parody of technocratic jargon, this story — and Kerouac’s work more generally — offers something of a stylistic model for Bunch’s febrile speculations.
Moderan, like many central texts of the Beat generation, can be read as a bohemian spoof of “square” society, satirizing a regimented world of robotic drones who secretly seethe with rage and self-hatred. A few of the stronghold’s visitors suggest a countercultural critique of this future’s priggish nihilism — for example, a footloose artist, whom the protagonist denounces as a “smelly vagrant […] stagger[ing] addle-waddle over the countryside […] talking about Meaning,” but whose intense gaze makes him quiver and doubt himself, or a hippie-esque drifter with a bouquet of metal flowers for a hand, who preaches that “love was better than hate and that human understanding was more to be strived for than a Stronghold full of bully-bombs,” and who rouses our steely hero to awe-struck euphoria.
For all his showy chest-thumping, Bunch’s “new-metal man” cannot shake a haunting sense of his basic spiritual vacancy, can’t help “wondering maybe if he had not paid some uncalculated and enormous price for his iron durability.” Stronghold 10’s pose of arrogant mastery turns out to be a facade of bluff and bluster screening a yawning gulf of alienation and despair. In the last analysis, Moderan is a compelling allegory of the psychic and ethical costs of reification, of the transformation of human subjects into objects, the rampant “thingification” of the modern self. The phony nature that the novel’s citizens have crafted for themselves rebounds on its creators, irresistibly remaking them into feckless automatons well suited to occupying this tin-and-plastic world. In its savagely funny depiction of the growing imbrication of human beings with their technological environments, Moderan rivals the best work of fellow New Waver John T. Sladek, especially his novels Mechasm (1968) and The Müller-Fokker Effect (1970). Come to think of it, those titles would make strong additions to NYRB’s already impressive SF line.
Though in some ways quaintly dated, Bunch’s novel still speaks powerfully to contemporary readers — and occasionally even seems to address them directly, as in this ironically upbeat passage:
Let us begin to be ourselves again, ourselves with good souls. With hard trying and hard praying let us make for our souls good homes, even here hard embattled as we are in these steel times. And perhaps with ten million years of good effort we and the world can begin to hope to be allowed to start in to come back toward that place all of us left on the way to our wrong “discoveries.” At least we are not without hope.
Yet the author immediately subverts the tentative optimism of this evangel by unleashing the heedless Strongholds for one final spasm of ecstatic violence. This was how the 1971 version of the novel ended, in a death-wish inferno à la Dr. Strangelove — with Stronghold 10 the last cyborg left (briefly) standing after a global exchange of “GRANDY WUMPS” has turned “the air over all the world […] [into] one solid sheet of explosives.”
This new edition, as noted above, adds a post-apocalyptic postscript — a concluding section called “Apocrypha from After the End.” Abandoning all semblance of narrative chronology, the 11 pieces gathered here are a bit anti-climactic, though we do learn more about the strange land of Olderrun, a “little land-locked and sea-starved country far across the tall mountains, where the old-fashioned flesh people still hold sway.” A bureau called the “Society for the Better Understanding of Ancient Customs” assists the denizens of Moderan in grasping the peculiar mores of this Luddite enclave, which inexplicably prefers the sweaty, mortal meat to the chilly blandishments of steel. Bunch, ever innovative, also conjures an alternative world-ending cataclysm, a not-with-a-bang debacle involving mutant metal-eating fleas that steadily gnaw away at our cyborg heroes. “Perhaps tomorrow,” the narrator muses, “some shiny new tomorrow, we shall ‘replace’ ourselves with the pure dream — a thing like rubber, maybe. Yes! A new-cell rubber alloy, that could be the answer.” Plus ça change …
Rob Latham is a LARB senior editor. His most recent book is Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings, published by Bloomsbury Press in 2017.
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