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Limbo
Bernard Wolfe
Westholme Publishing, 438 pages

Limbo
Bernard Wolfe
Bernard Wolfe (1915-1985) was was educated at Yale University, and worked in the United States Merchant Marine during the 30s. Wolfe worked briefly as secretary and bodyguard to Leon Trotsky during the latter's exile in Mexico. During World War II, he was employed as a military correspondent by a number of science magazines, and then in 1946 he began to write fiction.

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A review by Matthew Hughes

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One of my favorite quotes is from L.P. Hartley, the opening line to his novel, The Go Between: "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there."

Just as foreign, of course, is the future. I once wrote an entire speech (for someone else, that being then my profession), riffing off the thought that the past is the old country we all come from while the future is that strange new land to which we are all emigrating, where we will work at new jobs, speak a different language, adopt new values.

Hartley's quote bubbled up from the basement as I reread Bernard Wolfe's 1952 post-nuclear war dystopia, Limbo. My first reading was back around 1965, when I was the kind of teenager who vacuumed up big fat sf novels found in second-hand bookshops. Coming at it in 2012, Limbo offers a double treat -- or threat? -- in terms of visiting foreign lands where they do things differently. It's a vision of 1990 (then Wolfe's future, now our past) deeply based upon the preoccupations of 1950.

That's no great insight on my part. Wolfe, himself, spells it out in the afterword: This book, then, is a rather bilious rib on 1950 -- on what 1950 might have been like if it had been allowed to fulfill itself, if it had gone on being 1950 for four more decades.

I think, with that remark, he undersells himself and his book. In Limbo there are some now-familiar sf tropes -- cyborgs, Skynet military computers playing war against each other with WMDs, post-holocaust societies fixated on strange new philosophies -- that were just coming out of the egg when he was writing. If he didn't invent them, he was one of the earliest extrapolators, and did a quite respectable job.

But what I found fascinating was precisely that foreign country of 1950 that so infused the story and filled the characters. This is not pulp science fiction of the fifties. John W. Campbell would have thrown the manuscript across the room. Instead, it is a serious literary novel of the proto-beatnik era, taking a thorough (perhaps, at times, far too thorough) examination of the issues of its day.

So we get a great deal of Freudian analysis. We get meditations on momism (if you don't know what momism was, cf. Philip Wylie's Generation of Vipers). We get an awful lot of prefrontal lobotomy, which was then the hot new technique for treating mental illness. And we get an unholy amount of musing on sex, especially on frigidity among women (a major post-Kinsey concern) with reference to the clitoroid versus vaginal personality types.

And all of this comes at you with unstoppable energy and verve. I can imagine Wolfe as the kind of guy you knew in college who could get you to stay up all night drinking the wine of paradise and freewheeling through philosophy, history, psychology, mythology and half a dozen other ologies, pushing each other into sudden insights and minor epiphanies that would have you saying "Oh, wow, man!" In the morning you might not remember exactly what it was that had so bent your mind at three a.m., but you'd have no doubt it had been totally cool at the time.

And, of course, he likes his puns. Here's one on the Russian style of governance: "The bear never reigns but it paws." Some people hate that sort of thing. Some people love it. If you're of the latter enthusiasm, here's a book you may want to read. If you're of the former ilk, you'll want to hide behind the couch until Wolfe goes away.

Always of interest, too, when reading old-timey prognostications, is to note some of the things the author completely missed. Like the sexual revolution. The civil rights revolution in the US. Credit cards and the whole credit economy. The internet. But, fair play, Wolfe was writing about a 1950 that went on for forty more years.

Did I mention the story? In the middle of an atomic war (pre-ICBMs) waged by fleets of bombers directed by a Soviet and a Western EMSIAC (Electronic Military Strategic Integrator and Computer), Dr. Martine, a neurosurgeon in an airborne MASH plane, has had enough of the murderous madness. He steals an aircraft and, defying the computer, flies to a south Pacific island where he holes up for eighteen years, performing lobotomies on the locals, who have a tradition of skull-boring each other to control aggression.

But eventually the world catches up with the doctor. The island is visited by an world-touring Olympic team of Immob athletes. Immob is the post-war pacifism craze: young men have their limbs removed and replaced with cybernetic prostheses, based on the idea that you can't make war if you've got no arms and legs. Yes, it's a silly idea, even within the ambit of the book: it turns out that Immob makes arms that shoot bullets and napalm.

But this is satire, not realism. And the biggest irony of all is that the whole Immob movement is based upon a private journal that Martine left in the MASH plane before he took off for the tropics. It was found by a colleague he never cared for -- Halder, who snored in the bunk above him -- and taken as a bible for the post-war world. Half of which Halder rules, in Martine's name.

Now Martine, the unknown prophet traveling under a false name, goes back to the world he ran away from, or at least to the Inland Strip, the part of North America still inhabitable. And there he sees what his private maunderings look like when they're grossly mistranslated into reality. It's a reminder that irony is by no means a modern invention.

Limbo has been called one of the one hundred best science fiction novels. It's also been called, by Anthony Boucher no less, "a pretentious hodgepodge."

I say, it's a trip to the past by way of a future that never was.

Copyright © 2012 Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes
Matthew Hughes writes science fantasy. His stories have appeared in Asimov's, F&SF, Postscripts and Interzone. His latest novels are The Other (shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award) and To Hell and Back: Costume Not Included. His web page is at www.archonate.com/.


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