[Slaughterhouse Five] [Starship Troopers]  [1984]  [Brave New World

[Jowett on Gattaca]  [Fight Club]

[Slaughterhouse Five]


BRIEF BIBLIOGRAPHY (arranged by date)


You might want to look at one or more of the following works.


Klinkowitz, Jerome.  Kurt Vonnegut.  New York: Methuen, 1982.  A brief (96-p.) introduction to Vonnegut.  (In Methuen's "Contemporary Writers" series.  Note that another pamphlet on Vonnegut is out: from Borgo Press—such pamphlets are good works for beginning one's studies, but necessarily too brief for detailed examination of any one work.)


Morsberger, Katherine M.  "Slaughterhouse-Five."  In Survey of Science Fiction Literature.  Frank N. Magill, ed.  Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1979, V, 2101-6.


The "Master Plots" essay-review of Sh-5, with basic information on the novel (which I depend upon below), brief summary and analysis, and brief lists of "Sources for Further Study" and "Reviews."


Klinkowitz, Jerome, and Donald L. Lawler.  Vonnegut in America: An Introduction to the Life and Works of Kurt Vonnegut.  New York: Dell (Delta), 1977.  Includes a chronology of KV's life and works, eight essays, "The Vonnegut Bibliography" (including secondary works on Vonnegut's art), and an appendix on "Vonnegut Abroad" ("A Note on Vonnegut in Europe" by Klinkowitz and "Kurt Vonnegut as an American Dissident: His Popularity in the Soviet Union and His Affinities with Russian Literature" by Donald M. Fiene).


Tilton, John W.  Cosmic Satire in the Contemporary Novel.  Lewisburgh, PA: Bucknell U. Press, 1977, esp. pp. 69-105.


Schatt, Stanley.  Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.  Boston: Twayne, 1976, esp. pp. 81-96.


Wymer, Thomas L.  "The Swiftian Satire of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr."  In Voices for the Future: Essays on Major Science Fiction Writers.  Ed. Thomas D. Clareson.  Bowling Green, OH: BGU Popular Press, 1976, I, 238-62.


Possibly the definitive essay on Sh-5 and certainly the primary source for my understanding of Sh-5—and of my comments below.  Wymer continues his study of Vonnegut in "Machines and the Meaning of Human in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr." in The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction, ed. Thomas P. Dunn and Richard D. Erlich (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), pp. 42-52.


Klinkowitz, Jerome, and John Somer.  The Vonnegut Statement.   New York: Dell (Delta), 1973.


Thirteen essays on Vonnegut and his work, including Glenn Meeter's "Vonnegut's Formal and Moral Otherworldliness: Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five"; "The Vonnegut Bibliography" (including secondary works, to ca. 1972).


Reed, Peter J.  Writers for the Seventies: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.  New York: Warner Books, 1972.


Tanner, Tony.  "The Uncerain Messenger: A Study of the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr."  Critical Quarterly, 11 (1969), 297-315; rpt. Tanner, City of Words . . . .  New York: Harper & Row, 1971.


For further readings, see Richard D. Erlich and Thomas P. Dunn, Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983); the yearly MLA Bibliography; Klinkowitz's bibliographies cited above; the notes in the works listed; and the standard SF reference tools:


Science Fiction Criticism: An Annotated Checklist.  Thomas D. Clareson, compiler.  Kent, OH: KSU Press, 1972.


The Year's Sholarship in Science Fiction and Fantasy: 1972-1975.  Marshall B. Tymn and Roger C. Schlobin, compilers.  Kent, OH: KSU Press, 1979.


"The Year's Scholarship in Science Fiction and Fantasy."  Marshall B. Tymn and Roger C. Schlobin, compilers.  In the journal Extrapolation, 1976-79.  "The Year's Scholarship" appears as an annual monograph from KSU Press for 1980 and 1981 and then returns to Extrapolation.





Subtitle: The Children's Crusade, added to that, "A Duty-Dance with Death."  Further identified as a work by a World War II POW who witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, "'The Florence of the Elbe,'" and as written "Somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from."  (The title-page entry ends with the traditional greeting-farewell of "Peace.")


Setting: Germany, Luxembourg, the USA, and a zoo on Tralfamadore (a planet that may exist only in the mind of Billy Pilgrim).


Time: 1922-13 Feb. 1976, primarily (the birth and death of Billy Pilgrim), with allusions to various events from shortly after the beginning of the universe (Adam and Eve) to the destruction of the universe.


Tense: Usually past tense, but with occasional present.  (Note changes in tense; where Time is important, tense changes should be important.)


Point of View: Complex.  In the "frame" in the first and beginning of the last chapters, first-person-protagonist narration; in the story of Billy Pilgrim, mostly third-person, omniscient narration, "over the shoulder" of Billy—but with occasional references to "KV" (Vonnegut as character), when he was there, near Billy but never meeting Billy.


Major Characters (after Morsberger; + next to character's name indicates that that person's death is narrated in Sh-5):

    "KV": Vonnegut as narrator and character

    Bernard V. O'Hare: World War II (WWII) buddy to Vonnegut and "KV"

    Mary O'Hare: Wife to B.V.O. and enemy of the glorification of war

    +Billy Pilgrim (usually "Billy"): a man who became unstuck in time—or who simply became "unstuck"—in 1944, the antiheroic protagonist

    +Valencia Merble: rich, fat, unattractive woman Billy Pilgrim marries; the marriage guarantees Billy Pilgrim's comfort and, perhaps, proves his madness

    Barbara and Robert Pilgrim: daughter and son to Billy Pilgrim and Valencia

    Montana Wildhack: beautiful actress of Billy Pilgrim's (erotic) dreams, with whom Billy Pilgrim is mated on Tralfamadore (assuming Billy Pilgrim "really" is on Tralfamadore)

    Paul Lazzaro: POW with Billy Pilgrim and murderer of Billy Pilgrim

    +Roland Weary: American weirdo who is captured with Billy Pilgrim

    +Edgar Derby: decent American high school teacher who is executed for looting at Dresden

    Eliot Rosewater: SF fan in bed next to Billy Pilgrim's in mental ward of veterans' hospital

    Kilgore Trout: prolific and utterly unsuccessful writer of SF stories, who has good ideas—but who may give Billy Pilgrim a terrible idea

    Bertram Copeland Rumfoord: Official Historian of U.S. Air Force

    Tralfamadorians: Intelligent creatures from the planet Tralfamadore, who capture Billy Pilgrim and display him and M. Wildhack in their zoo—"really" or only in Billy Pilgrim's mind.


Plot:  Mostly the life story of Billy Pilgrim, framed with "KV's" story.

         Conflicts: (1) Billy's ironic, antiheroic "victory" in remaining metaphorically unborn, asleep, unconscious, dead—and as free as he can manage from responsibility and pain. (2) "KV's" (and Vonnegut's) successful struggle to bear witness to the horror of the fire-bombing of Dresden.


Theme:  "War is hell and all its glory moonshine," to quote Gen. Sherman, is as good as I can come up with.  We can add to that the theme of human responsibility.  Even if we are machines, we can struggle to be human machines, looking back on the past and striving to at least do less harm in the present and future (after Wymer).


Moral:  If Tom Wymer is correct, and I think he is, Vonnegut—not just "KV"—states his moral more or less directly:


I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.


I have told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.  (19; ch. 1)


If Vonnegut's advice seems obvious, consider the radical implications of every parent's giving such advice—and of every child's taking such advice.


Theological Points: (1) Vonnegut is not a Christian or even a theist; he may use traditional religious images (etc.) in untraditional ways.  (2) The Tralfamadorian view of time is Godlike; traditional theology holds that God's foreknowing what we (will) do does not determine what we (will) do.


Historical Point:  Sh-5 has the honor of being one of the novels most often removed from American libraries and in other ways censored.  Consider why that might be so.  Vonnegut has said that his politics are mostly what he learned in high school civics class, and, if his class was like mine, that assessment seems quite accurate.  Still, be sure you figure out the several ways in which Sh-5 is a subversive book, starting with its dim view of massacres in even good causes and working down clear to Vonnegut's diction: he uses "dirty" words.  Note very well (=N.M.B.) that conditioning people to follow linguistic norms is part of our general training in conformity and obedience and that one way to start deconditioning people is to get them to violate those norms.  Note also that moralists sometimes and satirists often resort to very strong language and to "dirty" words as part of a strategy of shocking their audiences into the recognition of moral responsibility, which is sometimes opposed to conformity, obedience, manners, and even (mere) civility.


Organizing Question (mostly for courses existential and/or absurdist): Is Billy Pilgrim a hero amidst the absurd?  An anti-hero amidst the absurd?  Is his "answer" to what to do in an absurd world to quit—to find himself a womb with a view of Tralfamadore, and with Montana Wildhack?  Does he live by Tralfamadorian philosophy even before he learns of (or makes up) the planet Tralfamadore?  Does Billy start out a victim of forces beyond his control and then become, in his passive little way, an agent for such forces?  (See Wymer article, and his use of the work of Tony Tanner.)



BRUTE FORCE CRITICISM (page references from the l971 Dell rpt.):


Title Page: See above, and note well (=N.B.) how Vonnegut describes himself and his book.


Dedication: To a woman who would protect babies (both literal babies and young men) and to the cab driver KV and B. O'Hare met in Dresden.


Epigraph: Repeated ch. 9, p. 197.  Consider how Billy Pilgrim is both like and unlike the Christ child; N.B. that the "Baby" awakes.


Chapter One:


         pp. 1-2: The "I" introduces himself and his book (again).

                  "If the accident will":  I'm not sure what this means, but it is antithetical to the determinist philosophy of the Tralfamadorians.


         pp. 2-3: Apparently the Dresden memory has been as useless to "Vonnegut" as the penis in the limerick has become for its "owner"; does the limerick have any significance beyond that? (Real question.)  Note that the limerick does stress "fool," a word Vonnegut repeats often in Sh-5.  If we're asked to play word association in Sh-5—and it is a very punny book—then the "fool/ tool" association may be significant: later we're told explicitly that Billy Pilgrim is well hung, and he may be both a fool and a tool ("poor dumb schmuck" and a kind of passive but dangerous prick).

                  What is the function of the "Yon Yonson" song?  For sure, it introduces us to a work from folk culture that is not linear but circles around on itself, as Sh-5 does (in a sense) and as the Tralfamadorian view of things says the universe does (in a different sense).


         p. 3:  If it makes no more sense to write an anti-war book than it makes to write "an anti-glacier book," why did Vonnegut write Sh-5—or is Sh-5 something other than an anti-war book?


         p. 4: Note the reference to "mustard gas and roses"; the phrase is repeated in other places in Sh-5.


         pp. 4-5: Is the climax of Sh-5 the execution of Edgar Derby?  If it is, where does the climax of Sh-5 occur?  (How many times do we hear about "the execution of poor old Edgar Derby"?)


         p. 6:  N.M.B. the "So it goes" after the reference to the "dead people in the cellars of Dresden"; the phrase becomes a motif in Sh-5, and you should be sure you know its significance.


         p. 7:  I think this page has the first use of "babies"; note that word and its cognates—babies are important in Sh-5.


         p. 8: KV says Vonnegut's father said that Vonnegut had never written a story with a villain in it.  Is there a villain in Sh-5?


         p. 9:  Note "And so on" and "Three Musketeers" (here, the candy bar); these phrases also recur in Sh-5.


         p. 11: Vonnegut gets in here a standard bit of folklore and antimilitarist propaganda: veterans who actually fought tend to be much less militaristic than those who are ignorant of war.  Note also the secrecy of the Dresden raid; that becomes important later—in the real world as well as in Sh-5 (the "secret" bombings of Cambodia were something of a scandal during what's called "the Vietnam Era" and were significant for the following "Watergate" scandal, 1972 f.]).


         pp. 14-16: The dedication cued you to pay close attention to the views of Mary O'Hare; do so—her ideas on books and movies and war and babies are important.  The subtitle to Sh-5 cued you to pay careful attention to a Children's Crusade; do so here and later.  (The historical Children's Crusade was a vicious fraud; subsequent, figurative "crusades" may have been—and may continue to be—just as vicious and fraudulent.)


         pp. 17-18: The novel is moving toward the modern destruction of Dresden; KV puts that destruction into a historical context of destruction.  Note also the juxtaposition of historical material with the idea of time and our ideas on past, present, and future.


         p. 19: Again, here we get the moral of Sh-5, juxaposed to the assertion that ". . . there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre."  Only the birds speak after a massacre, and they only have an unintelligible question, "Poo-tee-weet?"  Still, some of us might learn to say No when asked "to take part in massacres" or produce "massacre machinery."  That might be something.


         pp. 20-21: KV presents himself as trapped in time and a sort of slave to clocks and calendars; note this for later—in different ways we may all be stuck or unstuck in time.

                  I'm not sure what to make of the excerpt from Theodore Roethke, but it's quite suggestive: Billy Pilgrim may never really wake up, so in a sense he, too, wakes "to sleep" and is as slow as possible in waking; Billy Pilgrim's Tralfamadorian philosophy has him utterly fated, and he does not fear his fate—so long as it is fated and there's nothing he can do about it; Billy Pilgrim may learn nothing, which makes him quite different from someone who at least learns by going where he must. N.B. the idea that "The truth is death" and that "No art is possible without a dance with death"—see title page of Sh-5.  Note also the idea of an obsession with time.


         pp. 21-22: Lot's wife looks back upon the destruction of the wicked cities of the plain, and KV loves her for it and identifies with her looking back.  Sh-5 is Vonnegut's looking back upon the destruction of Dresden, a wicked city (because its people went along with Nazism)—and looking back is a human thing to do.  Can the Tralfamadorians look back?  Does Billy Pilgrim do much remembering?


Chapter Two:


         p. 23: Vonnegut is completely ambiguous on how "real" Billy Pilgrim's time-travelling might be: "Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. * * * He says."  For our purposes, we might as well assume that Billy Pilgrim's time-travel is as real as any of the other fictional material in Sh-5, but keep in mind that that assumption is merely an assumption; time-travel is real for Billy Pilgrim, but Billy Pilgrim may be just "a senile widower" who is eminently unreliable.


         pp. 23-27: A linear summary of Billy Pilgrim's life.  Refer back to it if you get confused later.


         p. 27: The central explanation for "So it goes": it's "what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people."  KV's usage is more general than even that.  (Note also "And so on.")


         pp. 28-29: Note the "blue and ivory" of Billy Pilgrim's feet; the colors are another motif in Sh-5.  Note also what Billy Pilgrim thinks and believes his mission is; KV—and Vonnegut—may disagree.


         p. 30: N.M.B. that Billy Pilgrim "first came unstuck in time" (if he did), "long before his trip to Tralfamadore"; he started his time-tripping when he was most miserable and most wanted to give up (see pp. 43 f.).  The Tralfamadorians "were simply able to give him [Billy Pilgrim] insight into what was really going on"—or, they are Billy Pilgrim's mechanism for focusing his delusions, or they exist and are wrong about the nature of the universe, or they exist and are right about the nature of the Tralfamadorian universe but poor guides for the human universe.  (All of the above?  None?)


         pp. 33-34: Introduction to Roland Weary.  (Note brief discussion of "mother-f*cker"; it may be as much of an explanation as Vonnegut will give us for his own use of "dirty" words.  Having "motherf*cker" yelled at him—Billy Pilgrim—"woke him up" [temporarily?].)


         p. 34: N.M.B. that "Billy wanted to quit" and "could scarcely distinguish between sleep and wakefulness"—possibly Billy Pilgrim's general condition.


         p. 39:  Weary, Billy Pilgrim, and the two scouts are likened to "big, unlucky mammals," which, of course, "they were."  If you see nonhuman animals as essentially machines, then this sentence may suggest that you should also see humans as machines (a Tralfamadorian view that Vonnegut takes seriously, but with very different conclusion from those of the Tralfamadorians).


         pp. 40-41: Note the pornographic picture; aside from its intrinsic appeal to our purient interests, the picture shows up later and is introduced very shortly before Billy Pilgrim's first time trip.  Also, Billy Pilgrim winds up in the zoo on Tralfamadore with a woman who knows a bit about pornography herself.  (And the picture raises the question of "What is art?"  The photographer who shot the picture may've died sooner than otherwise because he came up with an unacceptable answer to that question.)


         pp. 42-43: "Weary's version of the true war story," which is false, is juxtaposed to what's happening to him "In real life," which is then juxtaposed to another Weary version of his "Three Musketeers" story—which is the lead-in the Billy Pilgrim's first time trip.  (And all this, of course, is in a part of Sh-5 that is blatantly fictional, with only the indirect relation to Truth that is the duty of art.)  If Weary here, is less than reliable, Billy Pilgrim may also not be reliable: he may have his own "version of the true . . . story."

         The immediate intro. to Billy Pilgrim's first time trip is, "He was like a poet in the Parthenon" (Lord Byron?).  He looks this way because he's scared, exhausted, and probably on the verge of giving up again.  He may be about to find some "wonderful new"—and somewhat poetic?—"lies" to keep on living (see ch. 5, p. 101).  Note what death and pre-birth are like.


         pp. 43-44: The climax of Sh-5 is supposed to be the execution of Edgar Derby, and we soon learn of at least one other important execution.  Billy Pilgrim's first swimming lesson "was like an execution."  What is little Billy's response to being rescued from drowning?  Does big Billy retain his early attitude (Note that going underwater can serve as an image of returning to the womb; so can dying.)


         p. 45: Billy becomes "so vocal about flying saucers and traveling in time" after he "had his head broken in an airplane crash."

                  N.M.B. why Pvt. Slovik was executed.  (If we are to avoid participation in massacres, must we challenge directly "the authority of the government"?)


         p. 50: Billy Pilgrim goes on to become a respectable, rich citizen and president of his local Lions Club.  Insofar as we identify with Billy Pilgrim and wish him well, we should be happy that he survives the war and becomes a success.  Insofar as we note Billy Pilgrim's profound failings, we may see him going from being "a victim of outrageous fortune" to being "one of outrageous fortune's cruelest"—or at least most subtle and effective—"agents as well" (quoting Vonnegut's earlier novel, The Sirens of Titan [1959]; see Wymer, following Tanner).


         p. 51: Billy Pilgrim rolls himself "into a ball" (fetal position?), and Weary moves to kick him in the spinal column, "the tube which had so many of Billy's important wires in it."  Note this for Billy Pilgrim's attitude toward danger and for the possibility that at least our bodies are machines (an idea taught in some physiology courses at least until recently).

                   Billy Pilgrim and Weary are captured; at this point Billy Pilgrim is most obviously a "victim."


Chapter Three:


         p. 52: Note connection between war and sex; it'll recur.  Note also the dog; dogs, especially barking dogs, also recur.


         p. 53: Note reference to Adam and Eve; there's another reference to them in ch. 4, p. 75.  Aside from completing the full time scheme of Sh-5—more or less Creation to the End of the Universe—what is the function of the Adam and Eve references?


         p. 55:  The German corporal gives Weary's boots "to the beautiful boy," which leads eventually to Weary's death.  But Weary blames Billy Pilgrim for killing him; Lazzaro gives his word to revenge Weary, and ultimately Lazzaro kills Billy.  Hence, Billy Pilgrim's death springs from this act of kindness by the corporal to the boy.  Ignoring for a moment the possibility that Billy Pilgrim foreknows his death and does nothing to avoid it—might we see here a kind of determinism that can exist even if the Tralfamadorian view of the universe is false: a chain of cause and effect that requires only human stupidity and stubborness in seeking vengeance for real or imagined injuries?


         p. 56: Billy Pilgrim seems to suffer from mild narcolepsy.  Is that an appropriate disease for him to have?


         p. 57: Note the bumper stickers; another sticker is mentioned in ch. 9 (183).  Is Billy Pilgrim politically active enough to even select his own bumper stickers?  Are those stickers appropriate for a man of Billy Pilgrim's age and class?  (NOTE: Supporting local police departments was more controversial in 1969 than it may've been when you reached political consciousness [assuming you've done so]; a number of local police forces had worked hard—sometimes violently—to suppress dissent, and "Law 'n' Order" was becoming a code for repression.)

                  Billy wonders "Where have all the years gone?"  In ch. 2, his mother had asked how she could've gotten so old (44), and KV discusses his own aging.

                  Billy tries "hard to care" about the fate of European optometrists; do you think he succeeds in caring?  What, if anything, does Billy Pilgrim care about?


         p. 59: Why doesn't Billy Pilgrim talk with the black man in the Ilium ghetto?


         pp. 59-61: What is Billy's response to the suggestion that we should bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age?  (Should a survivor of Dresden have sympathy for the potential victims of massive bombing?  For the actual victims of bombings?)  [HISTORICAL NOTE: During the "Vietnam Era" we dropped on Indochina more tonnage of bombs than was dropped on all of Europe during WWII—or some such figures.  Does Billy Pilgrim ever think about the bombing of Indochina?]

                  Note the prayer; it appears again between the breasts of Montano Wildhack.  Does Billy Pilgrim have the wisdom "to tell the difference" between what he can and cannot change?

                  Did Billy Pilgrim tell his son not "to take part in massacres"?  If the old legal formulation is correct and "Silence means consent"—and in morality it usually does—does Billy at least consent to massacres in his silence on the Vietnam War and in his failure to even discuss with his son the question of Robert's joining the Green Berets?  See my "Historical Note" above; consult a map for the size of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; note that most of those bombs fell in a relatively small part of Indochina (and that our tonnage may have equalled all the tonnage in WWII—I used a conservative figure); and then imagine the carnage such bombing could have caused, to say nothing of other warfare). 

We lost fewer than 60,000 dead in Vietnam; the Vietnamese lost over a million just in the war against the US, to say nothing of the French and before them the Japanese (and before them, China). 

                  Why does Billy weep, "for no apparent reason"?


         p. 62: Note tears versus sleep.


         p. 65: Throughout Sh-5, note "killing machines," "blue and ivory," and various kinds of photographs and movies.  The killing machines are obvious enough in a pacifistic work like Sh-5, but what's the significance of the blue and ivory and all the photos and such?  (Real question.)


         pp. 66-67:  What should we make of Wild Bob?  Should we approve of him, even though he "had lost an entire regiment, about forty-five hundred men—a lot of them children, actually"?

                  Note "I was there."  (Cf. ch. 9, p. 191.)  Does it aid Vonnegut's "Ethical Appeal." to have a narrator who can claim having been there?  ("Ethical Appeal"—ethos—is presenting a Speaker who is or at least appears to be reliable: honest, intelligent, knowledgeable on the subject at hand, worthy to speak on the issue.)


         p. 69: Note the "striped banner of orange and black"; cf. ch. 4, p. 72.


         p. 70: Note the boxcars as organisms—and "like spoons"; spoons and nestling like spoons recur.


Chapter Four:


         p. 72: What's the color of the tent for Barbara's wedding, and how are Billy Pilgrim and Valencia "nestled"?  What colors are Billy Pilgrim's feet—and how does Vonnegut use these motifs to give some logic to his jumps in narration, or (the equivalent) the jumps in Billy Pilgrim's time-travels?


         p. 73: Billy Pilgrim is "guided" here "by dread and the lack of dread."  Is that true for him in the rest of his story?

                  See ch. 1, p. 4 for KV's claiming to make phone calls while drunk.  See ch. 1, p. 12 for KV's carrying a "bottle like a dinner bell."


         pp. 74-75: If Billy Pilgrim weren't "really" travelling in time, what would it say about his psychology that he sees the movie (of American bombers) in reverse?  Why does Billy Pilgrim, on his own, extrapolate from the movie the return of everyone to babies and ultimately the perfect and innocent couple, Adam and Eve?

                  Note that Spot barks; cf. dog in Billy Pilgrim's capture by the Germans.


         pp. 76-77: Billy Pilgrim captured by Tralfamadorians  Note that the Tralfamadorians paralyze Billy Pilgrim's will; did they need a very strong charge in their "zap gun" to do that?  Why do they need to zap his will at all, if he has no free will?

                  "Why me?" asks Billy Pilgrim.  (Cf. ch. 5, p.  91.)  OK, why him?  Is there a why?  [PHILOSOPHICAL NOTE: "Why?" is a theological or metaphysical question; it is not an allowed question in scientific inquiry, since it leads to an "infinite redux": i.e., every why question can lead to another why question until the answerer says, "Because I say so!" or "Because that's how God arranged things!" or "Because that's the nature of things!" or "Because the moment is structured that way."]  Note the image of "bugs trapped in amber"; it's central for any human understanding of the Tralfamadorian view of the universe.


         pp. 79-80:  Billy Pilgrim commits atrocities in his sleep, the men on the train say; Wymer says that that becomes a habit with Billy.  Does Billy Pilgrim commit (figurative or literal) atrocities in his (figurative) sleep?  Does he contribute to atrocity by never gaining full, responsible, adult consciousness?

                  Death of Roland Weary, accusing Billy Pilgrim of killing him.


         p. 80: Note that the prison camp "was originally constructed as an extermination camp for Russian prisoners of war"; the Nazi cause is a bad one, so working against it is a good thing.  This knowledge adds to the complexity of Sh-5.  (Consider the possibility that Vonnegut uses a kind of "most rigorous proof" in his attack on war: the bombing of Dresden was part of one of the most moral wars ever fought, the allied crusade against Fascism.)

                  What is the imagery for getting the American POWs out of the boxcars?  (Hint: excremental imagery is standard in satire.  Satirist tend to undercut human pride by reducing us to shit.  [Vonnegut, though, is more ambiguous on pride than more traditional satirists, for whom it is both ludicrous and "the root of all evils."])


         pp. 82-83: Another dog barks; KV tells us explicitly that the stripping at the POW camp parallels Billy Pilgrim's stripping on Tralfamadore.

                  Background on Edgar Derby and the "true" story of who held Weary when Weary died (which may contradict Lazzaro's version in ch. 6, p. 141).


         pp. 84-86: Intro. to Lazzaro and his promise to avenge Weary.

                  Gassing to death of billions of "Body lice and bacteria and fleas. . . .  So it goes."

                  Billy Pilgrim in Tralfamadorian saucer, "Trapped in another blob of amber."  Is Homo sapiens sapiens—the Wise, Wise Man—no more than "lice and bacteria and fleas"?  Are we simply bugs trapped in amber?  If we have no free will, what, aside from a hypertrophied cerebral cortex, makes us better than, say, bugs?  If Lazzaro and Weary are relatively good guys—at least they're not Nazis—of how much value can our species be?  (Keep your eye on Derby.)


Chapter Five:


         pp. 87-88: Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls features the use of sophisticated drugs for producing "ups" and "downs"; I haven't read the book, but it may also have enough sex in it for "ups" and "downs" to have another pun.


         p. 88: N.M.B. the nature of Tralfamadorian books: Sh-5 is written "somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales" of the Tralfamadorians  Note that ". . . they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep."  As Wymer points out, this idea leads us (by way of a wretched pun) to the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns (89).


         p. 91: Note "Why me?" and the answer "Vy anybody?"  (Consider a possible proportion equation: German guard/slugged American = Tralfamadorian "guard"/Billy Pilgrim.)


         pp. 94-96: Note English prisoners and the candles and soap "made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State."

                  The play put on by the Brits is Cinderella, "the most popular story ever told"; Billy Pilgrim gets Cinderella's "slippers."  Is Billy Pilgrim a kind of Cinderella character?  Do we want him to be?  (Is he the "Frog Prince" —our male version of Cinderella—but one who remains a frog?)


         pp. 98-99: Billy Pilgrim's "morphine paradise" is juxtaposed to a reference to The Red Badge of Courage, an antiromantic war story of a boy's coming to manhood (or failing to reach manhood).


         pp. 100-l: Billy Pilgrim in mental ward with Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to SF, and the works of Kilgore Trout.

                  N.B. the usefulness of SF for Billy Pilgrim and Rosewater's attempt "to re-invent themselves and their universe."

                  N.M.B. the idea of the "vital lie" (to use Henrik Ibsen's formulation in The Wild Duck): here, the idea that we need "a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren't going to want to go on living."  Does Billy Pilgrim learn new lies from Trout—and go on with partial living?


         p. 102: KV tells us that ". . . Billy didn't really like life at all."


         p. 104: Trout on the 4th dimension.  Might the cause of Billy Pilgrim's mental illness lie in the 4th dimension?  Given that we do live in a 4-dimensional universe, does Billy Pilgrim's illness lie in his inability to deal properly with Time?


         p. 105: N.M.B. the English colonel's comment on Billy: "How nice—to feel nothing and still get full credit for being alive."


         p. 106: Explicit reference to the fact (from older people's point of view) "that wars . . . [are] fought by babies. . . .  'It's the Children's Crusade.'"

                  OK, "Old soldiers never die—young ones do," as we used to say in the '60s.  Still, does Vonnegut undercut his argument on responsibility in putting quite so much stress on the babyhood of soldiers?  The sentimental appeal works well, but are we to put all the blame on "war-loving, dirty old men" (Ch. 1, p. 14)?  Even if his father is a wimp and his mother a blimp and his sister a twit—even accepting the utter worst about the Pilgrim family—even then doesn't Robert Pilgrim bear some responsibility for becoming a juvenile delinquent and then cleansing himself in his own and others' blood in Vietnam?  If Vonnegut insists that we do have some modicum of free will and some responsibility, shouldn't he blame the young men just a bit more?

                  Alternatively—in what sense are Lazzaro and Weary babies?  They're certainly not objects for sentimental blubbering; are they babies in their immaturity?  Should we excuse their nastiness because they're morally retarded?


         p. 107: Be sure you know why Billy Pilgrim marries Valencia.  (Also, note her favorite candy bar.)


         pp. 108-10: For Vonnegut's running critique of Christianity, note Trout's The Gospel from Outer Space.


         pp. 114-15: Tralfamadorians on human sex and human view of time.  Can you accept the Tralfamadorian theories of human reproduction?  If you find them implausible, should you accept uncritically their more plausible views of the human view of time?  Should Billy accept their ideas uncritically?  Does he "accept" their ideas as a way to rationalize what he's been doing all along?


         pp. 115-17: Having covered sex, we get to the Tralfamadorians on violence, particularly the violence of warfare.

                  If the Tralfamadorian view of a determined universe is correct and if it were possible to "Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones," would it be wise to just "spend eternity looking at pleasant moments" and avoid doing stupid things like trying to prevent "war on Earth"?  Even if we can't time-travel, is it best to concentrate on pleasant memories and repress and keep secret unpleasant ones?  Why look back and turn into a pillar of salt?  If the Tralfamadorians are correct, would it be prudent to follow their advice, but wise to strive against evil?

                  Note the "'Um,' said Billy Pilgrim"; it's repeated on p. 120, when Valencia comments on the wonder of Billy Pilgrim's marrying her.  (Again, why does Billy Pilgrim marry Valencia?  Doing so certainly helps his career, but what have we learned specifically of his motivation?  Was it crazy for Billy Pilgrim to marry Valencia?  Is it crazy of him to adopt the Tralfamadorian philosophy?)


         p. 121: Note association of "sex and glamor with war"; cf. and contrast Howard W. Campbell's ideas on p. 130.

                  N.B. that Valencia is insightful enough to have a "funny feeling" that Billy Pilgrim is "just full of secrets"—he has more secrets than he knows.


         p. 122: A proper epitaph for Billy Pilgrim and KV, they think.  Is this for the reality of their lives or the ideal or what?  (Real question.)


         p. 123: Derby at his execution and Billy Pilgrim during his first night at the POW camp—both are doped up.  Any significance?  (Real question.)


         p. 125: Young KV, at the POW camp, sh*ts out, he says, everything but his brains—and then his brains, too.  How literally should we take young KV if we are to believe much of what old KV tells us?


         pp. 128-31: Howard W. Campbell, Jr., hero of Vonnegut's Mother Night (1961) —and who, in Mother Night, may or may not be a traitor and war criminal—on American POWs, and on America.  Vonnegut may use Campbell here to get across some serious ideas of his own on American culture and economics.

                  Note the hard-nosed cynicism of Campbell on military uniforms and the conditioning of troops.  (I got a cleaned-up version of this theory in Military Science 101, in reference to discipline in 18th-c. armies, esp. British and US.)


         pp. 132-33: Barbara on Billy Pilgrim as child juxtaposed with arrival of Montana Wildhack, "a motion picture star" (see later for details on her early work).  We also learn, "incidentally," that Billy Pilgrim has "a tremendous wang."  Any theories on the significance of Billy Pilgrim's penis size?  (Does the mild-mannered, eminently unstudly Billy Pilgrim think—as much as he thinks—with his genitals?  Is the ultimate goal of his time-traveling shacking up with Wildhack in the Tralfamadorian zoo, where he can be just "a big," lucky "mammal," engaging in the primary biological duty of reproduction?)


         pp. 133-34: Heavenly sex with Wildhack on Tralfamadore; cf. "heaven" of guards' car on POW train (e.g., ch. 4, p. 81).  (Real question: Is heaven the fulfillment of our animal needs?)  Sex scene on Tralfamadore juxtaposed with an Earthly "wet dream about Montana Wildhack."

                  Putting together some earlier possibilities (following Wymer): Is Billy Pilgrim's time-travel a way to avoid responsibility through a kind a sleep, with the ultimate goal of a dream, the wet dream of the Tralfamadorian womb with Wildhack?


         p. 139: Lazzaro on his idea of "the sweetest thing in life": for him "it's revenge."  (Is Billy Pilgrim's "sweetest thing" at least superior to Lazzaro's?)


         p. 141-43: Lazzaro's version of death of Weary.  Then the death of B.P., on 13 February 1976, the 31st anniversay of the firebombing of Dresden, and part of America's bicentennial year.  Note present tense.  Note also destruction of Chicago and destruction of the USA as a world power.


         p. 145: Billy Pilgrim explicitly identified with Cinderella (see above).

                  Note Englishman on pride and the will to live.  Contrary to people with problems in most satire, does Billy Pilgrim suffer from too little pride?  Does he find "a very easy and painless way" to sort of live?


         p. 148: Young KV on Dresden = Oz.


         p. 153: Main title of book explained.


Chapter Seven:


         pp. 154-55: Tralfamadorian view of people as machines.  Are the Tralfamadorians correct?  Even if they are correct, does that alter our ethical responsibilities?  In The Sirens of Titan the Tralfamadorians are literal machines themselves, but the one Tralfamadorian we see learns love and loyalty and is both human and humane.  Even if we are machines, might we strive to be human and humane machines?  (See Wymer essay in Mechanical God.)

                  N.M.B. that barbershop quartet.


         pp. 155-57: Plane crash, with only Billy Pilgrim and copilot surviving.  Question: since Billy Pilgrim knows they'll crash, why doesn't he say something?  (Note the old Shelly Berman line from a comedy album from the late 1950s: "You'd rather die than make an ass of yourself.")  N.M.B. that even bleeding his life out in the snow, "Everything was pretty much all right with Billy."

                  KV tells us that Billy Pilgrim dreams some true things in the hospital.  "The true things were time-travel."  In what sense, "true"?


         pp. 160-61: Another kind of "spooning" and more tears: Derby's tears of gratitude.


Chapter Eight:


         pp. 162-64: Campbell's speech to the American POWs and Derby's response.  Note rise of Derby as a character: no longer one of the "listless playthings of enormous forces" but a man taking a stand.  His speech has all the profundity of a lecture in a high school civics class, but that's not what counts.  Derby had something to say, and he said it; and, in context, he's essentially right and admirable.


         pp. 166-67: Billy Pilgrim meets Kilgore Trout, the SF hack.


         p. 168: Trout's The Gutless Wonder—a fable for our time.  There's a satire here on a common human folly, in a particularly American form: our preference for manners and such over morality.  It's OK that the robot drops jellied gasoline (napalm) on people, but it's not OK that he's got bad breath.  "But then he cleared that up, and he was welcomed to the human race"—even though he and the other robots "had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground."  (Work out the "moral" of the fable; as I said, Sh-5 is a subversive book.)


         p. 171: Trout on the truth of his art, which is as factual as advertising.  Note the ironies here and apply the resulting theory of truth to Sh-5.


         pp. 172-75: Billy Pilgrim learns he has a secret and gets help (?) with handling it from Trout, Trout's "time window" theory.


         p. 176: Billy Pilgrim flees into "his nice white house" at a song of the suffering of the poor, perhaps most particularly black poor (which would work nicely with Billy Pilgrim's driving away from the black man in the ghetto), but poor folk in any event.

                  We meet Robert and learn that he and Billy Pilgrim don't have that much to do with each other; they won't talk of Robert's future.


         pp. 177-79: Billy Pilgrim remembers Dresden; he looks back on destruction—a human thing to do and one he usually avoids.  His suppressed memory of Dresden, just after 13 Feb. 1945, is why the quartet affected him so deeply; he has remembered that he does have a secret from the war.


Chapter Nine:


         pp. 182-83: Death of Valencia, who really loved Billy and who cries thinking Billy killed or maimed or close to death.

                  Note that in 1969 a "Reagan for President!" bumper sticker put one at least in the pretty hard Right, if not at the far Right.

                  Billy Pilgrim dreams on, unaware of the death of his wife.


         pp. 184-88: Rumfoord and historical material on aerial-bombing massacres: especially the 135,000 killed at Dresden.


         p. 189: Enter Robert "of the famous Green Berets," looking good and "all straightened out"—and highly decorated for a young soldier.  (He's also been wounded, but apparently not seriously: he's got a Purple Heart.)


         p. 190:  Billy Pilgrim "conscious . . . while Valencia was being put into the ground."  In what sense, "conscious"?  We learn that he's exerting considerable mental effort "preparing letters and lectures about the flying saucers, the negligibility of death, and the true nature of time."


         pp. 191-93: Billy Pilgrim's  "I was there" to Rumfoord.  What comes of Billy Pilgrim's "witness"?


         pp. 195-97: Billy Pilgrim in the coffin-shaped green wagon: "his happiest moment."  N.M.B. that two obstetricians are the "horse pitiers" that force Billy Pilgrim to look at the horses' mouths and feet and recognize their suffering.  "When Billy saw the condition of his means of transportation, he burst into tears.  He hadn't cried about anything else in the war."  To paraphrase the Book of Jonah, he had a moment of pity for the horses but did not mourn over Dresden, that great city, with its 135,000 dead human beings.  As the epigraph of the novel, repeated here, gets you to do—cf. and contrast Christ and Billy Pilgrim.


         p. 198: The upshot—Dresden had to be destroyed.  "Pity the men who had to do it"; "It was all right . . . . Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does.  I learned that on Tralfamadore," says Billy Pilgrim.


         p. 201-2: Trout's story of kidnapped Earthlings.


         p. 209: Wildhack's locket and prayer.  Again, if we cannot change anything, do we need any courage?  If we cannot change anything, do we need anything more than the serenity to accept everything?


Chapter Ten:


         p. 210: Return to initial KV narrator (with "I" in initial sentence and contemporary references).

                  Robert Kennedy: murdered while running for president in 1968, as an anti-war candidate and a candidate trying to reconcile blacks and whites.

                  Martin Luther King: Martin Luther King, Jr., to be exact: murdered while helping to resolve a garbage-handlers' strike; he also opposed the Vietnam war and, of course, tried to integrate blacks—as equals—into all of American society.

                  Both Kennedy and King were mudered with guns.  (It's hard to say what accounted for most of the bodies in Vietnam.  I was taught that artillery is the main killer on the battlefield, but there aren't exactly battlefields in guerilla warfare.)  Anyway, guns were used in 'Nam, and they performed their function—so the bit about KV's (and Vonnegut's?) father and guns, including rifles, applies to all three paragraphs of the opening of the chapter.

                  The reference to Darwin is to the idea (vulgarly interpreted) of the survivial of the fittest: those organisms survive and reproduce that are best adapted to their immediate environments; the deaths of the less fit produce more biological space, so to speak, for the multiplication of the currently superior forms.  Hence, ". . . corpses are improvements."


         p. 211: Note the "If" construction on Billy Pilgrim and the Tralfamadorians: "If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true"—and even if it's true, "I am not overjoyed," although KV isn't too upset either.  The ambiguity of the "reality" of Billy's experiences is kept to the end.


         pp. 212-14: Aftermath of Dresden bombing.

                  Why we can afford Dresden massacres, biologically: we humans reproduce remarkably efficiently and can afford to kill off millions of people.  Can we each have dignity when there are so many of us and when we can all be replaced so quickly and easily?

                  The last "I was there" by KV/Vonnegut: he was there to work in the corpse mines.

                  The corpse mines smelled "like roses and mustard gas"—completing the motif.

                  Edgar Derby is finally executed, his literary exit taking one short paragraph.

                  Billy ends up heading toward "an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses.  The wagon was green and coffin-shaped."  Presumably he enters the wagon for his snooze while the bird makes the only comment appropriate after a massacre, "Poo-tee-weet?"  Billy's response isn't recorded, and the implication that he's going to climb into the wagon isn't very promising.  It's a kind of womb and coffin, and the implication is that he will never really—morally—awake or get himself born into the world of adult responsibility.




1.  What is the effect of having a Vonnegut as author, narrator, and character in Sh-5?  Why is the method of narration—including the handling of point of view and even verb tense—so complex?


2.  The film version of Sh-5 is a good movie and an effective anti-war statement.  But it differs from the novel.  How does it differ?  What are the effects of the differences?


3.  I have finally decided that Thomas L. Wymer is right about Sh-5: in the novel's "thesis" layer, Billy Pilgrim is a victim and sympathetic, but in its "antithesis" layer, Billy Pilgrim is an agent of evil.  But I only decided that after reading the novel nine or ten times (and seeing the film three or four times)—and after after going through the novel line-by-line for this study guide.  What's so attractive about Billy Pilgrim that I'd miss for so long the "obvious" truth of Wymer's analysis?  Since you can't answer that question, try this one: Why do so many readers tend to sympathize with Billy's spasmodic pilgrimage through the novel and his life?  What's in his story that makes us sympathize with him while reading?

                  Alternatively, argue that Wymer's reading is wrong: that Billy Pilgrim is the hero of Sh-5.


4.  Argue for or against the decorum (the artistic appropriateness) of Vonnegut's method of developing Billy Pilgrim's story: framing it with "Vonnegut's" story, skipping all over in time and space, using bad puns and a kind of "stream of consciousness" for what continuity there is between scenes.


5.  How can Sh-5 be effective as an anti-war novel if it's so subtle that many (most?) readers can't even recognize that Billy Pilgrim is an antihero?  (Is the novel effective propaganda?  [Subtlety in propaganda is rarely a virtue.]  Is the film version effective propaganda?  If so, why does it have a much more up-beat ending than the novel's?)


6.  I've asserted that Sh-5 is subversive.  Argue for or against that assertion (noting, though, that many Americans who like to censor books love to censor Sh-5).


7.  I've attacked Vonnegut's stress on soldiers as "babies."  Develop my attack into a full argument, or argue that my attack is wrong and wrong-headed.


8.  Argue for or against the assertion that Billy Pilgrim is quietly insane: that the Tralfamadorians exist only in his mind.  Either way, be sure to discuss the psychology of Billy Pilgrim, noting how the Tralfamadorians fit into his sane or insane view of the world and way of dealing with a world that may, itself, be more than a little mad.



[Starship Troopers]  



1.  Note the following famous passage from the Book of Isaiah, ch. 2 (repeated in Micah 4.1-4 [I modify the "King James" text]):


         It shall come to pass in the last days

              that the mountain of the house of the LORD

          shall be established as the highest of the mountains

              and shall be exalted above the hills;

          and all the nations shall flow unto it,

              and many peoples shall go, and say:

          "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,

              to the house of the God of Jacob;

          that he may teach us his ways

              and that we may walk in his paths."

          For out of Zion shall go forth Toràh,

              and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

          And he shall judge among the nations,

              and render verdicts for many peoples;

          and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

              and their spears into pruning hooks;

          nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

              neither shall they learn war any more.

                               (vss. 2-4)



This prophecy by Isaiah is echoed in the religious version of "Down By the River Side" and in what Juan Rico calls "Don't wanta study war no more" (137; ch. XII)—which is what Heinlein refers to directly in Starship Troopers (147, ch. XII; see also Heinlein's The Puppet Masters [1951], last two pages).  At least two of Heinlein's protagonists call into question the teaching of Isaiah that the Kingdom of Messiah will come and will be peaceful and that such peace is to be desired.  That's pretty gutsy with Heinlein; not too many people attack Isaiah.

     If you want to see Heinlein exemplifying godly America in the 1950s, you need to deal with Heinlein's anti-orthodox view here.  Consider the possibility that Heinlein was no Christian, and also the possibility that some 1950s-style nominal Christians can like Heinlein's work because they're not all that orthodox either.  (Note the 19th-c. idea of "muscular Christianity": Christianity purged of its feminine, wimpish, "peace/love/dove stuff" and rendered properly macho.)


2.  Thomas Jefferson et al. (punctuation modernized):

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable [sic] rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" (Declaration of Independence, finally approved and signed 4 July 1776). 

Jean V. Dubois, Lt.-Col., M.I., rtd.: "[…] a human being has no natural rights of any nature" (96; ch. VIII).  Dubois continues to argue against Jefferson et al. in detail. 

         If you want to see Heinlein exemplifying patriotic Americanism in the 1950s, you need to deal with Heinlein's attack on Jefferson et al.  How can one push Americanism while setting up a very authoritative spokesman, Colonel Dubois, who denies the central tenets of traditional American ideology? 

(Hint: Jefferson et al. were revolutionaries pushing the radical new doctrine that had grown up to support capitalism: Liberalism.  While such revolutionaries were setting up a "revolutionary secular republic" [as Anthony Burgess has described us—disapprovingly], a lot of White folks in the united colonies revolting against the Crown were breeding and raising kids to be part of the new American "Christian nation" [as the Religious Right describes us].  Heinlein may just eliminate God and Christianity and have us as a nation, which patriots should support without a lot of idealistic to-do about what might be the purpose of the American—or whatever—State that protects the survival of the nation.  Note this "Fourth of July Paradox" very well: the struggle for the definition of America as republic [an Enlightenment intellectual sort of thing] or as nation [a tribal sort of thing that can get our emotions] continues unto this day.)


3.  For research on Starship Troopers, see H. Bruce Franklin, Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction (Oxford, UK: Oxford U P, 1980).  Starship Troopers is handled at length in the section, The End of an Era: Starship Troopers and "All You Zombies—" in ch. 5, "New Frontiers: 1947-59."  Below, I paraphrase several of Franklin's points (page numbers here to Franklin, where needed for clarity, Franklin's title given as RAH).


     a.  Starship Troopers planned as 13th novel in Heinlein's juvenile Space Epic cycle for Scribner's; Scribner's, though, rejected it as too militaristic.  Putnam's published it, and Heinlein's next six novels.  H. Bruce Franklin finds these Putnam's novels quite depressing after the liberatory themes and pure joy of RAH's juveniles (110).

     b.  During same period: Heinlein's classic short story, "All You Zombies—" (frequently reprinted and readily available; see William Contento, Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections).  For all their differences, Franklin sees a close fit between Starship Troopers and "Zombies."

          "Zombies" is a time-travel story in which a recruiter of the Temporal Bureau meets himself coming and going, ultimately finding himself his own mother and father—and the person recruited.  All this is symbolized in the ring he wears alone in bed in 1992: engraved on it is Ouroboros, the World Snake eating its  own tail, the emblem of his loneliness in the void created by his own solipsism (RAH 122).  Franklin quotes last lines of "Zombies": "I know where I came from—but where did all you zombies come from? / . . . / There isn't anybody but me—Jane—here alone in the dark.  /  I miss you dreadfully!"

     c.  Starship Troopers glorifies militarism, but for Franklin "All You Zombies" shows us militarism's essential hollowness.  The novel exalts death and destruction, but "Zombies" wants to avoid war's horror and indeed the whole horrible history RAH glimpses in our future (RAH 123).  Starship Troopers may glorify the military life, but its source is the same as the cry of pain of "All You Zombies—" (111).


          "The model for and precursor of Starship Troopers was the Hollywood World War II film, idealizing America's fighting         (whatevers). 

          Recruiting: tough old war vet recruits soft, spoiled naïf. 

          Basic Training: Drill Instructors from Hell inflict what appears to be "calculated sadism" upon the recruits, while the real reality is that the DIs truly love their boys, and all the pain was vital for combat survival.  Indeed, much of the novel is what P. Hall and R. Erlich call Portrait of the Artist as a Young Warrior, through OCS and initial combat. 

          Cast: In the World War II flik, you got typical platoon representing America, Land of Diversity (in a bit of business going back to ca. 1600 and Shakespeare's Henry V): Smith, Jones, Kawalski, McGruder, Glendower, Schmidt, Wu, Jefferson, Schwartz, Vanderbilt, Romano, Knutson, Ozeki, Romanov . . . .  In Starship Troopers we get a typical selection of Terran youth. 

     Franklin, however, stresses the differences between Starship Troopers and the World War II Hollywood movie.  Starship Troopers doesn't deal with "a mass conscript army called up in a war to defend democracy—that disappeared back in the twentieth century"; Starship Troopers shows instead "the superelite force" needed for the series of wars needed to achieve Earth's "manifest destiny in the galaxy.  And the Terran Federation, the society employing this force, is ruled entirely by veterans of this elite military machine and its non-combatant auxiliaries" (111).

     e.  Franklin notes correctly that Heinlein didn't think Starship Troopers militaristic, and that there has been some debate over whether the novel is as militaristic as it seems.  He holds that militarism—the ideology—sets the agenda for the novel and determines the tone of the characters' dialog, that militarism, briefly, along with endorsing imperialism, "is the novel's explicit message."  What interests Franklin is how Starship Troopers is a work of its time and gives a glimpse of the world to come.  The distance between Starship Troopers and the World War II film helps show the changes between the army of draftees who fought the Fascists and "the growing 'military-industrial complex' (to use the words of President Eisenhower) that was attempting to hold and expand a worldwide empire against a rising tide of global revolution" (111-12).  Franklin notes the 1976 Avalon Hill game based on the novel and the statement RAH wrote for the box praising the effects one can get having elite troopers do great and rapid damage to communal aliens like bees or ants (112). 

     f.  In the novel, Johnnie Rico learns late twentieth-century history from a series of military mentors who teach that the unrestrained democracies of the late 20th c. collapsed because their citizens took no responsibility for their exercise of sovereignty. 

Note: "Popular Sovereignty" means that the People (populace) rule.  Sovereignty remains in the People, who assign authority for limited periods of time to various leaders. 

The cause of the political collapse was a moral collapse (ca. 1987) among the "undisciplined, self-indulgent masses" (StTr ch. 8).  The military veterans of the war of the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance against the Chinese Hegemony decide that only veterans (people who have done some sort of Federal Service) have the right to vote.  During the time of the action of Starship Troopers, this is the political arrangement, and the characters see it as "the best form of government in human history"; among other things, there will be no revolution against it (they're sure) since anyone aggressive enough to be more than a parlor pinko is either presently in Federal Service or a discharged veteran and member of the Sovereign (i.e. a voting citizen).  "The underlying premise of the new social order is that the only people fit to govern the state are those willing to sacrifice their lives for the state" (114).  See StTr ch. 12.

     g.  Franklin argues against relating Starship Troopers and Heinlein's work in general to Ayn Rand's style of Capitalist Anarchism ("Objectivism") and "middle-class exaltation of the individual, especially in its extreme Randian form in which the individual is freed from all social responsibility.  On the contrary, citizenship requires a demonstration of willingness to put the Social Good ahead of not just "personal advantage" but even personal safety (StTr ch. 12).  Franklin holds that we should see Heinlein anticipating by a year or so John F. Kennedy's injunction to ". . . ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country" (115). 

     h.  Starship Troopers presents two alternatives for a modern military: large armies of draftees, or corps of volunteers reduced to low numbers by forcing out all but the most qualified (see ch. 12).  The Terran Federation relies on well-equipped elite units, arranged in pyramidal hierarchies, based on the Mobile Infantry, highly efficient killers with a relatively low-tech. operation, but very high morale and loyalty: "Thus they embody both the myth of the superpotent individual and a rigidly determined form of social cooperation" (115).  Franklin sees the MI as John F. Kennedy's Special Forces in Space, "an interstellar Green Berets" (116).  With his emphasis on elite ground forces with high motivation, Heinlein was on the cutting edge of military theory for his time. 


          Terran Federation: Socially based on voluntary cooperation and voluntary self-sacrifice, with a good deal of initiative.  Hence we've extended far into the galaxy—where we've met our equals (at least). 

          The Bugs: They're arachnoid (sort of) but hive creatures, and this galaxy ain't big enough for the species of Men and Bugs.  Like RAH's slugs from Titan in The Puppet Masters, the Bugs are "obviously extrapolations from Heinlein's conception of twentieth-century communism."  Human warfare with the Bugs, then, pits a "society of cooperating individuals" against "the communist hive," with the galaxy at stake (see StTr chs. 10 and 11).  And even as the Russians joined the Americans and English to fight "the utmost in human communism, the Chinese hordes," even so, the Skinnies switch sides to become co-belligerents with the humans against the Bugs (117-18).  There is, then, a double hierarchy moving from most communistic to most individualistic: Bugs, Skinnies, Humans; Chinese, Russians, Anglo-Americans.  All, though, are cooperative: they must be to be powerful as States. 

     j.  Franklin notes two major questions of 20th-c. politics dealt with in Starship Troopers: crime and punishment, and the Marxist theory of value.  Crime and punishment is obvious enough.  RAH's spokesmen have it that value in a Marxist system is determined by "all the work one cares to add," in making something, whether the labor is skillful or not (indeed, whether or not the commodity is finished).  The obvious refutation here is that poorly performed labor might well decrease value.  Franklin says that RAH cites in explaining the labor theory of value an argument Karl Marx used as an example of what he was not trying to say; Franklin says that in Marxist theory commodity value "is determined by the average amount of socially useful labor necessary to produce them [commodities] under the most technologically advanced and efficient conditions."  Franklin finds RAH's attack on the labor theory central to Starship Troopers since the whole elitist social structure depends upon "the denigration of common people" in all ways, which denigration must start with devaluing their labor (118).

          QUESTION: Assume that Franklin (a Marxist) gets Marx right and Heinlein gets Marx wrong; still, is Franklin correct in his assertion in the last sentence quoted above?

     k.  Franklin cites StTr chs. 6 and 12 for quotations showing that Mrs. Rico is a doting mother and not good for either Johnnie or Mr. Rico, impeding each from becoming a man and not just an economic animal that produces and consumes (ch. 12).  In the MI, Juan Rico's real father is his CO (ch. 10).  Women in the MI are beautiful objects but not to be touched or ordinarily approached.  Women do pilot ships in the Federal forces—RAH was a liberal—but they're also manage the space-going homes and deliver the "boys" into combat.  In Starship Troopers, strong emotional ties are male bonds among the Mobile Infantry (119). 

     Franklin finds the psychological climax of Starship Troopers in its final passage, which shows what Franklin calls "a new human order, as the female Captain of the ship prepares to deliver a father and son who have switched places, leaping to sow death and destruction to the words and tune of a song from World War II."  Push this motif to its logical conclusion, and one has a man who is both father and mother to himself recruiting himself into military service.  I.e., you'd have "'All You Zombies—" RAH's other work from 1959 (119-20), the year Franklin sees ending this phase of RAH's career. 


4.  Consider carefully H. Bruce Franklin's idea of "America as Science Fiction."  If this paradoxical title points to a truth, what aspects of that truth do we see if we view StTr as representative of Cold War America in the late 1950s?  Do you see us returning to such views or having passed beyond them? 


5.  Consider the significance of the names of the protagonist of Starship Troopers.  Juan Rico was a new and emphatically progressive hero for a novel in American popular culture in 1959: the hero wasn't a blond-haired, blue-eyed Nordic but of Filipino descent.  (TRIVIA QUESTION, but a real one: where is the Rico home?  His basic training seems to be in the USA, but does his family live in the Philippines?) 


6.  Note argument (by others beside Rich Erlich) that Heinlein presents in Starship Troopers a brief (e)utopia.  If that is the case, what is the "Good Place" (eu-topia) as Heinlein sees it here?






CITATION (From R. D. Erlich and T. P. Dunn, Clockworks bibliography):


3.602 Orwell, George (pseud. of Eric Blair).  Nineteen Eighty-Four.  London: Secker, 1949.  Rpt. as 1984 New York: NAL, 1961.  "Casebook" edition: Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four: Text, Sources, Criticism.  Irving Howe, ed.  2d edn.  New York: Harcourt, 1982.  (An enlarged version of the 1963 1st edn., adding GO's "The Prevention of Literature," excerpts from GO's correspondence, a critical essay by John Wain, initial reviews of the novel, an essay by Michael Harrington, and some additional apparatus . . . .)  Also: Bernard Crick, ed.  Nineteen Eighty-Four "With a Critical Introduction and Annotations by Bernard Crick."  Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1984. . . .


                 Shows a totalitarian police state run by the oligarchs of the "Inner Party."  Along with Y. Zamiatin's We and A. Huxley's Brave New World, one of the basic dystopias of the first half of the 20th c.  See under Drama, 1984. 


Edition for Our Class:

Orwell, George.  Nineteen Eighty-Four.  1949.  New York: Signet-Penguin, 1981, 1990. 


Citation Method: I'll give page number to Signet edn.; "book" number.section number.  So the first citation below is to p. 7 of the Signet edition, which is in book One, section I in any edn. of 1984. 



I.  Setting: "London, chief city of Airstrip One, itself the third most populous province of Oceania" (7; I.1).  I.e., the narrative is set in London, in what we call England, which is now a province of Oceania, in which the United Kingdom is just the forward airstrip in the confrontation with Europe (as some Englishfolk felt Yanks saw England during World War II). 

         According to THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF OLIGARCHAL COLLECTIVISM (either by Emmanuel Goldstein, traitor to the Party, or by members of the Inner Party itself), Oceania = USA + UK + British Empire.  Oceania is oppossed by, and in alternating alliances with, Eurasia and Eastasia.  Eurasia = Russian Empire + Western Europe (i.e., Oceania vs. Eurasia is, arguably, the setup after World War II, and what some suspect was the implicit deal between Franklin Delanor Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin).  Eastasia = Japan + China + Indochina—with other areas in dispute (153; II.9).


         Major characters:

                  Winston Smith: An average member of the Outer Party, working as a minor bureaucrat at the Ministry of Truth; the protagonist, (anti)hero, and          point-of-view character in 1984, eventually lover and betrayer of Julia. 

                  Julia: A worker at Minitrue, eventually lover and betrayer of Winston Smith. 

                  O'Brien: Member of the Inner Party and a major bureaucrat at the Ministry of Truth; the third leg of a triangle with full-named Winston Smith at the    apex. 


         Narration: Third-person, from the p-o-v of Smith, with insights into Smith's mind (called, in something of an oxymoron, "limited omniscience").  QUESTION: Is the "omniscience" strictly limited to Smith, or do we occasionally get into other people's heads? 


         Time: Close to 1984 if not exactly 1984; Winston can't be sure. 


         Mode: Satiric, with some dark comedy.  Insofar as we identify with Winston Smith and his destruction—and mourn the betrayals in the love triangle—the story is very tragic. 


         Genre: Usually seen a one of the classic dystopias of the first half of the 20th century—i.e., a work about a bad place (dys-topia).  If you see it as an attack on the whole idea of utopia, on the possibility of humans building a eutopia, a really good place, relevantly here, via socialism, then 1984 is an antiutopia.  If you think readers are interested primarily in the story of Winston Smith, Julia, and O'Brien (et al.), then 1984 is a dystopian novel. 


         Plot: Winston Smith starts a diary and admits hatred for Big Brother; he and Julia have an affair and find small spaces of apparent privacy and freedom; they contact O'Brien to join the resistance against Ingsoc ("English Socialism"), the Party, and the Oceanian State; Winston at least reads most of THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF OLIGARCHICAL COLLECTIVISM; Winston Smith and Julia are arrested by the Thought Police and taken to the Ministry of Love; O'Brien reveals himself as the loyal Party member in charge of Winston Smith's conversion; O'Brien et al. torture Winston and bring him back to the Party; Winston betrays Julia, an d Julia betrays Winston; Winston, we are sure—and probably Julia and O'Brien—will die, loving Big Brother. 



II.  Satiric Butts (i.e., targets of attack): Obviously attacked,

                  • All theories of the all-powerful, all-competent, unlimited, totalitarian state and party, more specifically those of Stalin and Hitler et al. (see 169; II.9). 

                  • Intellectuals who warp language and thought in the service of totalitarianism. 

                  • Anti-empiricist theories that deny that there is an objective world, insisting instead that the world, nature, and the laws of nature are literally constructed, that "Nothing exists except through human consciousness," through a kind of "collective solipsism" (218-19; III.3).  Since theories of "The Social Construction of Reality" in the "strong," ontological form have become quite popular among some US and western European intellectuals, this may be one of the most relevant part of the satire of Nineteen Eighty-Four. 

                  • Theories celebrating power and (to use the title of a famous Nazi film) The Triumph of the Will (217-20; III.3) and contemning "liberal ideas" (169; II.9) such as human rights, privacy, laws and due process, decency. 

                  • Oligarchy and hierarchy: the pyramid society of Inner Party (High), Outer Party (Middle), and Proles (Low), with a semi-divine, optionally-existing Leader, and gradations as convenient for the rulers; the perpetuation of ruling groups that chose their successors (162, 173; II.9).  In brief: Inequality. 

                  • A war-based economy and what has come to be called «the national-security state».  As the West moves into an open-ended "War on Terrorism," this is relevant. 

                  • Any newfangled theory of socialism that abandoned "the aim of establishing liberty and equality" (167; II.9). 

                  • The use of technology for warfare, surveillance, terror, and keeping those in power in power, rather than for greater wealth and an end to inequality (168; II.9). 

                  • Orthodoxy, and the "doublethink" necessary to remain orthodox (174-75; II.3). 


Beyond those, however—and you can add a few more—matters get controversial.  In what has been characterized as an unseemly struggle for the corpse of George Orwell, neoConservatives wish to recruit him into the ranks not just of antiCommunists of the antiStalinist variety but to the attack on socialism as an alternative to capitalism—period.  Leftists, on the other hand, want to keep Orwell as an antiStalinist, antiAuthoritarian, pro-equality socialist: the man who fought on the side of the anarchists against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, the critic of imperialism, privilege, and the class system. 

(NOTE: I use here a now-outdated citation system.)


Session on 1984 and Other Dystopias, Fourteenth Annual Convention of the Popular Culture Association, Toronto, 29 March-1 April 1984



Coming of Age in Dystopia:

Consciousness and Barriers to Consciousness

in Some Twentieth-Century Anti-Utopias—and Other SF


* * *

            Since [Yevgeny Zamyatin's 1920 highly Leftist, antiLeninist] We is one of the sources for Nineteen Eighty-Four, it comes as no surprise that there are many similarities between the two books, including similar states of consciousness in the protagonists at the works' conclusions.  Zamyatin's protagonist, D-503, has been fantasectomized, and, imagination removed, has been reduced to a good citizen of the One State.  He has been cured of the sickness of having a soul and is now so empty of head and heart that he "cannot help smiling": he is in, he thinks "the normal state of a normal man."  So he happily and smilingly watches the torture of his former lover, I-330, and looks forward confidentally to the ultimate crushing of the novel's climactic rebellion—"Because reason must prevail" (Entry 40, pp. 231-2).  And, of course, the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four finds Winston Smith both convinced and feeling that ". . . everything was all right, the struggle was finished.  He had won the victory over himself.  He loved Big Brother" (III.6, p. 245).  Both characters have lost free consciousness and about the most optimistic thing in both dystopias is that the State (unlike Billy Pilgrim's American) had to go to such trouble to render them effectively unconscious.

             The lack of consciousness at the ends of these two works is depressing and downright obscene, but it's not at all mysterious or even very interesting: it's the product of the "Great Operation" in We and of sophisticated torture and brainwashing in Nineteen Eighty-Four.  For my purposes, the interesting questions are how much consciousness D-503 or Winston Smith attained before they were reduced to good citizens and what worked for or against that attainment of consciousness.

            Early in the novels, both D-503 and Winston Smith understand their worlds quite well.  After Smith has read the "War Is Peace" section of "Goldstein's" book, he feels, the narrator tells us, "reassured":


In a sense [… The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism] told him nothing new, but that was part of the attraction.  It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order.  It was the product of a mind similar to his own, but enormously more powerful, more systematic, less fear-ridden.  The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.  (II.9, p. 165).


Smith tells us early in the novel that he understands how his society works but not why it works that way (I.7, p. 68), and both the narrator and O'Brien agree with him (II.9, p. 179; III.3, p. 215).  When he goes beyond "the mechanics of . . . society" to its "underlying motives," Smith learns from O'Brien only that "The object of power is power" (p. 216), a revelation that in context, doesn't do much for Smith's consciousness.  In Room 101, there is a dual revelation.  First Smith learns the identity of the "something terrible on the other side of the wall" in his dreams: "It was the rats that were on the other side of the wall" (III.5, pp. 233-4).  The second revelation is that there is nothing, at least for Smith, beyond the power of the State to corrupt: rather than be killed by the rats, he betrays Julia (pp. 235-6).

            D-503 also understands his world quite well.  In his Seventh Entry he notes that Frederick W. Taylor "was unquestionably the greatest genius of the ancients" and makes clear that central to "the mechanics" of his society is extending Taylor's "method"—the system of "scientific management"—"to the twenty-four hours of every day" (p. 33): a reductio ad finem17 pushing to the end and reducing to the absurd tendencies of twentieth-century society (20th Entry, p. 115).18  D-503's problem, from our point of view, isn't his lack of knowledge of history and sociology but his attitude: for most of the novel he strongly approves of his society.

            In the "Grand Inquisitor" scene in We, when D-503 first meets the Benefactor, his "Big Brother" ruler, D-503 really learns nothing new until the end of the colloquy.  The Benefactor starts out just giving him the Grand Inquisitor argument Orwell's O'Brien rejects: that the why of their society is the achievment of human happiness by undoing the Fall in Eden and reducing humankind again to the paradise of unfreedom, inside a paradoxically walled Garden in which all the plants and other organic stuff are outside, beyond the Green Wall.  D-503 knows this.  The revelation in the scene comes with the Benefactor's  final suggestion on the why of the revolutionaries' recruiting him, most importantly I-330's motivation in becoming D-503's lover: "Has it really never entered your head," the Benefactor says, "that they . . . needed you only as the builder of the Integral?  Only . . . to use you . . ." —D-503 interrupts with "Don't!  Don't!" (36th Entry, p. 214).  D-503 stumbles away from the Benefactor, finds I-330, and copulates with her one last time, seeing before they begin pink coupons on the floor, indicating I-330's sexual hours with other men.  Then D-503 goes to the Guardians (the secret police) and tries to betray I-330 and the revolution (38th-39th Entries).

            D-503's attempt at betrayal is unsuccessful only because the Guardian he sees—"his" Guardian—is with the revolution.19  And when D-503 is captured and has his imagination excised, he goes directly to the Benefactor and tells "him everything . . . about the enemies of happiness," the revolutionaries, and watches unmoved as I-330 is tortured and then led off to await execution (39th-40th Entries, p. 227-9, 231-2).

            If the political upshot of We is more optimistic than that of 1984 (revolution is at least possible in We), the personal upshot is more pessimistic: even before he's worked on by the authorities, D-503 betrays I-330 and any hope for change.  Whatever consciousness D-503 has attained is insufficient to stand up to the Benefactor's cynical suggestion and his own jealousy.  His love for I-330 and his introduction to real passion has led to D-503's expansion of consciousness, and the insufficiency of his love and the negative passion of jealousy lead to his betrayal of consciousness and, indirectly, to his undergoing the Great Operation excising imagination—the end, for him, of significant consciousness.

            Between the beginning and end of We, though, Zamyatin allows D-503, and his readers, to learn enough to put the One State into a larger context: the universal struggle between entropy and energy, between social stasis and revolution—and between a number of other dialetical antitheses that can never reach permanent synthesis.20

            For D-503, all of the characteristics associated with energy and change can only be viewed as madness, and the high point of D-503's consciousness is, paradoxically, a brief speech in praise of madness.  Outside in the wilderness, beyond the Green Wall, among the savage descendents of the country folk and the antiChristian, demonic MEPHI, D-503 shouts, "Yes, yes, madness!  And everyone must lose his mind, everyone must!  The sooner the better!  It is essential—I know it" (27th entry, p. 158).

            Winston Smith's insights are lower-key, and he has less of a high point of consciousness than a high plateau: the time from his "vast, luminous dream" of the world inside the paperweight to his view with Julia of the singing prole woman, just before his and Julia's arrest (II.7-II.10).  This period is punctuated with the meeting with O'Brien, the reading of portions of "Goldstein's" book—and with much heavy irony.

            The events in the dream beginning this sequence "had all occurred inside the glass paperweight, but the surface of the glass was the dome of the sky"; and the paperweight was vast enough for Smith's "whole life . . . to stretch out before him" within it "like a vast landscape."21  "The dream had also been comprehended by . . . a gesture of the arm made by his mother, and made again thirty years later by the Jewish woman he had seen on the news film, trying to shelter the small boy from the bullets before the helicopters blew them both to pieces."  And a memory is "connected" with the dream, one associated with Smith's belief that he had murdered his mother (II.7, pp. 132-3).

            The dream remains vivid in Smith's mind, "especially the enveloping, protecting gesture of the arm in which its whole meaning seems to be contained," and leads to a memory of Smith's mother, which in turn leads to the memory of another dream, in which he sees his mother drown.  Smith tells Julia about his mother's disappearance, and Julia drifts off to sleep (p 135).  And sitting there, thinking to himself in the apparently safe containment of the room above the shop, Smith comes to a great realization.

The terrible thing that the Party had done was to persuade you that mere impulses, mere feelings, were of no account, while at the same time robbing you of all power over the material world. . . .  And yet to the people of only two generations ago, this would not have seemed all-important because they were not attempting to alter history.  They were governed by private loyalties which they did not question.  What mattered were individual relationships, and a completely helpless gesture, an embrace, a tear, a word spoken to a dying man, could have value in itself.  The proles, it suddenly occurred to him, had remained in this condition. . . . they were loyal to one another.  For the first time in his life he did not despise the proles or think of them merely as an inert force which would one day spring to life and regenerate the world.  The proles had stayed human. . . .  They had held onto the primitive emotions which he himself had to relearn by conscious effort.

       . . . "The proles are human beings," he said aloud.  "We are not human."

Julia will not accept her and Winston's inhumanity, and, with what turns out to be wild optimism, pushes Winston to a realization of a large part of the positive norm of the novel: ". . . the object was not to stay alive but to stay human . . ." (II.7, pp. 137-8).

            Two other insights from the brief time in the room above Mr. Charrington's shop.  Just after reading "Goldstein" on "Ignorance Is Strength," and just after the narrator tells us in his own voice that Winston knew the how but not the why of his society, Winston falls asleep "murmuring 'Sanity is not statistical,' with the feeling that this remark contained in it a profound wisdom" (II.9, p. 179).  And just before they are captured, Winston and Julia look down at the prole woman and Winston thinks that

Where there is equality there can be sanity.  Sooner or later it would happen: strength would change into consciousness. . . . In the end their awakening would come.  * * *  Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come.  You were the dead; theirs was the future.  But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body, and passed on the secret doctrine that two plus two make four.  (II.10, pp. 181-2)

            The next line of the novel is Winston's "We are the dead," which takes us into their arrest and capture (with the smashing of the paperweight) and torture and mutual betrayal in the Ministry of Love.  But two plus two still make four, for all the Party's work on Winston Smith, and his insights still have their force.  Through dream and memory, Winston has connected with the past, a past whose more painful events "he must have deliberately pushed out of his consciousness over many years" (II.7, p. 133).  He comes to connect that past with personal relations in general and with his present love for Julia.  And he connects past, present, and future when he comes to recognize the humanity of the proles and the hope in them as human beings, and not mere abstractions.

            The glass paperweight is easily smached by a thug from the Thought Police, and the apparently safe containment over Mr. Charrington's shop was a trap (II.10, pp. 183 and 182-85).  Still, even a false safety behind these walls allowed Smith to reach as much of a recognition as he was going to get.  Given the upbringing of one Eric Blair, and what Blair had to overcome to become George Orwell, the recognition of the humanity of proles is an important raising of consciousness.  Given the achievements and limitations of the protagonists in the other works we've looked at—especially given the insensitivity of Mitch Courtenay and the militant apathy of Billy Pilgrim—Winston Smith's fleeting achievement of consciousness appears clearly what it is: a common man's very high heroism.




1.  For reductio ad finem, see Ginsburg's Introd. to We, pp. xiii-xiv.  For Taylorism, see Gorman Beauchamp, "Man as Robot: The Taylor System in We," Ch. 5 of Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF, ed. Richard D. Erlich and Thomas P. Dunn (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983); and Carolyn Rhodes, "Frederick Winslow Taylor's System of Scientific Management inZamiatin's We," Journal of General Education, 28 (Spring 1976), 31-42.

2.  D-503 also understands how his society descended from city-dwellers and Christians and how it is based on reason, Euclid, the building of walls, the limitation of nature, the taming of infinity, and the destruction of freedom.

3.  After the Grand Inquisitor scene and his attempt at betrayal (36th and 39th Entries) but before the Great Operation (recalled in the 40th Entry), D-503 still has enough of his soul (and wits) about him to encounter a man who argues that ". . . there is no infinity" and ask him, rather desperately, ". . . out there, where your finite universe ends!  What is out there, beyond it?"  Students of the Heroic Journey should note that this bit of serious comic dialog occurs after D-503's last Descent: he somehow gets himself "downstairs" and into "one of the public toilets in an underground station" (39th Entry, pp. 229-30).

4.  For energy vs. entropy, see 28th Entry, p. 165 and 30th Entry, pp. 174-75; see also Ginsburg Introd. to We, pp. v and x; and "On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters" (1923), in A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin, ed. and trans. Mirra Ginsburg (Chicago & London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970).

5.  Given the possible echo of 1984 in Billy Pilgrim's "Everything is all right" (Slaughterhouse-Five, Ch. 9, p. 198), it may not be totally weird to suggest that we should compare and contrast Winston under the "dome of the sky" of the paperweight—in the room with Julia—and Bill's and Montana's being under the literal (if also possibly dreamed up) dome on Tralfamadore.  For the Trafalmadorian dome, see SH-5, Ch. 5, pp. 112 and 132-33 and Ch. 9, p. 207.  I don't recall seeing or hearing this suggestion before, and I would appreciate reader comment on whether that means that in this suggestion I'm usefully original, ignorant, or just a little crazier than most literary critics.



Academic Panel No. 2 (10:30 a.m. to noon, 20 Jan. 1984), Orwell's Novel: Nightmare or Reality?  At On the Way to 2019, the 1984 George Orwell Conference on Political Futures; Akron, Ohio. (Sponsored by the Institute for Futures Studies and Research, U. of Akron) 



Orwell's Nightmare: Terror and Technology 



. . . is not our modern history, my

brothers, the story of brave malenky

selves fighting these big machines?


                            —Alex in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange 



             The question before this panel is, "Is George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four nightmare or reality," and my answer (and that of most literary critics) is: it's neither, actually—or both; it's a dystopian political satire.  That is, Nineteen Eighty-Four shows us a politically rotten world other than our own, and Orwell shows us this dystopia to attack trends in our world that Orwell didn't like.  Nineteen Eighty-Four is a kind of fable, and, like most fables, a large part of the Moral is De te fabula: "This little story, dear reader, is about you," very definitely about "you" if you happen to be an admirer of Hitler or Stalin.  I'm going to talk to you about Nineteen Eighty-Four in its context of other major political dystopias and show that Orwell's rotten world of 1984 differs from most of them most obviously in its level of technology, and in its level of terror.  If you know the other works I'm talking about, that's good; we can argue.  If not—well, I've supplied a list of References, and for now you'll have to take my word about them.1

            To begin, I shall ask you to "Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee . . . ." So the narrator instructs us at the very beginning of E. M. Forster's 1909 story, "The Machine Stops." "An arm-chair is in the centre [of the room] . . . .  And in the arm-chair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh—a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus." The narrator goes on to tell us that the room is inside and part of the Machine (capital "M"), a machine in which live all of civilized humanity in Forster's far-future world.  The Machine is within the Earth, whose surface is mostly desolate and, the civilized people think, totally uninhabited.  Actually, there are people on the surface of the Earth: relatively primitive folk, close to nature, people who cannot have and neither need nor desire the total service of the Machine.

            "The Machine Stops" is the prototype of "mechanical hive" stories: stories combining what Orwell called, in The Road to Wigan Pier, "machine-civilisation" and the "beehive state."2  "The Machine Stops" brings together and presents in very short space motifs that were to dominate much dystopian—"bad place"—literature (and some rather eutopian—"good place"—literature) for the rest of the 20th century.

            Again: a human being (a physically degenerate one in this case) in an armchair in a room; the room is within a machine, and the machine is within the Earth—in what was once the womb of the Earthmother, what was once the domain of "Chaos and Old Night."  Within the machine is civilized humanity, outside of it only (relative) savages.  Within the machine is comfortable degeneration and dehumanization in what Orwell characterized as "an ordered world, an efficient world"—a safe, rational, "foolproof world" of "mechanical efficiency."  It was, moreover, a world Orwell thought pretty much achieved by 1938: "The machine-civilisation is here"—and the "beehive State" as well—"and all of us are inside it" (RWP, Ch. XII, pp. 222, 226-27; Ch. XIII, p. 250).

            "Machine civilisation"—and the more complex pattern I have described—are both clear in Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, "downunder" in Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog" (1969) and L. Q. Jones's film of that story (1975), in George Lucas' THX-1138 (1969/1971); with variations, it is the pattern we usually think of with dystopia.  It is a pattern George Orwell was well aware of, and it is a pattern he chose not to use.3  Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Fouris nearly alone among the major 20th-century political dystopias in showing a world that is mostly less technologically advanced than our own.  And yet (and here I'm sneaking further into my thesis)—and yet the upshot of the satire of Nineteen Eighty-Four is essentially the same as that of Zamyatin's We and Huxley's Brave New World and numerous other dystopias.  The target, as Eric Fromm has said, is not just fascists or fanatics but any "centralized managerial industrial society, of an essentially bureaucratic nature" (Afterword to Signet Nineteen Eighty-Four).

            In the typical 20th-century mechanized dystopia, the machines are literal machines—but they are also symbols.  The standard image in such dystopias is that of a human being within a machine, sometimes being "lobotomized" or simply tortured.4  There are similar images in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I shall discuss them when I get to Winston Smith's "conversion" at the Ministry of Love.  Still, the controlling images in Nineteen Eighty-Four are different, and I shall get around to them a bit sooner.  First, though, I want to discuss the clockwork worlds of "mechanical efficiency."



"What it's all about," a Man in the Street said in a TV interview ca. 1970, "is, Who is in Charge?"  In the high-tech dystopias, it is possible that, in a profound sense, Nobody is in charge.  In her book On Violence Hannah Arendt is explicit about such rule by Nobody:


In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one can present grievances, on whom the pressures of power can be exerted.  Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant . . . .  [T]he huge party machines have succeeded everywhere in over- ruling the voice of the citizens . . . .  (p. 81)


            Life in large, complex societies is becoming more and more bureaucratized. With every new triumph of bureaucracy, "political space" is being reduced, so more and more of us feel "trapped" in the "administrative apparatus."

            I speak figuratively here, as Arendt and a large number of other political theorists do when they talk of "huge party machines" or "the apparatus of the State."5  Authors of SF, however, are free to literalize such metaphors, and, in part, such literalization is the significance of a great number of enveloping machines in SF stories and films; they help symbolize the helplessness of individuals in "centralized managerial industrial society of an essentially bureaucratic nature." These enveloping machines help develop the theme of the diminution of humanity through the diminution of political space: the diminution of the human ability to create power by combining with others—the diminutuion of our power to act.

            In Forster's "Machine Stops," there is no political action.  There is no political power.  By the very condition of human life: the literal isolation of each person within the Machine precludes politics.  In the civilized world of "The Machine Stops," people cannot "connect" politically when the machine is functioning.  Only as "The Machine Stops" and all the civilized humans die, and then only mystically, do we have even personal connection, as the rebellious hero Kuno and Vashti, his mother, meet "in the spirit" and "touch" (p. 182). In "The Machine Stops," we get quite literal rule by Nobody.  We hear about "the Committee of the Machine"—a Central Committee of humans—but to attribute rule to them, the narrator tells us, "is to take a very narrow view of civilisation" (p. 177).

            There is also no possibility for political action in Huxley's Brave New World, as John, the Savage, learns when he tries to throw away the soma ration for the Delta menial laborers (Ch. 15, pp. 141, 144, 145).  In Brave New World, however, we do see a ruler, the World Controller Mustapha Mond.  And in Brave New World people are not literally isolated; on the contrary, they "never are alone" (Ch. 17, p. 160).  But even world controllers are controlled.  An Epsilon is "foredoomed" to happiness doing Epsilon work because "'Even after decanting, he's still inside a bottle—an invisible bottle of infantile and embryonic fixations.  Each of us, of course,' the Controller [Mond] mediatively continued, 'goes through life inside a bottle.'"  The bottles of Alphas are "relatively speaking enormous," but they are there: the bottles of World Controllers are larger still, but they, too, are there (Ch. 16, p. 151).  Even if Mustapha Mund has the freedom to act—and he does—he uses that freedom only to maintain the status quo.

            In Zamyatin's We, "the operation of the great State Machine" has also reached a high level of efficiency, but less than that of the World State of Brave New World.  The One State of We can still be "disturbed," and the protagonist-narrator sadly admits in his journal that " . . . there are still some steps to be ascended before we reach the ideal.  The ideal (clearly) is the condition where nothing happens anymore" (Sixth Entry, p. 24).  Not only do things still happen in We, But people make them happen: there is a real political conspiracy in We and a rebellion at the end of the story—a rebellion that has some slight hope for success.  Political action is still possible in We, not because there is a live ruler running things—the system could operate without him—but because the One State has not perfected the methods of isolating people totally. Their mechanism of repression is not sufficiently efficient to prevent all human connection, to prevent every possibility for politics.  If the rebellion at the end of the novel fails, however, the One State has a good chance to use its technology to succeed in reducing human beings to less than human and putting an end to the infinite series of revolutions that Zamyatin says is the destiny of real human beings.

            Working backward in fictive time toward Nineteen Eighty-Four, we see that the far-future world of "The Machine Stops" shows us complete mechanization: a world in which politics is almost impossible and, as a practical matter, nonexistent. In Brave New World and We, the machinery of the State is monopolized by very small groups of men who use it to eliminate politics and attempt to bring happiness to the world by ensuring the total elimination of freedom (We, Eleventh Entry, Thirty-sixth Entry; BNW, Chs. 17 and 17).  In Brave New World, the success of the oligarchs is complete.  In We, the control of the State is not yet complete, and primitive human nature can still find expression, including expressions of our desire to act.

            Orwell takes up long before We, beginning where Jack London leaves off in the dystopian main story in London's The Iron Heal: with a totalitarian Oligarchy firmly in power in 1984, a key year in the rule of the Iron heel.6  Orwell is also similar to London in using an idea we might summarize in the slogan, "Ivan Karamazov was an optimist!"—and add nowadays that Forster, Zamyatin, and Huxley were also optimists.7  That is, London's villainous Capitalist, Mr. Wickston, can deny even the excuse of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor and admit that the goal of his class is not human happiness but the exercise of raw "Power" (capital "P").  And Orwell could see the totalitarian state as brutally fascist, not hedonistic as in Forster and Huxley.  Indeed, next to Nineteen Eighty-Four even We is optimistic in the assumption that a great (if perverse) scientific breakthrough is necessary to allow the totalitarian state truly total power.

            Orwell's greater pessimism than even that of other makers of dystopias leads to artistic differences.  Most obviously, the controlling symbol in Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the Machine but the pyramid: the metaphorical pyramid of the hierarchical, sealed-world society of Oceania and the very literal great pyramids of the Ministries, especially the Ministry of Truth, where Winston Smith works, and the windowless Ministry of Love.

            Opposed to the pyramid is, in Orwellian theory, the machine: the wealth-producing power of industrial society that has removed the necessity for civilized people "to live at different social or economic levels" (p. 168).  That potential opposition, however, is merely theory; the powers that be in Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia engage in constant warfare and impede almost all technological development, guaranteeing that the world's hierarchical structures remain in place.

            In the actual world of the novel, the symbolic oppositions to the pyramid are the paperweight and that which is associated with it: Winston Smith's and Julia's room above Mr. Charrington's shop, with its apparently safe enclosure and the bed upon which Winston and Julia make love; the gesture of a mother embracing a child—the world of the past, of private loyalties, of dreams, of joyous sexuality and simple decency.8

            The paperweight, we are told is "a little chunk of history . . . .  a message from a hundred years ago" (p. 121).  Lying in the bed in the room Winston gazes into the paperweight and thinks that "The paperweight was the room he was in, and the coral was Julia's life and his own, fixed in a sort of eternity at the heart of the crystal" (p. 122).  Lying in the bed in the room on another occasion, Winston thinks that the dream he has just had "occurred inside the glass paperweight. . . .  The dream had . . . in some sense . . . consisted in [sic]—a gesture of the arm made by his mother, and made again thirty years later by the Jewish woman he had seen on the news film [recorded at the beginning of his diary], trying to shelter the small boy from the bullets, before the helicopters blew them both to pieces" (p. 132).

            The pyramids and the paperweight, then, are what T. S. Eliot called "objective correlatives": objects decorously correlating with Winston's and Julia's enthusiastic fornication, with apparently eternal, apparently safe enclosure, with the world of the past.  Essentially, the paperweight correlates with a past in which there could be people who "were governed by private loyalties" and who valued "individual relationships," a world where ". . . a completely helpless gesture, an embrace . . . could have value in itself." The extent of Winston's and Julia's powerlessness, the helplessness of their gesture is symbolized in their capture, when one of the thugs of the Thought Police "picked up the glass paperwight . . . and smashed it to pieces on the hearthstone" (p. 183).  The scene of their arrest ends Part Two of Nineteen Eighty-Four; when next we see Winston Smith, he is on his way to the windowless pyramid of the Ministry of Love.

            Oceania in general in Nineteen Eighty-Four is technologically primitive because Orwell presents in his novel the idea that machines could grant human society the great gift of equality and the end of the class system.  The technological regression of Oceania denies to Orwell, for the first two parts of the story, the great image of a human being trapped in a machine.  Orwell's stress upon Oceania as a closed society among but isolated from two other nearly identical societies denies Orwell a secondary, more "natural" world to contrast with his "beehive state."

            And yet, to repeat the second part of my thesis, and yet Orwell gets across the crucial political points of the clockwork-world dystopias and, perhaps, gets them across more effectively by being less subtle and, perhaps, more politically sophisticated and cynical.

            Corresponding to the alternative, more natural worlds in "The Machine Stops," We, Brave New World and all, we have Winston and Julia and their sex life and Winston's attachment to a somewhat idealized past in which personal relations and futile gestures mattered.  Corresponding to the literal and/or symbolic isolation of people in the earlier works, we have in Nineteen Eighty-Four the absolutely literal political isolation of people through constant surveillance, mutual suspicion, and terror.  As Orwell was well aware, such a system of totalitarian control could be improved with high technology but does not require science fictionish devices to work very, very effectively.  The key to such totalitarian control is not technology but terror, and the necessary fanaticism to use constant, unrelenting terror.

            Aside from the telescreens, the memorable machines we see in Nineteen Eighty-Four are the torture devices in the Ministry of Love and the apparatus there that allows Winston to see, momentarily, that 2+2 can equal 5.  In the small room over Mr. Charrington's shop, Winston and Julia make love and commit other thought crimes upon a bed.  In the rooms in the Ministry of Love, Winston is tied down upon a "bed" (Orwell's word) and converted through the efforts of the one other person with whom he has a bond: O'Brien.  The climax of that conversion occurs in Room 101, when, with O'Brien's help, Winston betrays Julia.  The most memorable bit of technology we see in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the rat cage strapped to Smith's face: an ancient torture device that contains for Winston "the worst thing in the world," the thing that will inspire in him the most terror (p. 233).

            Outside of the Ministry of Love, the technology of Oceania in 1984 is generally on a low level, and literal machinery in Nineteen Eighty-Fouris used significantly only in its third part.  Winston trapped in machines in the Ministry of Love both shows and symbolizes the process identified by Fromm of how a "completely bureaucratized society" turns humans into "soulless automatons" (Afterword, pp. 266, 267, 257).  Yet again, though, the main "objective correlative" in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the pyramid shape of the London Ministries, corresponding to the form of the State of Oceania: a vast hierarchy, as Emmanuel Goldstein's (?) book tells us, running from Big Brother down through the Inner Party and thence to the Outer Party and to the politically powerless proles and slaves.  That much is clear, but let us return to the question of that Man in the Street: Who is in charge?  Who rules Oceania?  Big Brother, obviously, at "the apex of the pyramid" (II.9, p. 171).  But "Does Big Brother exist?" In one sense, "of course he exists.  The Party exists.  Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party" (III.2, p. 214).  But Big Brother, even if a currently living human being, is going to die someday, so who will rule Oceania "forever"?  Answer, the Party.  There is no power in Oceania outside of the Party, and there could not be since the Party knows the key secret of total control: terror for anyone who might organize resistance.9  There is no hope in Oceania of people's organizing power outside of the apparatus of the Party: no hope unless Winston Smith, Syme, O'Brien—and quite possibly George Orwell—vastly understimate the proles.10 More, with terror backing it up, the Party can enforce a rigid orthodoxy.  As Syme tells Winston Smith, "Orthodoxy means not thinking . . . .  Orthodoxy is unconsciousness" (I.5, p. 47).  And as Ursula K. Le Guin's true Odonians recognize in The Dispossessed, " . . . revolution begins in the thinking mind."11 So: no thinking, no revolution.

            The Party, then, has monopolized power in Ocenaia and has taken very effective steps to ensure that the Party retains power.  Terror and orthodoxy are the Party's means to ensure their monopoly on power, and the end—the goal—of their power is the retention of power: power in the sense of the ability to enforce terror and orthodoxy (III.3, pp. 216-22).  As explained by O'Brien, the Party's motivation is almost esthetic.  Winston Smith is obviously powerless and helpless, but still the Party must not only kill him but convert him (III.3, p. 222; III.2, p. 210).  The ultimate goal of the Party is a perfect pattern: terror enforcing orthodoxy, both keeping the Party in power for the sake of enforcing terror.  It is a grotesquely busy world that is finally static: a successful attempt "to arrest the course of history" (II.9, p. 177).

            But who rules the Party?  Nobody.  In the world of 1984, the question "Who rules the Party?" is meaningless.  Goldstein's The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism tells us that "The essence of oligarchical rule is not father-to-son inheritance, but the persistence of a certain world-view and a certain way of life, imposed by the dead upon the living. . . .  Who wields power is not important, provided that the hierarchical structure remains always the same" (II. 9, p. 173).  More important, O'Brien—possibly one of the authors of "Goldstein's" book—tells us that "Slavery is freedom.  Alone—free—the the human being is always defeated. . . .  But if he can make complete, utter submission . . . [and] merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal" (III.3, p. 218).  O'Brien himself, the highest-ranking Oligarch we see, has obviously made such a submission.  As a servant of the party, he is "all-powerful," but in himself he is nothing.  He does not rule, and neither does anyone else.

            What is hinted at, symbolically suggested—handled more "literarily," actually—in We, Brave New World, and the "The Machine Stops" is made quite explicit in Nineteen Eighty-Four.  In Oceania (and the same rule holds for Eurasia and Eastasia as well), the Party is not only a pyramid but a perpetual motion machine.  It is a literal anti-political party and a metaphorical machine; both ways it is under the rule of Nobody, and both ways it crushes and destroys its enemies and potential enemies—all who might be capable of political action.

            Literal machines run down; even in Forster's nightmare vision, "The Machine Stops."  Orwell shows us an oligarchic, bureaucratic, metaphorical, human machine, one run by fanatics.  The nightmare comes when we realize that such a human machine can dehumanize us as effectively as Forster's deified world-machine— and, in human terms, can go on forever.  The nightmare comes in realizing that all the parts for such a machine—oligarchy, bureaucracy, fanaticism, militarism, terror—already exist in our reality.  De te fabula.  This dystopian satire is, potentially, about us.





1.  For an assertion that ". . .  Orwell must have read 'The Machine Stops' . . ." and a discussion of the relationships among "Machine Stops," We, 1984, and Brave New World, see Mark R. Hillegas, The Future as Nightmare, Chs. V and VI; p. 83 for the quotation.  Christopher Small, in The Road to Miniluv (p. 174) and Matthew Hodgart in "From Animal Farm to Nineteen Eighty-Four" (in The World of George Orwell, pp. 139-40) list The Iron Heel as a source, along with We, for Nineteen Eighty-Four.  (See References.)

            Orwell was […] familiar with the dystopian tradition and with all the dystopias I list below, with the exception of Skinner's Walden Two, which itself appeared […] too late to have influenced Nineteen Eighty-Four.  I list the "eutopian" Walden Two for its implicit (and unquestionably unintended) criticism of O'Brien's idea of the essence of power.  Skinner's Frazier has a more profound understanding of ultimate power than that of O'Brien—or even that in Goldstein's book.  Real power consists in setting up a system that will control human behavior without people's really being aware that they are caught in and controlled by the system (Chs. 29-33).  I list Trotsky's The Revolution Betrayed because Trotsky is the model for Orwell's Emmanuel Goldstein and Revolution Betrayed is source or analog for much of Goldstein's (?) The Theory and Practice of Oligrachical Collectivism. 


2. For the importance of (mere) decency in Orwell's thought, see Christopher Small's "Clean and Neat," Ch. V of The Road to Miniluv; Isaac Rosenfeld's "Decency and Death" in his Age of Enormity (New York: World, 1962)—rpt. Howe, ed., 1984: TSC; and Roderic L. Owen, "Orwell, Decency, and the Individual Ethic," paper presented at On the Way to 2019 . . . conference, Akron, Jan. 1984. 


3. Arendt holds that "power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.  Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together" (On Violence, p. 44).

              For Arendt on terror, see On Violence, p. 55, and "Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government," Ch. 13 of The Origins of Totalitarianis, 2nd edn. (Cleveland and New York: World, 1958); rpt. in 1984:TSC.

              Livingston comments correctly that the ". . . total lack of contact between individuals from the three states [in 1984: Oceania, Eurasia, Eastasia] perfectly mirrors the internal nature of their societies" (p. 259 of "Science Fiction Models").  By definition, such lack of contact within the three states precludes political power for the subjects of those states. 




[Brave New World]





[Jowett on Gattaca]



Supplement to Film Study Guide for Gattaca:

Essay by Lorna Jowett



[Lorna Jowett <lorna.jowett@northampton.ac.uk>]

Lorna Jowett

University College Northampton



Saturday, 29 June, 14:00 hours, Event L.  33rd Annual Conference of the Science Fiction Research Association, 28-30 June 2002, New Lanark, Scotland. 



Disrupting Dystopia: Individual Heroes in the Dystopian Society of Gattaca and The Matrix

[Lightly edited by Rich Erlich (with bold-face emphasis his]



[© Lorna Jowett, 2002; all rights reserved.  Brief fair-use quotations for class work permitted, but do not use for any other purposes without the express permission of the author (e-mail address available from Richard D. Erlich).]


            Using as central examples two 1990s films, Gattaca and The Matrix, I will argue that the individual is presented as disruptive to a dystopian society in different ways.  Indeed the two films have been chosen since they offer what I see as significantly different versions of a similar scenario.  While these films are generally classified as sf, they also fit other generic categories.  The Matrix is primarily identified as an action sf film, Gattaca is often described as “intelligent” or dramatic sf, and I will argue that generic differences affect the text’s presentation of the “hero” and the moral framework.[i]  The Matrix has been described as “an anthology of dystopic science fiction” (Corliss, 1999, 6), and indeed includes all the elements common in recent sf film: the divided society of Metropolis, cyberpunk via Blade Runner, plus Philip K. Dick’s paranoia and treatment of reality.  […]  It follows a standard narrative where the nature of the dystopian society is revealed to both the protagonist and the viewer.  Gattaca seems to distance itself from these popular elements, going back to the clean technological utopias of the 1930s and using a first person narrative that reflects on the protagonist’s life.  It has been suggested that “an emphasis on feelings, emotions, and passion [acts] as a counterweight to the form’s iconic enthronement of a reason-technology-science triad.  The implication is that this . . . helps to weigh our humanness against the scale of a thoroughly technologized environment” (Telotte, 2001: 140).  Both dystopian societies are based on some kind of science or technology that allows them to maintain their hierarchy and contrasts the humanity of the single protagonist whose identity develops through resistance.

            This science / nature opposition in The Matrix is superficially clear-cut: technology is bad, humanity, the natural, is good.  In this way, we could argue that the moral framework of the film is clear, as we might expect from an action movie.  However, the film works to subvert this opposition: towards the end the antagonist and agent of technology, Smith, displays a surprisingly “human” outburst of what can only be called emotion.  (This demonstrates the humanising of technological creations, and by implication the dehumanising of those who interact with technology, as seen in Blade Runner).[ii]  Gattaca offers a society based on scientific advances in genetic engineering, situated in a familiar moral framework: “man thinking he has all of nature under control” (Alan Arkin, official web site).  The protagonist, Vincent, clearly represents humanity, particularly since he is naturally born, conceived in the back seat of a car (see Wilkie, 1998: 23).  In contrast with the recovering of history so important to resisting dystopia that Morpheus offers in The Matrix, Vincent’s first person narrative voice-over looks back at how his life has been affected by the changes in science and society.  Here history is presented as an individual account, recovered for the benefit of the audience, not the protagonist.  But both Gattaca and The Matrix present a protagonist who struggles to define himself as an individual.



            I argue that these protagonists are intended as heroes.  Like many dystopian sf protagonists, these characters are already misfits living on the margins of society, though in Neo’s case this is as part of his double life as office worker and hacker.  And it could be argued since each leaves the film looking at a glimmer of a utopian future, these films are critical dystopias, which [Tom] Moylan suggests, present “modes of collective resistance that point in the direction of some sort of breakthrough to a utopian horizon” (2000: 194).  Vincent heads for the literal horizon of space on the Titan mission, Neo talks of “a world where anything is possible”.  This would seem to be a recognition of the hero’s accomplishment—he has succeeded in subverting the dystopian society.  Yet, the presentation of these protagonists as heroes is more complex and problematic.

            Despite the shift away from a white male individual protagonist in critical utopian fiction of the 1970s, dystopian sf films tend to retain more traditional heroes.[i]  Of course, it can be argued that the use of traditional white male protagonists points to a true dystopia, a world where even the most privileged can have no status.  Despite its own rhetoric—“what will be the consequences of such a world? What will happen to the glorious creative chaos of diversity?” (official Gattaca website)—Gattaca has no major characters who are non-white[ii] and only two women (the hero’s mother and lover).  In fact, the film’s exclusive focus on Vincent’s story means that we hardly get to see anything of society at large.  In line with its other popular elements, The Matrix has the now almost obligatory non-white and female characters but in supporting roles; both antagonist and protagonist are white males.  I would argue that these films deal with late twentieth century masculinity.  If the past fifty years have seen the erosion of traditional masculinity, can the traditional hero still be convincing to a 1990s audience?  In effect the role of the traditional hero is defunct.  Of course, we might argue that a dystopian hero must inevitably be flawed, since he is implicated in the dystopian society.  The films negotiate this differently, one reveals while the other conceals this tension.

            As we might expect of a “dramatic” protagonist, Vincent negotiates perfect/imperfect masculinity through his interactions with others.  We are told by the film’s director and writer that, “Vincent is literally and figuratively the heart of the film.  He represents us [if we happen to be young white males]—he has frailty and today we all have frailties.  He's somebody who won't accept the hand he's been dealt” (Niccol, official Gattaca website).  Clearly here Vincent is set up as a traditional dystopian everyman hero who will challenge the faceless hierarchy of the dystopian society and win because of his “heart” (he actually has a heart defect), his natural humanity and strength of character.  Yet this strength is demonstrated to the detriment of other characters, and can lead to resistant readings of the film.  While I will argue shortly that Kevin Anderson is transformed into the One in The Matrix, Vincent becomes Jerome but does not change substantially.  Thus he does not develop through conflict or interaction but remains static, his development and perhaps his story is superficial.  The key relationships affecting Vincent’s life at the time of the story are those with Jerome, Irene, his co-worker and Anton, his valid younger brother.

            Irene, the love interest is consistently portrayed as passive and weak, in contrast with Vincent.  “Vncent refuses to accept his limitations and thwarts them constantly—he has the courage and audacity to do so. Irene, on the other hand, simply accepts her fate,” says Uma Thurman, the actor who played Irene.[iii]  Like Vincent, Irene has a minor heart defect, which identifies her as unlikely to succeed, as inferior.  She is also shown taking a genetic sample of Vincent/Jerome’s (a hair) to be tested in what is clearly a common practice among those seeking potential partners (“9.3, quite a catch”) and it is notable that all those [we see?—RDE] conducting tests are women.  Yet, Vincent succeeds in building a relationship with Irene, and although she discovers his secret eventually he gets the girl.  Indeed she helps him in his resistance and enables him to escape arrest.

            Vincent’s relationship with his valid brother is one that has, as Vincent’s narrative attests, formed his determination to succeed.  Vincent sees his weakness as an invalid when he competes with his brother during childhood, fated to lose because he is not engineered to succeed.  This same contest demonstrated Vincent’s strength when he finally beat Anton in a swimming challenge, and was his inspiration, “the moment that made everything else possible”.  As one reviewer noted, this implies “Vincent’s old-world phallic potency, a theme that has its bathetic climax on the battleground of machismo, in his swimming showdown with his brother” (Romney, 1997: 49).  As Romney suggests, this fraternal competition is nothing more than a way of proving masculinity against the natural, often-feminized element of the sea.[iv]  Vincent succeeds twice in beating his brother, proving the hierarchy of genetic modification a nonsense.  But again although his brother discovers Vincent’s secret, he is apparently willing to conceal an illegal identity, despite his job as an investigator.

            But I contend that it is Vincent’s relationship with Jerome that contributes most to his status as hero, yet at the same time most undermines it.  “Jerome,” we are told, “is an example of genetic engineering at its best—and worst. On the surface he appears to have it all—physical beauty, athletic prowess, a genius intellect—everything it takes to be a hero.”  So why is it clear that Vincent is meant to be the hero, rather than Jerome?  “[E]ven before his accident, Jerome was lacking in the attributes that make life most worth living.   He had no drive, no wishes, no dreams. He was the very antithesis of Vincent Freeman” (official Gattaca website[v]).  These characters are clearly doubled, by their change of identity, by their swimming, and by their opposition.  Jerome, or Eugene as he comes to be called, is set up to be the weak to Vincent’s strong, an imperfect man to Vincent’s perfected natural masculinity.  This is not just because of Eugene’s obvious physical disability (he is in a wheelchair, having broken his back in a car accident).  This about a spiritual or moral weakness, raised by Eugene’s representation.  Eugene is a commodity—he sells Jerome’s physical identity to Vincent in exchange for “keeping him in the style to which he was accustomed”.  Thus Eugene is feminized, a point reiterated later when he talks too much and too emotionally while drunk, and when he can distinguish between “summer wheat” and “honey dawn”.  It has been suggested that the film presents him as homosexual.  But Eugene is obviously also weakened by corruption: he is seen smoking, he drinks to excess, he has no companions other than those he “pays”, he sees himself as a failure, and admits that he tried to kill himself. 

            By implication, then, if Eugene is corrupt, Vincent must be pure.  Yet Vincent is the instigator of this illegal and intimate transaction, and he is Eugene’s most constant companion.  Further, Eugene is the one who enables Vincent to succeed in his subversion of the system, without him none of this would be possible.  But of course he does it for money, he has a suspect motive.  Vincent’s motive, then must be pure and heroic.  No.  Vincent much of the time seems to act out of self-interest.  He does not try to overthrow the dystopian system of valid and invalid, he does not win others to his cause, he does it so that he can prove himself a man, and fulfil his personal dream of going into space.[vi]  “What ought to enliven Gattaca is Vincent’s determination to break the mould,” states one reviewer, “Yet however radical the means of achieving it are, Vincent’s dream of space travel is entirely conventional” (Romney, 1997, 49).[vii]  Of course, the other aspect to the film is its whodunit, in which we expect to discover the identity of the killer.[viii]  Vincent, as an invalid, is immediately suspected of the murder of the mission director after physical evidence is found at the scene.  He is not the killer, but there is no implication that he would have stopped at murder to achieve his purpose, so single-mindedly does he pursue it.  He describes himself as “unscrupulous” and we are told that “his profile does suggest a violent temperament”, borne out by his own actions.  Yet the film finally seems to use this to present Vincent as the innocent falsely accused.

            At every turn Vincent is helped by those who are prepared to cover up his “real” crime and allow him to successfully subvert the system. Lamar, the technician has been doing so for some time, and sees in Vincent an example for his son who “wasn’t all that they promised”.  Others help him for no reason other than emotional ties.  This is not co-operation since Vincent does not ask for help, nor does he help others.  Vincent seems to care nothing for these people, is not interested in collective resistance, and happily leaves them behind when he achieves individual success.  Eugene, on the other hand, sets out to help Vincent for money and material gain.  In doing so he comes to a greater understanding of the system that has failed him, as well as Vincent.  He gains strength and conviction, prevents Vincent from making careless mistakes and encourages him at the eleventh hour. […].  In the end he gives up his life, leaving Vincent to benefit from Jerome.  Eugene is not granted much of a voice by the narrative, and his death at the end is overridden by Vincent’s voice-over.  Vincent leaves us for the utopian horizon of space, which he describes as “going home”, but after such an individualist narrative there is little hope in an overthrow of the dystopian society left on earth.


                As we have noted, Neo is another character who exists on the margins of society.  He is set up as a rebel when Agent Smith tells him, “You have a problem with authority”. To some extent Neo reclaims the cyberpunk hacker hero but with the now obligatory politically correct overtones.[i]  Diversity credentials dictate that Neo is allied with black men and white women, indeed he learns from a black mentor and is resurrected as the One by a woman.  Both Morpheus and Trinity are important characters in the film, and to the transformation of Kevin Anderson into the One, the foretold saviour.  Neo is born and reborn several times throughout the film, enacting a series of recoveries of history and shifts in identity as he seeks the answer to his questions.  Morpehus is the first to awake him to his “real” life as Trinity later resurrects him after he is killed in the matrix.  Morpheus tells us the past history that led to the dystopian society and the ascendance of technology over humanity and it is significant that he tells it in terms of slavery: “You are a slave, Neo, like everyone else you were born into bondage”.  Coupled with the utopian promise of Zion, “the last human city, the only place we have left” the film transmits a powerful message about oppression and freedom in historical and racial terms important and accessible to an American audience.

                Morpehus is introduced by Agent Smith as “the most dangerous man alive” yet it is clear, as with Vincent and Eugene, who is to be the hero.  Morpheus may be “every wise guide from literature, religion, movies and comics” (Corliss, 1999: 6), but such mentors are generally defined as Other[ii] and Morpheus is differentiated from Neo in many ways.  Morpheus is older than Neo and his crew, he is clearly in a senior position and is seen as a father by the other characters.[iii]  He is thus more experienced and is able to pass on the benefits of this to Neo.  These teachings include Other ways of fighting, exotic elements from popular Hong Kong movies added to spice up the action.  (Indeed The Matrix is credited with bringing Hong Kong style action to a large audience).  Yet Morpheus is not all wise, since his belief in Neo as the One is questioned and invalidated; he is weak in confrontation with the agents and allows himself to be captured.  Morpehus is a strong character, but in the end he survives because Neo saves him.

                Trinity has also been cited as a strong character, yet she too is inevitably [?—RDE] weak and feminine.  She has a spectacular opening scene, which sets up the action sequences of the film and perhaps subverts the audience’s expectations (“I think we can handle one little girl”[iv]).  As “ranking officer” she takes command when Morpheus is captured and accompanies Neo on his rescue mission, flying the helicopter that enables [him] and Morpheus to escape.  But she is undermined by her obvious role as Neo’s love interest.[v]  The Oracle tells Morpheus that his destiny is to find the One, Neo is to become the One, Trinity? she gets to fall in love with the One. It is implied from the beginning that her feelings, her emotions will distract her from the job or bias her judgement.  Significantly, one motivation assigned to Cypher’s betrayal is his thwarted love for Trinity (it’s all her fault, in other words).  Trinity has to be saved by Neo when she sacrifices herself to save [him] and Morpheus (just as Morpheus sacrifices himself to save the One).  Yet these feelings are paradoxically the cause of Neo’s transformation, the thing that resurrects him as the One.

                “There’s a difference between knowing the path, and walking it,” says Morpheus at one point.  Morpheus and Trinity, for all their strength and kick-ass attitude are the path.  Neo is the one who gets to walk it since it is his story.  Yet who is Neo?  […]—like Vincent’s, Neo’s identity is based on his experiences: but these are false. The Oracle merely replaces the matrix in dictating who he is. He is a typical young white male protagonist.  He is a typical dystopian protagonist, who finds out about his society’s history, its structures and, in this case, its weaknesses.  He is a typical action hero.  He starts off confused and uncertain and begins to learn his own strengths.  He limbers up with a few small confrontations, begins to assert his identity (“My name is Neo”[vi]) and eventually he becomes the saviour of humanity.  Except even by the end of the film he hasn’t actually done any saving.  In fact he and the rest have killed a number of innocent people who were used by the agents in their pursuit.  He has rescued Morpheus, who wouldn’t have needed saving if Neo hadn’t been there.  He has unmade an agent, yet the agent in the end shows more emotion than Neo himself.  Neo was born to become the One, therefore he does nothing special in doing so.  Neo remains a cipher of masculinity and of a hero. If action films are about physical spectacle, he looks the part: he walks the walk, talks the not much talk of the strong silent type, wears the right clothes, gets the girl.  Indeed, the virtual nature of the action scenes allows Neo to achieve the impossible, to become hyper-heroic.  He is a virtual hero and thus uncomplicated by any context of masculinity in crisis.  Throughout, when Neo enters the matrix and develops his role as hero, his face is masked by sunglasses.  This can easily be read as part of the film’s style, but it blanks out Neo’s face and his expression.  In a film that leads us to question what we see, he is the image of a hero and perhaps not much else, as the film itself points out.

                Thus while both films focus on their protagonist heroes, they construct them in different ways.  Gattaca offers a hero whose strength is defined by the weakness of Others, and who does little to co-operate with those who support his quest for freedom from the repression of his dystopian society. The film is resolved by Vincent’s success—he achieves his goal of space flight.  Thus Vincent contemplates a utopian horizon, but there is little hope that things will change since Vincent has not developed, he has only changed the way others see him.  Neo closes The Matrix speaking of “a world where anything is possible”, yet here too there has been little change in the dystopian society.[vii]  Change is still around the corner, and our hope lies in the successful transformation of Kevin Anderson into the One, and in his co-operation with a diverse group of rebels (though Neo alone is heard at the end).  Both films play with the idea of shifting identity: “The matrix cannot tell you who you are,” states Trinity, just as Vincent insists that his invalid status does not define him.


                These shifts in identity imply that we can change, become someone else, whether physically or otherwise.  Certainly The Matrix conspires to present its hero as “a visual image, a function to be monitored and manipulated, already a kind of derealized hologram” (Telotte, 2001, 134[viii]).  Thus both films question our ways of knowing what is real, just as they disrupt what we think we know about filmic genres.  Other recent films dealing with similar issues also demonstrate the instability of genre boundaries since they can be extremely difficult to categorize (Pleasantville, The Truman Show, Fight Club).  Gattaca operates along traditional Euro-American lines, but paradoxically for a film directed and written by a New Zealander it presents a typically American story of individual achievement.  The Matrix borrows from Hong Kong action movies and Japanese animé, yet it also taps a conservative American technophobia along with strands of American history.  It is interesting that despite the value judgement implicit in terms such as action and drama, The Matrix seems to have more “radical hope” (Moylan, 2000: 195) to offer dystopian sf film than Gattaca.  This is partly, I would argue, because of the way their “heroes” are presented.  Both protagonists succeed in resistance because of their belief in themselves, their ability to tap their natural heroic potential.  In the end, however, both achieve this at the expense of what we might see as individual identity.  Vincent, the underdog, wins because he successfully becomes Jerome.  Neo, already destined for greatness, wins because he fulfils the prophecy and becomes the One.  We might expect a shallow hero from an action film, and a more developed character in a dramatic dystopia.  Yet although Vincent is revealed in ways that are easy to resist and critique from various positions, as I have done, the film never seems to acknowledge this.  Neo may be as shallow as we anticipated, but this points up key issues in the film, about shifting identity and reality, while his traditional heroic nature is made possible by virtual reality and by Other catalysts (who are acknowledged as such).  Ultimately, Vincent’s first person voice-over appears to provide answers, Neo’s poses questions.  Both films demonstrate the possibility of individual transformation, yet in the end they do not show the transformation of the dystopian societies these individuals resist, indeed the heroes are not even able to retain their individual identity.




[Fight Club]


Society for Utopian Studies, 26th Annual Conference, Buffalo, NY / 4-7 October 2001

7a.  Utopia and Dystopia in Contemporary Film, Saturday, October 6, 10:00-11:45 a.m.


Fight Club:

Utopian Satire, Consumerism, and a Crisis in American Masculinity

[NOTE: I'd now use something less sensationalist than "Crisis."—RDE, July 2002]



                I'm going to start with a Caution and a Head Note. 

CAUTION: Spoilers!  I'm going to reveal the clearly prefigured but still surprising surprise twist in Fight Club. 



            Perhaps not the first thought that crosses one's mind leaving the theater after watching Fight Club or putting down the novel, is on George Elliot's "Prelude" on St. Theresa of Avila in her 1870s novel Middlemarch.  OK, Middlemarch is also not the 251st thing to cross normal people's minds; but I still think Eliot might be useful.  So please consider George Eliot's observation that Saint "Theresa's passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life"; Theresa's "flame […] soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self."  And, a whole lot more immediately relevantly, note Eliot on how many potential Theresa's born more recently than the Saint have failed, failed mostly because "[…] these later-born Theresa's were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul." 



            Fight Club as both novel and film should be taken seriously as a work of utopian literature—utopian literature as Utopia is a work of utopian literature, or George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four or Jonathan Swift's book of the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels.  Fight Club as film and novel is an extreme case of utopian satire as the central mode of a novel, and a weird postmodern novel to boot, the central mode of a militantly postmodern film.  The novel and film mean in dialogic, novelistic ways, complicated by the complexities of dialog and norm of sophisticated satire. 

            The First Rule of Fight Club criticism is to remember always that all the major characters are sick people.  And the secondary and minor characters have their problems as well.  The Second Rule of Fight Club criticism is to listen carefully to what these characters have to tell us. 


{See below for clips for this paper and Phil Wegner's paper.}


            Fight Club is the story of a more or less average Joe—average Jack in the film—with a better than average job and (literally) lifestyle.  This joe is a recall coordinator for a large automobile manufacturer, applying The Formula that will determine whether the company will recall cars with dangerous defects or, in some cases, leave the cars on the road and allow people to die horribly in avoidable accidents.  The job pays for a Yuppie life of consumption, and between his job and lifestyle our joe is tormented into madness. 

            The initial result of his torment is insomnia, and the temporary cure is attendance at support groups for the dying.  Attending under false names and letting people assume he has whatever horrific disease the group-members share, "Joe" finds communitas in the support groups, and communion; for a brief while he's embedded within an ad-hoc clan where people—especially men-type people—can make real I-Thou contact, get in touch with themselves and others and their pain, and weep.  These eutopian spaces are invaded by Marla Singer, who's running the same scam, except she's as messed up as Joe and, uh, ballsier in her fraud: she attends the support group for men with testicular cancer who have been castrated.  (Castration is a motif in Fight Club.) 

            Singer's presence pushes Joe even farther along the path he was going, and he perfects Tyler Durden: an industrial-strength imaginary friend.  Tyler can also be seen as joe's Evil Twin, except that joe as recall coordinator is already up to his butt in evil.  Tyler just does service-industry trivial terrorism: working as a waiter at fancy functions and pissing in the lobster bisque, splicing quick shots of pornography into family films he'll show as a projectionist.  And so forth.  Tyler moves into more clichéd terrorism when he blows up joe's condominium—with no serious damage to property not joe's, with no injury, maiming, or loss of life.  Then joe and Tyler have some beers and a fight, at Tyler's request, and move in together (so to speak) in a decrepit house in a deindustrializing industrial area of the unnamed city. 

            The 12-step people may tells us, in a line not in Fight Club, "Don't beat up on yourself," but joe's fight with Tyler is good for him, and they expand their world of auto-aggression to a support group "for men only": Fight Club, where suffering men fight other suffering men.  Nothing is accomplished, except some self-destruction, some filial destruction—but there is communion. 

            Tyler moves on to good deeds of "human sacrifice": forcing guys to act to improve their lives.  And then Tyler more clearly identifies a worthy enemy and moves against it with Project Mayhem.  First, very large-scale acts of malicious mischief, sending the message to the ruling Fathers from the disinherited sons: "Do not fuck with us" or we will strike back.  Then Tyler moves against the core evil: the modern civilized world of advanced capitalism, the financial world based on credit. 

            In novel and film, the final act of mayhem is to be the blowing up of the buildings in the central city—again, with no injuries, maiming, deaths—destroying the records of consumer debt and perhaps all other debt.  We'll be back to ground zero and Tyler's primitivist eutopia of hunter-gatherer life.  In the novel, the explosives don't detonate, and joe is saved from suicide (perhaps) by Marla and the surviving people of the support groups for the dying, and joe ends up in what will be indefinite incarceration among the criminally insane.  Tyler may be, in quotes "dead," but joe learns in his hospital/"heaven"/prison that Tyler's spirit marches on.  In the film, the explosives work very effectively, and jack and Marla gently take one anothers' hands as the world outside explodes, and Tyler's eutopia may or may not coalesce, in good romantic-comedy fashion, around them.  In the film we can be very sure that Tyler's spirit marches on since someone has played Tyler's trick of splicing into the film a few frames of a porn shot. 


            Gary Cross examines in The All-Consuming Society: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America and became the dominant ideology of much of the modernized world.  In Fight Club, we see that the consumerist eutopia is dystopia not only for those who lose out but even for the apparent winners: White American Yuppie males like the unnamed Narrator I'm calling Joe and Jack.  For them, too, as I found myself muttering in 1964, "Something's wrong . . .  Something is wrong!"  Susan Faludi in Stiffed says that the central "something" is the myth of control for the American male: the idea that "I am the captain of my fate / I am the master of my soul"—across the board.  Faludi says we guys have to drop that myth and do as American women did when Betty Friedan told them of the Problem with No Name: raise consciousness and organize, organize and thereby raise consciousness.  Work politically to change the personal world. 

            Fight Club, can suggest a similar conclusion; but as Faludi is well aware, US males will need to go a long way around to find a straightforward route to solve our problems. 

            Our Average American Joe—of the truly mad kind—must start with relinquishing control, then find support groups, then find an appropriate enemy, then attack that enemy in ways that are effective. 

            Starting with 12-step groups isn't bad; they definitely stress that addicts and people in pain with horrible diseases are not in control and must surrender to a "higher power" and must support one another.  And in what leads to a wretched pun central to Fight Club, 12-step programs teach one to acknowledge lack of control so that you can "Stop beating up on yourself." 

            If "I am the captain of my fate" and "master of my soul," all the shit that happens to me is my fault; if my control is definitely limited, I can share most of the blame. 

            Joe has to learn to stop beating up on himself, and with Fight Club he learns that—and starts beating up and getting beaten up by other average joes.  He's getting in contact with other men, but it's sort of men's movement consciousness-raising out of Iron John meets Godzilla by way of some of the kinkier "sex.alt" sites on the Internet  (Faludi, Backlash 304-12). 

            Joe does move beyond Fight Club, but the Tyler Durden portion of his psyche moves to Human Sacrifices, the Mischief Committee, and finally Project Mayhem.  Tyler organizes not a democratic movement but a series of "franchises" and a conspiracy.  In its initial phases, it is a conspiracy to protect Fight Club from the powerful men who will tolerate no alternatives to their power.  Later, Operation Mayhem will strike at modern Capitalism itself, bringing down the architectural symbols of capitalism and destroying the credit records upon which Capitalism is based. 

            In film and novel then there is a series of eutopian spaces. 

                        • The Narrator's little consumer heaven in his condominium. 

                        • The support groups.

                        • Fight Club.

                        • Joe's own head as a kind of poor-man's Buddha.

                        • Tyler's vision of a primitivist eutopia, where again manly men can do manly things and live in peace with themselves, each other, and the natural world. 

                        • The conspiracy in action, for Tyler: men acting together in the world, carrying out Project Mayhem. 

                        • Finally, more suggested than seen, a final, 7th Utopia of Justice for average working stiffs—in a primitivist garden-world in Tyler's mad dream, maybe in  something else in the pretty open-ended endings of both film and novel. 

            On the way to Tyler Durden's eutopia is a familiar dystopian possibility.  In his always-relevant 1951 book, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer tells us that the frustrated will feel themselves dirtied and worthless and will attempt to lose self.  A frequent form of such self-sacrifice is surrender to some ultimate leader offering a holy cause.  The cause justifies a poor present by dwarfing it between visions of a glorious past and a still more glorious future.  And the movement justifies itself now by offering a community into which the individual can be absorbed, losing himself. 

            In Tyler they trust, and Tyler delivers not just a promise of a better world but a better world now for those in Project Mayhem: a world of order and meaning and community. 

            For the men inside Project Mayhem: eutopia.  For many of us observing this world from outside—for many readers of the novel or viewers of the film—we have a familiar fascistic dystopia.  But yet, Carl Freedman notes that Ernest Block in dealing with utopia takes seriously "the communal longings of Nazi Germany and the Ku Klux Klan" (66).  And Susan Faludi in Stiffed, writing almost contemporaneously with Chuck Palahniuk, is clear that we should take very seriously a critique such as Tyler Durden's of absent fathers, that we should join Tyler in condemnation of an "ornamental culture" that allows American men little real work, almost no effective community. 

            Tyler Durden is insane and dangerous.  Tyler Durden is a twisted, important, satiric, satanic postmodern prophet. 


Main Clips


Tyler and "I" give problem a name ….

Paper Street: Industrial area deindustrializing.

Recall Formula.

Utopia 1: Yuppie Consumer Paradise.

Utopian Space 2: Support Group Communion.

Boys/Fathers (and Mothers).

Self-Improvement: No!  Self-Destruction: Maybe. 

Utopian Space 3: Church of Fight Club (Violent Communion).

Tyler Durden Philosophy:

         No decent work for American men.

We Serve and Protect You; "Do Not Fuck with Us."

         Reject civilization.

         You are not your roles and status.

         You are part of the rotting compost-heap of the world—

                   Utopia Space 4: Cult of Tyler.

                             In Tyler We Trust(ed)!

         Dream of a Primitivist Utopia.