‘the atomic bomb…is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace’’1
In this quote from his essay ‘You and the Atom Bomb’ (1945), George Orwell speculates with unnerving accuracy as to the nebulous condition of pseudo-peace that would occupy the US and USSR for the next forty years- ‘two…monstrous super-states’2 politically and ideologically opposed, vying for superiority through subterfuge and military brinksmanship.
This essay will seek to examine the residual effects of this status-quo on the mass population of the US during the 1950s through an examination of popular culture. Specifically it will focus upon two Science Fiction texts (or SF as it will be referred to from here onwards) and explore how they employ an ‘imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment’3 to articulate fundamental and pivotal emotions that the Cold War engendered.
It will be argued that Walter M Miller Jr’s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) and Don Siegel’s 1956 film text Invasion of the Body Snatchers resonate two overriding emotions prevalent during the US in the 50s: Fear and pessimism – where, as J. G Ballard states
‘People…had lost their optimistic confidence in the ability of science to fulfil all the dreams of mankind…The prospect of nuclear war…was hours away’4
In the decade that the two focus texts are created and published there is a seemingly imminent and dual threat to the population of the US. There is the threat of social and ideological reform (as ‘McCarthyism’ comes to the fore) as well as the ever-present spectre of annihilation from an escalating arms-race (Soviet technological advances lead to the launch of ‘Sputnik’ in 1957, sparking hysteria regarding the technological race5). This essay will begin by considering the latter and examine how A Canticle for Leibowitz can be read as embodying such a concern.
Brian Stableford offers a succinct and pertinent summary of Miller’s novel as thus
‘A Canticle for Leibowitz is an account of how civilization is put back together after being bombed back into the dark ages, and shows the inexorable process which leads to its bombing itself right back again’6
Miller’s device of delivery or ‘novum’7 in his novel is the displacement of humanity to a distant-future US, ravished and purged by a long-gone nuclear holocaust. Unlike Invasion of the Body Snatchers which will be approached later, there is, it is reasoned here, one immediate, undeniable and overwhelming interpretation of A Canticle– that of a critique, a protest to and a warning of the dangers of the atom bomb and mankind’s wielding of such power- it ‘imagines the worst-case scenario’8.
Originally serialised in Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine from 1955 to 19579, A Canticle subverted and ignored the largely optimistic SF literature of the ‘pulp’ era fitting more comfortably with the critical and cynical ‘new wave’ canon of the 1960s that was to follow.
Here it is proposed that A Canticle surreptitiously frames natural images in sharp contrast to one another to achieve its objectives. Miller is at pains to emphasise the role of nature amongst the selfish machinations of mankind within his cryptic narrative and the recurring image of the buzzard is a cute device employed to illustrate the passing of time whilst subtly highlighting the ineptitude of humanity
‘The buzzards laid their eggs in season and lovingly fed their young. Earth nourished them bountifully for centuries. She would nourish them for centuries more….’10
The message here is that mankind can and must learn from other life-forms on Earth and in their smug supremacy humans lack the ability of the humble buzzard to harness the Earth’s resources positively and passively.
In the third book ‘FIAT VOLUNTAS TUA’, mankind has again reached a precipice and annihilation is imminent. The follies of the past and humanity’s desecration of nature is reminded to the reader: ‘the world had grown blasé about such genetic mishaps and pranks of the genes’11. The reference here is to the two headed, deformed Mrs Grales who embodies ‘the damage done to the human body by nuclear war, immediate and longterm’12. Miller makes his statement venomously by juxtaposing contrasting images of nature throughout the novel; bold and defiant set against disturbing visions of a fragile nature (particularly the human body) torn apart by selfish and ill-willed hierarchies of power.
The ultimate fear articulated within A Canticle lies in its macabre postulation that human greed and frailty are inherent and their mistakes doomed to be repeated. The novel argues brutally that humanity is chained to a wheel of self-destruction and that ‘history consists of a cyclical script determining human behaviour from era to era’13.
This unalterable schematic is tied ineradicably to the misuse of nature and in ‘FIAT LUX’ the arrival of scholars to the abbey becomes the first step in this pathway to destruction. The language used during Thon Taddeo’s exposition as to the work carried out at his ‘collegium’ is strikingly similar to the early pre-cursor for SF’s examination of the dangers of scientific misapplication. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein there is a forceful, rape-like assault connotation evident when Victor describes how scientists ‘utilise’ nature
‘They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding places…They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers…’14
Miller’s novel shares this fear and distrust of science and its negative potential through violent exploitation of nature. The work of the ‘collegium’ is discussed
‘most [studies being undertaken] seemed to promise rich reward in knowledge and practical application…the collegium’s activities exhibited a healthy hankering to pry open Nature’s private files’15
David Seed suggests further that this passage of the novel and the discovery of electricity in ‘FIAT LUX’ symbolises ‘an inevitable… anticipation of the atomic bomb’16.
Miller’s novel articulates that ‘mankind is chained to it’s pendulum’17 and at the time A Canticle was written the author feared, like the population at-large, that the cycle of destruction was about to begin.
Threat of ideological change vigorously driven by the furore generated by McCarthyism was also paramount in the minds of US citizens and Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a classic text of the mid-1950s which, along with other ‘invasion narratives’ such as It Came from Outer Space (1953); Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), can immediately be read as ‘typically stress[ing] the themes of anti-communism’18. Here, this reading will be acknowledged but ultimately challenged as the sole interpretation of the textual message in Invasion.
Redmond19 outlines three alternative interpretations of the social critique or message that 1950s invasion narratives deliver: ‘Straight’ communist invasion of US ideology; Examination of power formations evolving in US society- specifically the rise of science and technology; or a critique of ‘dislocating transformations in Western society brought about by the rise of new power elites’- the fear of standardisation, mass-production and capitalism. It will be proposed here that there is potential for all of these readings to be applied to Invasion but crucially they are all underpinned by a powerful and pervasive fear and pessimism of change – ‘a malaise at the core of society’20.
Invasion’s setting of Santa Mira, a small Californian town, can be read as significant as it itself represents a specific set of values. Towns like Santa Mira are the perceived ‘heartland’ of the nation; ‘unpolluted’ by immigration or growing mass-capitalism. Jancovich notes on this point, suggesting that the communities of invasion narratives are
‘deeply critical of conformity, and clearly distinguish their positive groups from centrally- organised systems of Fordism…[they are] trying to defend themselves against rationally-organised hierachies’21
Linked to this idea, the narrative of Invasion establishes the importance of familiarity versus change and it is significant that the two protagonists – Dr Miles Bennell and Becky Driscoll- have both recently returned from periods in the ‘outside’ world and are now back in the close-knit, traditional and patriarchal community. Through this absence they have undergone a form of transformation, denied these values and it is important that Becky remarks to Miles on their initial meeting that ‘you haven’t changed a bit’. This comment cryptically both affirms and denies Miles’ credentials as trustworthy and genuine but crucially it is reasoned here, it foregrounds the text’s core message that change is to be feared and no-one is to be trusted.
Jancovich takes an interesting position on the ‘anti-communist ideology’ reading of 50s invasion texts and proposes that
‘if the Alien was at times identified with Soviet communism, it was implied that this was only the logical conclusion of certain developments within American society itself…it [the emerging US system of scientific- technical rationality] attempted to convert people into…functionaries who were ordered and controlled’22
If Jancovich’s contention here highlights the concern towards science-orientated rationality, this study would propose that evident introverted ‘communist-esque’ ideology can also be identified through judicious character observation in Invasion, as a consequence of the post-war capitalist ‘boom’.
Firstly though, it is important to note another occurrence of supposed communist-only activity. The sentiment generated by McCarthyism and ‘institutionalised in mechanisms of control’23 was of a hostile and aggressive people who are subservient to ruling state powers. If the dialogue in the narrative by the ‘pod people’ suggests communist-like ideology (‘Love, desire, ambition, faith…life’s so simple without them’) this is crucially undermined by the ocular message of the text. Miles- the purported ‘All- American hero’ is guilty of the only on-screen violence as he attacks Danny Lauffman and Jack Belicec in his surgery and also savagely destroys one of the pods in the greenhouse (this scene also interestingly evokes comparisons with Victor’s violent and sexually-charged destruction of his monster’s would-be-bride in Frankenstein). The narrative thus guilefully suggests he alone endorses supposed communist failings of anger and aggression.
In-terms of the importance of capitalism, it is important that Miles is a doctor- a well-educated and affluent person personifying the capitalist conduit of the US healthcare system. Several times the narrative prominently frames Miles entering and leaving his surgery which is next door to an insurance broker- another bastion of growing capitalist influence upon the US.
The implication here then is that the US is actually not unlike the communist nations that it is told so fervently to despise. It is an only quasi-free nation prey to the same primordial demons of rage and violence like everyone else on the planet and importantly it is subject to the same controls over the individual, only substituting socialism with capitalism.
Jancovich notes on the importance of the ‘pods’ narrative device, one which is crucial as it represents the truly ‘other’ and ‘alien’ from humanity. Here it is suggested of 50s invasion narratives that
‘if the invaders are presented as natural, they are carefully distinguished from associations with ‘human nature’. They are vegetables, insects or reptiles. They are cold-blooded beings’24
An alternative reading to this is offered here however. The pods are indeed constructed as organic (at one point they are framed within a greenhouse reinforcing this) but crucially they are represented as growing and being cultivated amongst the population of Santa Mira. Importantly, the discursive construction of the text does not indicate these alien pods arriving from outer space. They are always framed within the community and this it is argued, results in a reading that they have actually been cultivated by these people.
To extend this logic it can be reasoned that the US has bred the alternative ideology that the pods enforce- a more frightening reality of the text. To respond to Jancovich, yes they are cold-blooded initially but rapidly evolve into accurate human facsimiles, undermining the idea of disassociation with human nature. This sense of naturalness in Invasion is underpinned further through the intimated ‘natural’ process of takeover during sleep which is described as a ‘painless’, passive process akin to natural human growth and as such ‘the very appearance of normality becomes unnerving’25.
A Canticle and Invasion both graphically express a paradoxical ‘peace that is no peace’ of the 1950s US. A political and military situation permeated the epidermis of the entire nation and ultimately manufactured a psychological condition which encapsulated the population at large.
Both texts employ techniques of estrangement to coerce underlying emotions of mistrust and fear that lay close to the surface of the nation’s psyche during this era- a ‘beleaguered’26 population manoeuvred by politics and the media. Science fiction allows the creative freedom to express such opinion and criticism both powerfully yet subtly.
Despite any debate regarding differing readings or interpretations of the texts (in the case of Invasion) an attempt has been made here to show that both fundamentally express a fear and pessimism of the future. Redmond notes that 1950s SF narratives
‘are meant to be both a product of a post-war crisis in confidence and the amplifying agent for… cultural psychosis’27
Csicsery- Ronay Jr. also supports the importance of a mass psychological condition by noting that 50s texts ‘allegorize McCarthyite hysteria’28.
The post-war, post-Hiroshima environment ‘paralyzed’29 fiction and the influence of these momentous events is indelibly etched in the cultural legacy of the 1950s (and beyond). Schaub argues that
‘The true labour of fiction throughout this period continues to be a struggle to develop a new relation between art and politics’30
This essay would extend the suggestion of a new liberal aesthetic and argue that more than a political discourse is bridged by the two focus texts and the SF output of the era. The role of art or culture in this period must be viewed as one of attempting to repair the relationship between a nation and itself in many different ways.
There are a myriad of fears of trepidations articulated by supposed ‘cold-war’ SF which are acutely identified in Invasion by Bould
‘imagery of contagion and dehumanization, often associated with communism, was also central to discourses about everything from mass culture, marijuana, motherhood and McCarthyism to homosexuality, civil rights, juvenile delinquency and rock ‘n’ roll.’31
Additionally, Susan Sontag has suggested that texts of the 50s (such as A Canticle) dramatise ‘fears of the impersonal and evolutionary change’, 32 with the fear of new technology that was creating weapons of mass destruction and launching inter-stellar craft posing frightening questions to humanity. Jancovich summarises all of these issues adroitly by associating 1950s SF texts with
‘the end of American isolationism and the nations growing awareness of its place within a complex and often hostile world order’32
There can be no doubt that these two SF texts, like so many others from this era, respond to a state of ‘peace that is no peace’ but to read them as cold-war specific texts alone would be foolhardy and myopic. As has been argued in this essay, there are more than just fears of communism and the atomic bomb in evidence in these texts. They encode a pervasive sense of fear of social, cultural and technological change; human fallibility and the future of a nation. This concoction is set within a frame of an almost nebulous state of existence where destruction, of way of life or life itself seemed only hours away. These texts are the voice of a nation not at peace with itself or its role in the world.
- George Orwell, ‘You and the Atom Bomb’ in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Vol. IV, 1945-1950, eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (London: Secker & Warburg, 1968), 10.
- Orwell, 8.
- Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (London: Yale University Press, 1979), 8.
- John Costello, The Pocket Essential Science Fiction Films (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2004), 24.
- J. P. D Dunbabin, The Cold War: The Great Powers and Their Allies (London: Longman, 1994), 42.
- Brian Stableford, ‘Man-Made Catastrophes’ in The End of the World, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), 124.
- Suvin, 4.
- David Seed, American Science Fiction and the Cold War (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 163.
- Brian Attebery, ‘The Magazine Era: 1926-1960’ in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, eds. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 41-42.
- Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle For Leibowitz (New York: Bantam Dell, 2007), 118.
- Miller Jr., 262.
- Seed, 161.
- Seed, 162.
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (London: Penguin, 1994), 46.
- Miller Jr., 212.
- Seed, 159.
- W. Warren Wagar, ‘Round Trips to Doomsday’ in The End of the World, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), 83.
- Mark Bould, ‘Film and Television’ in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, eds. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 85.
- Sean Redmond, ‘Look to the Skies! 1950s Science Fiction Invasion Narratives’ in Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader, ed. Sean Redmond (London: Wallflower Press, 2004), 316-317.
- Redmond, 316.
- Mark Jancovich, ‘Re-examining the 1950s Invasion Narratives’ in Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader, ed. Sean Redmond (London: Wallflower Press, 2004), 326.
- Jancovich, 325.
- Seed, 10.
- Jancovich, 325.
- Seed, 134.
- Costello, 25.
- Redmond, 316.
- Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., ‘Marxist Theory and Science Fiction’ in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, eds. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 115.
- Thomas Hill Schaub, American Fiction in the Cold War (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 185.
- Schaub, 191.
- Bould, 86.
- Jancovich, 325.
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