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Bernard Wolfe: A Forgotten Writer

I first became aware of the name "Bernard Wolfe" almost ten years ago, when I first picked up Harlan Ellison's Angry Candy. Angry Candy was a pivotal book in my life; reading the anger and power and emotion in the pages of that book re-awakened a love of reading in me -- I saw firsthand how powerful the written word could be. As I would learn, Harlan Ellison often contradicts himself, but that doesn't matter because his writing transcends logic; his arguments grab you by the throat, tearing out your heart and refusing to give it back. To this day, Ellison remains one of my favorite authors -- nobody else pumps life into words quite the way he does.

I doted on Angry Candy; it's one of the few books I have ever signed out multiple times from the library. Of all the stories I read in that book, I remember the introduction best. In it, Ellison rages against the dying of the light; he talks about the anger and helplessness he felt as his peers aged and died around him, one by one. He talks about the writers whose work we have forgotten, and howls at us for forgetting them. One of the names he mentions is Bernard Wolfe. If I ever get my hands on Angry Candy again, I'll quote Ellison's words directly. The two points I can remember Ellison making about Wolfe were:

I found this news sad, but exciting. The thought that there could be a better writer than Harlan Ellison filled me with wonder. I promised myself that, if I ever got the chance, I would read Bernard Wolfe's work and see what it was about.

A few months ago, I was browsing through the Science Fiction selection at the K-W Used Bookstore on King Street. Hidden beyond the stacks of used Playboy magazines you'll find two solid bookshelves of science fiction books. Even for Kitchener-Waterloo (which sports an unusually high number of great used book and comic stores) it's an impressive selection. On a whim, I browsed through the "W" section, looking for a Bernard Wolfe novel. To my surprise, I found one: For a mere three dollars I could get my very own copy of Limbo, by Bernard Wolfe. Unfortunately, I had been stressed out that week. My usual reaction to stress is to eat junk food, and sure enough I had bought many donuts from the Math Building's Coffee and Donut shop. I didn't think I deserved to spend another three dollars on myself, especially when I knew that I would just spend the weekend reading if I did buy the book. I reluctantly put the first Bernard Wolfe novel I had ever seen back on the shelf, and trudged home.

Two weeks ago I returned, three dollars plus tax in hand. I marched past the used Playboy magazines to the Science Fiction shelf, tracked down Limbo (which was still sitting on its shelf waiting for me), marched to the checkout counter and paid for the book. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake; when I bought that book I think I broke my good habit of not spending money on pleasure reading -- I have since bought two used comic books I had heard good things about, and if I am not careful I might end out buying more. Mistake or not, I had the book in my hands. I marched out of that K-W Used Bookstore cradling my purchase, feeling triumphant and a little guilty.

I have since read Limbo. Is it the best book I have ever read? No. Is it better than anything Harlan Ellison has ever written? I don't think so, but I am probably biased. Is it a good book? Absolutely. It's an excellent book, in fact, for it manages to be both entertaining and thoughtful. Many novels on the market today can't say even that much. For that alone Bernard Wolfe deserves respect.

The plot of Limbo revolves around the misadventures of one Dr. Martine, a neurosurgeon who keeps too many notebooks and cracks too many jokes for his own good. Wolfe sets his novel in the futuristic world of 1990, and spends a good deal of time describing the society of that strange time. As Limbo was published in 1952, critics naturally drew comparisons between Wolfe's work and other popular fiction set in the near future. The front cover boasts a quotation from The Saturday Review: "More satisfying than Orwell's 1984 or Mr. Huxley's Brave New World". The back cover calls Limbo "one of today's most shocking novels." But as Wolfe himself notes in his Author's Notes and Warnings:

Anybody who "paints a picture" of some coming year is kidding -- he's only fancying up something in the present or past, not blueprinting the future. All such writing is essentially satiric (today-centered), not utopic (tomorrow-centered). 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, only more and more so, for four more decades. But no year ever fulfills itself: the cowpath of History is littered with the corpses of years, their silly throats slit from ear to ear by the improbable.

To be certain, I found Limbo to be an educational look at 1950, of the attitudes people might have held at the time and the ideas that were popular then. Through Wolfe's words, I saw a 1950 where people embraced the power of technology, where people thought that machines would one day be able to manipulate the world better than people in their humble fleshly bodies. I also saw a 1950 where people feared technology -- especially the power of computers. As part of his history Wolfe conjures up another Great War where two competing supercomputers (both named EMSIAC) deploy the armies of the world against each other like so many chess pieces. Eventually, humans get tired of being ordered around; they rebel against the EMSIACs and vow to take control of their technology. Oddly enough, by the year 2000 the people of our reality have not managed to accomplish that much.

The citizens of Wolfe's world cling to another hypothesis: while human bodies may be weak, the human mind is stronger than any machine. As people learn to control the new toys they develop, their minds grow so that they can deal with the additional complexity better. Such an idea seems foreign today. Although there are still lots of things that computers can't do well, the list of things that computers do better than people is long and growing longer all the time. We rely upon computers to do calculations quickly -- when was the last time you took a square root by hand? -- to run simulations for us, to plan schedules, and to design everything from houses to cars to new computers. Now we can use computers to look for patterns in huge amounts of data, and to carry out medical diagnoses. Nobody is claiming -- yet -- that the reasoning power of computers is anywhere near that of the human brain, but it sometimes feels that way. It's gotten to the point where people are hiding behind the arts again: After years of neglect in favour of "real science," people are again claiming that a computer will never be able to paint a picture or write a novel or feel emotions the way we do. What happens when those barriers are broken? Will we resort to the claim that humans are superior just because God said so and that's the way it is? How different that would be from the world of Limbo, where people were confident that they were the masters of their machines. This confidence was misplaced -- of course -- but the tragedies and apocalypses of Wolfe's novel are, in the end, borne of human thought and greed, not machine domination.

If Limbo was a comment on 1950, is any of it relevant today? You bet it is. In addition to being worth reading for the gloriously awful puns alone, this novel contains one of the most scathing criticisms of organized religion and the Bible I have ever read in my life. It also demonstrates how easily people can be tricked by those who dream of power, and why advertising and empty slogans are so dangerous. Wolfe also makes an interesting argument for permitting dissent and violence in the world; he argues that without passion, we cannot enjoy creativity.

To be sure, some elements of Limbo grate on the nerves. Martine does some not-nice things (plusungood things, one might say) over the course of the novel -- at one point, he even commits rape. Wolfe explores some fairly misogynistic hypotheses about the relationships between men and women. Many of Wolfe's explanations of human psychology are steeped in Dostoevsky and Freud; I think that some of them have dated badly and that others were just garbage to begin with. Indeed, methinks that Wolfe thinks about sex too much, and that he uses it as an easy explanation for the darker sides of humanity too frequently. In the end, I forgive Wolfe all of these transgressions, because although some of the things he writes are appalling, they are also honest. Nobody (except the possibly-mythological Political Correctness Police) ever said that everything we read should be soothing to the ear. That road leads to too much Danielle Steel and not enough Harlan Ellison, as far as I am concerned. (Granted, taking the other extreme leads to too much Space Moose and not enough Bernard Wolfe, but I digress.)

I found just one detail that wouldn't stop bugging me: Martine names his studious, intelligent son Rambo, after the artist Rimbaud. Every time I read that name, I couldn't help picturing Sylvester Stallone -- but that is no fault of Bernard Wolfe's, and the fact that this was the most aggravating way in which Limbo has dated reflects well upon the novel.

I'm not a great judge of books. Books that make me laugh and make me think generally win my heart; books by Jackie Collins generally don't. I know that I enjoyed Limbo, and I know that I will happily prowl used bookstores from now on looking for more Bernard Wolfe novels, but I don't know whether the fate of Bernard Wolfe's works -- being taken off the printing lists forever -- was fair or expected. I think that Harlan Ellison was right: the world has forgotten about Bernard Wolfe. But how many good writers get remembered? How many good writers get read in the first place? Stephen King wrote that his stint as Richard Bachman was an experiment, to see whether he had achieved his fame through skill or luck. He reported that while Bachman achieved a small following, Richard Bachman would never have hit the bestseller lists had King not revealed his identity. How many other good authors have been condemned to Richard Bachman's fate? Bernard Wolfe must have enjoyed some time in the spotlight: You don't get reviews in the New York Times for nothing. Is it fair to expect that he be remembered 50 years after his glory days?

Sure it is. Why shouldn't it be? Good novels are good novels, and good novelists deserve to be remembered. They aren't, of course -- who knows if people are going to remember literary giants like Harlan Ellison or Kurt Vonnegut or even Isaac Asimov fifty years from now, never mind the more obscure authors -- but that's no reason not to try keeping these books alive. The almighty market probably would not be willing to keep every good book by every good author in print forever, but that's what libraries and private book collections are for. We can tend to these books, caring for them, making sure that our friends and acquaintances read them so they won't lie forgotten. And once the copyright expires on these tomes, there's always Project Gutenberg. If we are lucky, maybe the Project will consider these old stories worthy of archival, even though they stick to only the more popular works now. Harlan Ellison would probably not approve, but I figure it is better for these books to live on and be remembered -- even in public domain e-text form -- than for them to die. And given that so much great science fiction was written in the 1940s and 1950s, the copyrights to these works could expire in our lifetimes (depending on how long Disney can manage to extend copyright laws). Right now, the rules seem to be that copyright expires 50 years after an author's death, although those rules might have changed. But even if Gutenberg does not accept these texts, there is nothing to stop anybody else from resurrecting these books once they hit the public domain.

With that in mind, I would be willing to loan out my copy of Limbo to anybody who is interested -- even you. My only conditions are that I can (relatively easily) get the book out to you, and that you'll promise to give the book back so that I can loan it to somebody else. In the meantime, I'll be on the lookout for more books by Bernard Wolfe and other forgotten authors, and I'll be reading the e-texts on Project Gutenberg in the hopes of finding more good books that don't deserve to be forgotten.