Monday, 7 January 2008

Bakelite and Uranium Monday: The Tunnel Under The World By Frederick Pohl.

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1955
“On the morning of June 15th, Guy Burckhardt woke up screaming out of a dream.

It was more real than any dream he had ever had in his life. He could still hear and feel the sharp ripping-metal explosion, the violent heave that tossed him furiously out of bed, the searing wave of heat.” — the beginning of The Tunnel Under The World.

Little Man, What Now? today proudly presents a new repeating feature. Bakelite And Uranium Mondays is intended as a weekly/biweekly (we haven't decided yet) fixture where we will review individual works of of short fiction (predominantly, but not exclusively SF). Please look back to my review of Star Fourteen where I go a long way to explaining why I think short fiction is pivotal to the SF form. After a brief visit to a few bookshops demonstrated the difficulty in buying good anthologies covering the older classics of the form, I thought reviewing them might be a good way to bring them to a wider audience, so they won't be totally forgotten. We'll see how this pans out, but I have elements like period politics, what dates a story, influence on later works and style as features I plan on emphasising (other Little Men will of course go their own way).

To start this series I've picked a personal favourite, The Tunnel Under The World by Frederick Pohl, first published in the January '55 edition of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, edited by Horace Gold. Pohl is among my SF heroes, and TTUTW is his most widely anthologised work (I recommend this anthology). It's influence is broad enough that it's been identifiably the source for other works, with the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F Galouye and the movie Dark City drawing heavily from it's style, plot and imagery.

The plot opens with an unexplained but forgotten explosion, that leads to one of SF's stock ideas: what if you woke up, and realised that you were living the same day over and over? The hero, Guy Burkhardt, is living in Groundhog Day. But this version comes with a strong dose of cosmic horror and dread. A good SF short often works a bit like a steel trap, if you have too much information the snaps don't quite come off, so I don't want to give away too much of the plot and ruin the carefully orchestrated reveals. This story is particularly notable for this, because Pohl manages to pull off a particularly clever double-twist on the last page, giving it an unusually strong hammer-blow ending.

With avoiding spoiling this in mind, the major theme is advertising. A common topic in Pohl's work that he always approaches it with a mixture of fascination and dread. To give some background, in his autobiography The Way The Future Was Pohl describes the 3 years he spent working as an advertising copywriter after the War: “advertising is addictive and it rots the mind”. This came from being (he claims) extremely good at parting people from their money, and finding it went completely against his morality. This experience was clearly used to flesh out the novel The Space Merchants and as the central threat in TTUTW, where advertising seems to have become the driving force behind everything.

The style is pretty stock-50's SF. Pohl is an excellent literary stylist when he aims to be (most clearly seen in his '66 classic Day Million), but his 50's stories usually aim for the steel-trap SF mentioned above, here he has intentionally stripped away all plot-free elements. The hero Burckhardt is an everyman and the villains are equally fleshless, although not to the point of caricature. As a story with a strong element of horror behind it, this minimalism enhances the tension, and would lose a lot in more high-minded hands. Further, the story has dated remarkably well, with only one key technological plot element sticking out to the modern reader. By staying away from too much specific technology the story has managed to avoid taking on too many of the trappings of the period. So, while the politics strongly resonates with a 50's style McCarthy-era paranoia (Pohl was a documented ex-member of The Communist Party), he avoids mention of the Institute sized supercomputers that strongly date his peer and friend Isaac Asimov's '50's work.

Pohl's obsessions with advertising, overpopulation and corporate shennanigans are an excellent reminder that the modern politics of the Naomi Klein generation is nothing in the least bit new. His (and Cyril Kornbluth's) novel The Space Merchants is an anti-globalised-capitalism watershed of the 50's. TTUTW is probably his punchiest work on the topic. There is a bleakness to the imagery, and an underlying misanthropy in this story (Pohl does not retreat into evil cliches or making the unseen hands aliens) that make this a classic that has stuck with me since I first read it at the age of 14.

Addendum: I have discovered a website where the story is podcast (from an old 1950's Radio show called X Minus One), strongly recommended.

Next: The Man Who Lost The Sea by Theodore Sturgeon.


Dark City, which owes TTUTW a debt.

1 comment:

Bibliolatrist said...

Dark City is terribly underrated, in my humble opinion.

This story sounds quite intriguing - I'll have to add it to my list. Thanks.