A friend recently posted a comment on the TGIF Web page. It was in response to a column (TGIF, May 10) in which I quoted another reader's electro-feedback. The blurt or blog, beyond its butt stupidity, benighted grammar, and jail-phonics spelling, seemed to be written in some kind of futuristic, so-illiterate-it-becomes-neo-but-computer-savvy patois. My friend pointed out the similarity between the posted, garbled cyberjargon and the 1968 work of British science fiction writer John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar, "All the shiggies and codders doing hipcrimes at oh-five in the anti matter.' (From the Brunner novel). I agree that in some bizarre way we truly are living in the world postulated by Brunner three and a half decades ago. The feedback I posted was, if anything, more inscrutable and had none of what might be perceived as urban, sci-fi poetry.
Brunner experimented with a style like that and followed this format into at least two other novels, The Sheep Look Up and The Jagged Orbit. The Zanzibar title comes from his idea that by a certain year in the 21st Century, the population of Earth could stand navel to backside with each other and completely cover that island. A few years later, the population would be up to their ankles in the surf, and then the ocean would be at their knees by the year 2050. And so on.
This put me in mind of another science fiction writer, Cyril M. Kornbluth, who wrote a story in the early 1950s called "The Marching Morons," about the population explosion before it was a real phenomenon. The premise of "Morons" is that shortly after WWII it became clear to all reasonable and intelligent people that there would be an inflation of the earth's population as a result of soldiers returning home from war. No science fiction so far; and all too soon, any science fictional aspect disappears from the story entirely. The reasonable and intelligent people decide to practice forms of birth control, leaving everyone else to proliferate indiscriminately, resulting in a massive population in the early 21st Century of comically stupid and unreasonable masses, with a handful of eggheads to watch over them in the form of government. The government provides giant finned cars with buttons and controls and lights that do nothing and speedometers that read, say, 1000 mph, when in fact the vehicle is incapable of going past 40.
Instead of eggheads in government (one might call Bush a lot of names but), we have television network executives, of course. (On television that Hummer dominating the city streets doesn't look quite as ridiculous as it does in the parking lot of Wal-Mart, does it?) And the network executives are in partnership with advertising executives. Cyril nailed that one too, with Fredrick Pohl in a novel called
The Space Merchants. Reality TV -- well, one just has to say it and the case is rested there pretty much. Anyone pointing out that the emperor (who is basically that guy eating giant dripping fast food in a Carl's Jr. commercial while doing an unwitting impersonation of David Hasselhoff) has a shoe-size IQ is not only unwelcome but a national traitor and an anarchist.
None of this is terribly new, but it has become more firmly embedded in the collective hunch we call reality since the Good War. I remember as early as 1971 having a conversation with a psychologist and motivational researcher for CBS television in which I pointed out the arrogance of television in assuming the American public was stupid. This followed a plea to explain why the British television series The Prisoner was not aired in the U.S. The exec pointed out that the highest-rated television show in America at the time was Hee-Haw, and according to those same Nielsen ratings (after experimental screenings of The Prisoner to people off the sidewalks of Sixth Avenue), the British show was likely to have the lowest possible numbers in this country.
Meanwhile, global warming is still considered science fiction by the militantly stupid; well over 100 million people watch American Idol, Access Hollywood, and
Entertainment Tonight, while, say, Bill Moyers is relegated to a joke on The Simpsons. Mass audiences do not even have the wit, it seems, to be offended by something like South Park (about as dumbed down as possible) because they don't understand it.
Science fiction was once a resort for, at least, middle-brow -- or middle-class, anyway -- intellectuals. The genre got away with murder, for example, harpooning Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, when no one else would touch him. But science fiction's balls went the way of mass-market publishing, as it has been overtaken in its role of canary in the coal mine and reduced again to a literary ghetto for eggheads. I include myself as an egghead at times, if that isn't puffing myself up.
And with the mention of canaries in coal mines, that again brings up the recent death of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who seemed to have passed away in a kind of depressed state of resignation. A few weeks ago, had you Googled his name, you would have seen a crude drawing, probably Vonnegut's own, of an empty birdcage, its door flung wide. Vonnegut took the gas emitted by billions who don't care to notice that we've imprisoned ourselves in a basket too small to hold us. We're too entranced by cell phones that tomorrow or the next day will tap dance, cash checks, and make toast. We are, as H.G. Wells once described us, "Naked apes nodding sagely to each other in the dung pile." And you can't dismiss Wells as a disgruntled dystopian, exactly.
And according to Anthony Burgess, a man who labored in the fields of science fiction with Clockwork Orange, The Wanting Seed, and others (though he labored up by the big house near the water), "Art delivers the goods religion only promises," but Art? According to Chad Mulligan's "HipCrime Vocab," in Stand on Zanzibar, it is defined: "ART -- A friend of mine in Tulsa, Okla., when I was about eleven years old. I'd be interested to hear from him. There are so many pseudos around taking his name in vain."