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One
David Karp
Westholme, 311 pages

One
David Karp
David Karp (1922-1999) was an American novelist and Emmy-winning screenwriter. His screenplay of One was produced twice for television in the 1950s.

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A review by Paul Kincaid

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The years after World War II seem to have been a particularly rich time for dystopian fiction. It's easy to understand why. Most of the fiction was picking up on a well-established tradition: George Orwell took the plot of 1984 wholesale from Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, and the faceless bureaucracies that featured in so many of these novels had been clearly prefigured in Franz Kafka's The Trial (although Orwell based his largely on his wartime experiences in the BBC). Some, of course, harkened back to the horrors of Nazi Germany that had been revealed in the immediate aftermath of the war, as, for instance, in The Sound of His Horn by Sarban. But the Nazis were not the main threat presented by these books. Nor, curiously in the early years of a new, puzzling and disturbing Cold War, was Soviet Russia the immediate threat (though it would become so as stories of nuclear holocaust became more prominent during the mid-50s). Although many of these stories drew their dread from an image of enforced conformity that echoed what was popularly imagined about daily life in a communist regime, they rarely told stories about foreign powers imposing such conformity. Quite the opposite, the threatening governments were clearly home grown. The abiding fear seems to have been that, in their war against communism, western governments would end up creating a regime indistinguishable from what they were supposedly fighting.

The best, and best-known, of such post-war dystopias is, of course, 1984. But running it a close second is this novel which came out in America only a few years later. One presents a world that seems, in many ways, entirely benign. The citizens of this unspecified but presumably not too distant future live a life that is exactly the same as their counterparts in mid-twentieth century America. The differences would appear to be all for the better: there are no wars, there is no crime, there seems to be no poverty; most people, understandably, are happy. The State (always capitalized) seems to have come into being about a generation before and is clearly a work in progress; whenever we see behind the scenes it is clear that the apparatchiks are still feeling their way towards the complete imposition of their will upon the people. Nevertheless their rule is largely unquestioned. There is no democratic process, that we see, and no one questions this. In the place of democracy is a new Church of the State, a bland, non-denominational religion which is rapidly growing in popularity and which gives the illusion of social engagement without anyone actually having to do anything. One of the characteristics of believers in this church is that they invariably speak of themselves in the third person, from which we can tell that the new regime frowns on individuality and encourages a hive-mind-like sense of being absorbed in a community. Conformity is king; the more alike everyone is, the better.

Another way in which the State has extended its control is through a network of informers, people who secretly spend part of every single day writing reports that detail any tiny deviation from the norm, or heresy as it is known, among their family, friends and colleagues. One such informer is Professor Burden, an English professor at a rather fusty little small-town college. Happily married, with two sons, he imagines himself as entirely loyal to the regime, and is proud of the secret work he does, taking pains over what he should and should not reveal, whom he should or should not shaft. But it is this pride that is his undoing.

By a process that David Karp is careful to show is pure and meaningless chance, Burden is summoned to an interview at the Department of Internal Examination. Here he comes to the attention of Lark, a rising star in the State bureaucracy, who immediately detects in Burden's tiny measure of pride a threat to the very existence of the State. Because that pride is a glimmer of individuality, because if individuality is once tolerated it can only, in the long term, undermine the conformity that the whole State edifice rests upon. It is significant that Karp places this individuality in the person of an academic, even an undistinguished and not particularly zealous academic such as Burden, because throughout the novel it is in the intellectuals that the greatest threat to the State is seen to reside. Lark's staff includes what might be called a licensed heretic, Professor Wright, another academic, whose nonsensical role within the novel is to provide Karp with a mouthpiece for views contrary to the State, and these heretical views consistently come back to how individualistic intellectuals might behave in a conformist society. It is interesting, in the light of the political milieu from which the novel emerged, that this was a time when the Soviet Union was restricting free expression among its scientists while the West was encouraging an expansion in university education as a guarantor of freedom.

Having identified the depth of the heresy lurking in mild-mannered Professor Burden, Lark gets permission to root out the heresy and remake Burden as a new and a truly loyal conformist. He is given just two weeks to do this, and this is the key point upon which the plot founders. What we see perpetrated upon Burden, and the effects achieved, would in reality take far longer than two weeks; but if we accept the intent as allegorical rather than realist, we can let this go by.

What follows is already familiar, the process varies in detail but in shape and intent it follows the pattern established in We and 1984. Burden finds himself trapped within the Laocoonian grasp of an inhuman bureaucracy; though well, he is declared sick; though happy, he is declared sad; though loyal, he is declared traitor; though sane, he is declared mad. Through drugs, isolation and argument, Burden's identity is taken apart. It helps that Burden, still thinking himself loyal, wants to help the process along, but even so this is the unconvincing part of the novel.

Behind the scenes, however, we are aware of something much greater going on. One is unusual among dystopias of this model in that we actually see the officers of the State away from their victim, Lark, in particular, is presented as a highly intelligent and indeed sympathetic character. So we know that the State has decreed that, unless Lark is successful, Burden should die, so what we are witnessing is a battle for the life as well as the soul of our hero, with Lark as a charming Mephistopheles. But there is more to it than that. In such novels the Winston Smith character is always an Everyman, and One is no different. Karp spells this out through the Greek chorus of Professor Wright, who informs us that if Lark is successful then the everlasting success of the State is guaranteed and individual humanity is doomed. So we, as readers, are caught in a double bind: we are cheering on Burden, but if he survives then we all lose.

One is getting on for 60 years old, and inevitably has some quaint or creaky aspects. Informers write their reports long hand, deliver them by post, they are read by endless ranks of clerks in cubicles, filed in folders, responses are dictated into Dictaphones and typed in a typing pool. It is a vision of the future unchanged from the day in which it was written, other than the political structure. Yet there is one advantage in dealing with a book this old, I need not be afraid of spoilers. So it is safe to say that Lark is successful: Burden is transformed into Hughes, a lowly clerk in a different town vaguely bothered by the fact that he can't remember large swathes of his own past. Then, one dismal Christmas, he offers honest advice to a friend who is contemplating joining the Church of the State. The friend, of course, is an informer, who reports this to Lark as evidence of how well Burden/Hughes is doing; but Lark immediately recognizes a spark of the old individuality. Dystopian writers in Europe, such as Zamyatin or Orwell, who had witnessed the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the aftermath of Nazi rule in Europe, had a very pessimistic view of the chances of the individual against the state, and ended their novels with resistance crushed. In America it was different, there was still optimism; so, however bleakly things might end for Burden, philosophically, Karp still sounds an upbeat note in his conclusion. It is, perhaps, this lightening of the gloom which explains why One doesn't quite achieve the dystopian power of its contemporaries.

Copyright © 2011 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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