Monday, 18 May 2015

A Vision of Communism

The works of Bertha Thomas (1845-1918) continue to produce a crop of surprises. A while back I mentioned Maxwell Gray's excursion into post-apocalyptic SF, After the Crash; and now I find Bertha Thomas too moved into borderline SF/fantasy on occasion, as in her 1873 A Vision of Communism, which interested me for its strong similarities to a classic 20th century SF story.

Going by the partial title in many periodicals that allude to the work, you'd probably assume A Vision of Communism just to be straight political polemic. But the full title turns out to A Vision of Communism: A Grotesque, and the work to be a 10-page satirical fantasy in which the narrator is given a tour of a Commune which practises aggressive enforcement of equality - whether by physique, intellect or appearance. What's striking about this is the consequent close resemblance, in theme and detail, to Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, published nearly a century later in 1961.

Quick rant: I can't abide Harrison Bergeron. It makes my back open and shut when I see someone asking about it in a literature forum. It's nothing to do with its stylistic merits as an SF work; I've always found it a strange and very memorable story, ever since I first read it in the late 1960s (who can forget the name Diana Moon Glampers?). It's what it represents. It's a set text in US schools, and has consequently spawned a whole industry of commercial and home-brew study guides telling students what it all means and, in some cases, what to think about it.
      Firstly, it co-opts Vonnegut's absurdist story to support an anti-Left point it's unlikely that Vonnegut intended (his own politics being Left-leaning). Secondly, used that way it offers a completely safe take on satirical SF: a token gesture toward satire on a tenet of US culture (the American Declaration of Independence's "all men are created equal"). But its target is a straw man scenario with which nobody would reasonably agree, so there's no real impact. It does zilch toward exposing students to the experience of classic satire that raises in the reader uncomfortable ideas about their own cultural assumptions.The study guides, in fact, regularly tub-thump and use it in precisely the opposite way: as a venue to reinforce the preferred mainstream view (e.g. the story shows why it's wrong to alter the Constitution). I find it quite bizarre that anyone should take away from a satire the message that the status quo is good.
      In contrast, we don't see any satires that might risk students questioning their culture, such as the USA's fetishization of guns in relation to the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution; or its fetishization of authoritarian and nationalist symbols, such as flags and eagles, in ways identical to those of totalitarian regimes, as in Newman & Byrne's In the Air (Interzone #48, June 1991) which postulates a Soviet America - yet Eagle Scouts remain an identical fixture. Even The Hunger Games is sharper satire, with its take on the real phenomenon of sensational reality TV and the tight collusion of political and media power. Nobody's ever going to make you wear a bag full of lead balls round your neck; they already are selling you highly biased corporate/political stances as a pretended objective world-view, on a daily basis.

Anyhow: rant over. I chiefly wanted to draw attention to a nice pairing of thematically similar works. In both stories, by different means, handicaps are placed on physical strength ...
Near me, a youth of uncommonly powerful build lay stretched lazily on the grass, looking on. I accosted him, and asked when he was going to take his innings. "I never play cricket," he replied. "It's bad for me. Can't you see how unfortunately strong I am? Feel my arm." ... As I spake, Isotes drew me forcibly away. "Mind what you're about, please," said he, sharply, "I shall have to answer for the misconduct of the visitors I bring over. Recollect, you're not at Eton or Harrow. The College rules with regard to athletic games are these :—Boys whose stock of natural strength and agility shall exceed the average are forbidden to practice them and become proficients. Where the excess of physical power is extreme, the boy is forbidden to take part in them at all.
A Vision of Communism

"All of a sudden you look so tired," said Hazel. "Why don't you stretch out on the sofa, so's you can rest your handicap bag on the pillows, honeybunch." She was referring to the forty-seven pounds of birdshot in a canvas bag, which was padlocked around George's neck. "Go on and rest the bag for a little while," she said. "I don't care if you're not equal to me for a while ." George weighed the bag with his hands. "I don't mind it," he said. "I don't notice it any more. It's just a part of me."
- Harrison Bergeron
... and intelligence ...
"That boy is what you call a genius—we a little intellectual millionaire ... But by keeping him back, and carefully checking his activity of mind, we cut down his net mental income to the average figure, and prevent his unjust promotion over the mass ... Those with ready wits, good memories, and superior powers of application should be kept by artificial means from rising above it.
A Vision of Communism

And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.
- Harrison Bergeron
 ... and beauty ...
"Pretty scarecrow," I muttered rudely, at the sight of a damsel in a rusty black gown and shawl, widow's cap, and spectacles ... Eva was a beauty. I knew it directly, from her unbecoming dress. There, beneath, her hideous cap, I could spy the cropped gold hair. That clumsy ruff bespoke a slender throat, the ill-fitting gown and enormous slippers a graceful figure and tiny feet, those blue spectacles a bright pair of eyes.
A Vision of Communism

He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren't really very good-no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in.
- Harrison Bergeron
Both stories, furthermore, feature a troublesome and talented young man.
He told me they [the guide's son and daughter] had given the Commune a world of trouble, being endowed, both of them, with parts of outrageous value, especially Abel, who, at the age of six, composed verses and played like an angel on the piano. Of course he was forbidden to learn music, and his education has been most carefully neglected. At sixteen he was taken with a lucky stammer which had squared matters to some degree. But he had still to be watched.
- A Vision of Communism

"Harrison Bergeron, age fourteen," she said in a grackle squawk, "has just escaped from jail, where he was held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. He is a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous."
- Harrison Bergeron
A Vision of Communism does differ in a major respect: within its Commune, the reverse standard is also applied, with those with physical disabilities elevated to the aristocracy. It also, unlike Vonnegut's near-future dystopian America, turns out to be All a Dream. Nevertheless, the similarities in some areas are striking; I almost wonder if Vonnegut had read it.
  • A Vision of Communism: A Grotesque (Bertha Thomas, Cornhill Magazine, September 1873, pp 300-310, Google Books S2YJAAAAQAAJ). It was variously syndicated from Cornhill to publications including the Boston-based Every Saturday (18 October 1873, page 431) and the Australian newspapers The Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser (Friday 28 November 1873, page 4) and the Sydney Morning Herald (Friday 27th February 1874, page 6).
  • Harrison Bergeron is copyright 1961, Kurt Vonnegut (quotations posted here under fair use for purposes of criticism/review).
- Ray

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