Tuesday, 24 April 2012

James Blish and Norman L Knight: Benevolent Fascism?

The Corporate State

In the future society of A Torrent Of Faces by James Blish and Norman L. Knight, most members of the large world population do not work, own shares or vote. They exercise neither economic nor political power, yet the Corporations maintain them in comfort instead of consigning them to poverty or extinction. Blish and Knight thought that such a social system “…might be workable…even inevitable, in a high-energy economy…” 1 If it were known that mass poverty or extinction would cause social conflict and collapse, then world rulers might prefer population-preserving welfare to population-reducing warfare.


That the future society retains a state, in the sense of a body of armed men differentiated from civil society, is shown by the intervention of uniformed Precinct Guards to protect a Triton, a member of a new amphibious human species, from a prejudiced mob.

Money and coins are mentioned because the unemployed receive a dole and even find a way to gamble illegally for small numbers of Corporate shares. However, the Corporations do not compete for profits but co-operate on a plan. A cut by World Resources Corporation in the basic food ration requires a vote by chairs of Corporations (Communications, World Resources, Submarine Products, Transportation) and chiefs of Boards (Disaster Plans, Genetics).

The ration is distributed, even to the planners, through a card system with extra credits for those whose metabolisms need more than the minimum daily requirement. Money does not seem to be necessary for this transaction. The apartments of UNOC (Union of Occupied Classes) members are no larger or better equipped than those of the unemployed. Thus, a UNOC member has higher income and status than a dole-recipient but no greater access to basic (very high standard) accomodation, nutrition or entertainment.

Orwell’s 1984 dystopia presupposes that totalitarians had tirelessly co-operated while all their opponents (democrats, liberals, progressives etc) had become implausibly impotent. The A Torrent of Faces utopia presupposes an implausible fusion between private corporations and social administration. In the current world economy, corporate profits are paramount and social funding is cut or rationalised accordingly. Powerful vested interests resist any threat to profit accumulation. I believe that these interests can be overthrown but not that they are capable of merging peacefully into a planned utopia.

Marxists envisage collectively controlled productive processes enabling all individuals to live fully and develop freely by sharing equally in social wealth. (See here.) Thus, they do not agree that:
“In any conceivable society…somebody has to be on the bottom.”2

  - although they do recognise that most people usually assume that the norms of their own society are universally applicable.

Some sf works imply that further stage of social organisation and inclusion: Brain Wave and The Boat of a Million Years by Poul Anderson and Blish’s unfinished “The Breath of Brahma."3
Torrent shows the human and social waste of unemployment. When the chief of the Disaster Plans Board “goes Under," becomes unemployed, he accesses a social network that leads him to an unrecognized innovator:

“He knew that many of the unemployed were creative in one way or another, and that some even dabbled in the sciences…But this [a new food production process]…was, in fact, of far greater potential importance than even a real interstellar drive could possibly have been.” 4

But the ex-chief’s former professional contacts are necessary to bring the new process to the attention of the chairman of the World Resources Corporation - effectively the world president although there is officially no such post because UNOC is a headless oligarchy acting through an unchaired committee.

The ex-chief, who already knows that:

“…huge percentages of the unemployed were anything but mindless…” 5

soon learns that, far from merely eating and watching television, the unemployed have somehow developed sophisticated, technological, interactive entertainment systems. They are clearly capable of participating in the running of the world. The contradictory process of planning for all their needs while excluding them from decision-making would surely cause conflicts that are not evident in the novel. In fact, participation in decision-making is a need.


In Robert Heinlein’s Future History:

“…the Voorhis financial proposals gave a temporary economic stability…” 6

but Blish and Knight tell us in their Preface that Jerry Voorhis’ “eminently sensible” economic system has “never been tried." 1 Thus, while presenting an alternative future history to Heinlein’s, they continue his debate on socioeconomic systems.


When re-reading A Torrent of Faces, I noticed that it is similar to, although better than, the earlier The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. Both novels describe an overpopulated, urbanized Earth but Torrent is more detailed and better researched. It might be regarded as an “improvement," especially since Blish and Knight knew that they had to compete with The Caves of Steel. However, Blish thought that The Caves of Steel existed because an editor had leaked the idea of Torrent to Asimov.7

The Naked Sun by Asimov is both a sequel and an antithesis to The Caves of Steel. It describes an underpopulated, roboticized extrasolar colony. Thus, its “Solarians” are not regulated urban citizens but robotically served rural aristocrats, like John Byrne’s later Kryptonians.8 Thus, there is a possible line of influence from Blish and Knight to Asimov, then from Asimov to Byrne, but, in any case, Blish was a more imaginative sf writer than Asimov as shown by comparing their future histories. (See here and here.)

  1. James Blish and Norman L. Knight, A Torrent Of Faces (London: Arrrow Books, 1978), p. vi.
  2. ibid, p. 224.
  3. David Ketterer, Imprisoned In A Tesseract: the Life and Work of James Blish (Kent, Ohio, and London, England: The Kent State University Press, 1987), pp.243-248.
  4. Blish and Knight, op. cit., pp. 233-234.
  5. ibid, p. 223.
  6. Robert Heinlein, The Man Who Sold The Moon (London: Pan Books, 1963), p. 7.
  7. Ketterer, op. cit., p. 75.
  8. John Byrne, The Man Of Steel (New York: DC Comics Inc, 1986), No. 1.

No comments:

Post a Comment