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Recently Read: Hardcase by Dan Simmons & The Case Against Tomorrow by Frederik Pohl

March 19, 2012

First edition cover of The Case Against Tomorrow by Frederik Pohl

The Case Against Tomorrow 
by Frederik Pohl

Ballantine Books, 1957

Excerpt from “The Midas Plague”

Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the Earth.

Blessed Morey, heir to more worldly goods than he could possibly consume.

Morey Fry, steeped in grinding poverty, had never gone hungry a day in his life, never lacked for anything his heart could desire in the way of food, or clothing, or a place to sleep. In Morey’s world, no one lacked for these things; no one could.

Malthus was right–for a civilization without machines, automatic factories, hydroponics and food synthesis, nuclear breeder plants, ocean-mining for metals and minerals…

And a vastly increasing supply of labor…

And architecture that rose high in the air and dug deep in the ground and floated far out on the water on piers and pontoons…architecture that could be poured one day and lived in the next…

And robots.

Above all, robots…robots to burrow and haul and smelt and fabricate, to build and farm and weave and sew.

Frederik Pohl was among a group of writers in the 1950s who moved American science fiction away from space opera, realistic attempts at future prediction, and stories that asked “What if?” using logical extrapolation. As his contemporaries William Tenn, Robert Sheckley, and Cyril Kornbluth all did, Pohl used science fiction to hold up a satirical mirror to his world, finding sympathetic publishers in magazines such as Galaxy Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

While the contents of The Case Against Tomorrow may have had some bite in the 1950s, it’s dated rather poorly.  Stories such as ‘The Census Takers,” “The Celebrated No-Hit Inning,” “Wapshot’s Demon,” “My Lady Green Sleeves,” and “The Candle Lighter” are entertaining enough for a mindless read, but there’s not much that stays with you. The one exception in this book is “The Midas Plague,” one of Pohl’s most anthologized stories.

In “The Midas Plague,” Pohl envisions a reversal of American consumption and status after World War II. There are so many consumer items produced by automated manufacturing that every citizen is obliged to buy as many items as they can. The more prestigious one is, the less one has to consume. Conversely, a young husband starting out in an entry-level corporate job has to live in an enormous mansion with his wife, drive several cars, and buy more clothes and goods and food than they can possibly consume. In that society, one is not permitted to waste things–say, wear a suit once and then throw it away. No, it has to go through its useful life and show wear  before it can be recycled to produce new consumer products. Everyone struggles to keep up with their neighbors by having as little or less than them.

Morey Fry, the protagonist of the story, finds a way to consume more goods so they move up the social ladder and get to consume less. The reversal of 1950s corporate ladder climbing and the pursuit of affluence is still very funny, but it’s sad to realize what a land of plenty the U.S. was during that time–enough so that a reader could imagine a society of unbridled consumerism for its lowliest citizens.

Recommendation: You can read “The Midas Plague” elsewhere; skip this collection and pick up one of Pohl’s collaborations with Cyril Kornbluth such as The Space Merchants or Search the Sky instead for cynical, wry 1950s science fiction. If you’re looking for satirical short stories from that decade, just about any short story collection by Kornbluth (without Pohl), Sheckley, Tenn, or Damon Knight beats these tales.

Hardcase
by Dan Simmons  

St. Martin’s Press, 2001

Opening:

Late one Tuesday afternoon, Joe Kurtz rapped on Eddie Falco’s apartment door.

“Who’s there?” Eddie called from just the other side of the door.

Kurtz stood away from the door and said something in an agitated but unintelligible mumble.

“What?” called Eddie. “I said who the fuck’s there?”

Kurtz made the same urgent mumbling noises.

“Shit,” said Eddie and undid the police lock, a pistol in his right hand, opening the door a crack but keeping it chained.

Kurtz kicked the door in, ripping the chain lock out of the wood, and kept moving, shoving Eddie Falco deeper into the room…

Five pages later, Kurtz has choked Falco, broken his nose, mangled his hand in a garbage disposal, and thrown him out a sixth-floor window.

The violence and the pace continue similarly for 43 more chapters. Dan Simmons’s prose is wonderfully taut and economical. Every word is well-chosen, so the novel focuses on dialogue and plot. The character of Joe Kurtz is brutal, borderline amoral, smart, and extremely competent.

The great-granddaddy of this type of novel is probably Fast One by Paul Cain, a hard-boiled novel sadly forgotten now except by fans of the genre. In the more immediate past, the obvious predecessor to Kurtz is Richard Stark’s character, Parker.  (Simmons even dedicated Hardcase to Richard Stark).

Kurtz is a private investigator who has lost his license by Chapter 2. As he points out to his faithful female assistant, Arlene, you don’t need a license to do investigations. Soon he is working for a mobster, trying to find a missing accountant.

The violence in Hardcase is horrific, but believable, unlike the cartoon action of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. The story never falters; Simmons weaves several complicated plot lines together which culminate in a satisfying ending.

Recommendation: Ultraviolence, action, an intelligent protagonist who outwits enemies, thrills, and prose that does its job by staying out of your way so you focus on the plot and characters–what’s not to like? If you were grabbed by the opening page quoted above, you’ll want to read this book.

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