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NYRB publishes ‘Moderan,’ a delight of poetic science fiction

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In the far-future conceptual world of Moderan, master of literary science fiction David R. Bunch forces readers to consider what it would be like to leave mortality behind. Originally published in 1971, and recently reissued by New York Review Books with 11 previously unread tales, Moderan is a refreshing departure from stylistically-dull science fiction. Bunch writes with a strange poetic momentum, based on a choppy rhythm that pulls the reader into clinical descriptions of gory trauma and emptiness. His science fiction combines the creativity of Philip K. Dick and the stylistic grotesqueness of Nabokov.

Moderan depicts a twisted society. On the eponymous planet, pollution has reached apocalyptic proportions and the oceans have frozen over. The elite have replaced their bodies with “new-metal” exteriors and occupy themselves with constant war. There are state-sponsored meanness competitions. Affection is shown only for made-to-order robots delivered in ships by eunuchs.

Bunch crafts his stories with none of the world-building or sci-fi exposition to which fans of the genre might be accustomed. Instead, Moderan is more of a concept for the reader to visualize. An ersatz utopia that is almost wholly metaphorical, Moderan draws from the literary tradition of the Beats, thematically exploring the horrors of the Vietnam War and the consumer culture of post-war America.  

Despite their publication date, the stories are  prescient. The parallels to today are as plentiful as they are disturbing: The immortal warrior men of metal are recognizable as the objects of a pervasive toxic masculinity. The ravages of nuclear war could easily be substituted with climate change and pollution. The characters’ addiction to augmenting their metal image read as a cautionary tale of the danger of our social fuelled image obsession.

Of all of the stories, exploring how to find meaning in eternity, “One False Step” stands out. Tunneled beneath the plastic crust, a crew repairs flower petals so that they will  be ready to bloom at the push of a button. The leader was formerly the captain of a mysterious kill squad which slaughtered unproductive individuals. He tells his comrades about his demotion from captain to worker—the consequence of waiting too long before killing the unprofitable citizens. The story ends with the former Captain brutally beating his own crew, as if to prove to himself that he is no less merciless than he was when he still held the title.

“He wrote […] on each man’s proper form, the reason due for punishment at Central Whip—careless and excessive bleeding on uniform without cause,” Bunch writes. “He had the hang of it again!…if only he could get them to believe him up there!”

The captain in “One False Step” may be a critique of the aggressive male ego, or perhaps of arbitrary power, but regardless, the story is as haunting as the eeriest of Black Mirror episodes.

In “One False Step” and many of the other stories in the collection, the characters fear that their lives of battle and prestige are empty. Many of them, including the captain, enjoy comical moments of self-doubt and reflection. In Bunch’s hypothesis of immortality, people are so shackled to things, like fortresses and armour, that they themselves have lost their identities outside of material possessions.

“I’m not in this business primarily to describe or explain or entertain,” Bunch said in a 1965 interview with Amazing Stories. “I’m here to make the reader think, even if I have to bash his teeth out, break his legs, grind him up, beat him down, and totally chastise him for the terrible and tinsel and almost wholly bad world we allow.”

Science fiction forces its reader to take stock of their surroundings. In a time of unhindered fossil fuel emissions, populism, and social media domination, our world is beginning to seem more and more dystopian. Moderan’s timely reissue might just be the wake up call we need  

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