Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Tunnel Under the World by Frederick Pohl

Amazingly, this story is available free as an ebook from Project Gutenberg!

Frederick Pohl died this year back in August. It’s a great loss to the SF world and of course to his family, but we can can take some comfort from the fact that he had a long and productive life as a writer, and lately memoirist.

This is a great example this terrific writer in his prime. It’s classic SF of the late Golden Age, where you can sense post-war doubts beginning to show through the façade of apparent normality. Stories from this era are steeped in discontent with the modern commodified world and distrust of its rulers. Nothing’s ever quite as it seems and things are always worse than you imagine.

This is the story of Guy Buckhart, an ordinary joe who works in the accounts department of a big factory at the edge of town. His job’s a bore and the town’s a dump. One the morning of June the 15th, he goes through his usual routines, but feels weirdly disconnected or disturbed. Things are slightly off - the ‘usual crowd’ aren’t on the bus in the morning, his boss is uncharacteristically missing and most irritatingly he’s continually harassed by weird and intrusive attempts at advertising.

The next day Buckhart goes about his business with the same distracted air, but there’s a twist: it’s June the 15th athe old hundredethgain. Guy doesn’t realise it, but he goes through the whole day again.

At this point, we’ve taken a left hand swerve into Philip K Dick territory. During this late era we get Philip K Dick, Robert Sheckley and Kurt Vonnegut among many others, who use SF of writers who used SF to examine themes of angst and contemporary despair.

Like a lot us, Buckhart’s found himself in the middle of an industrialised dystopia. He’s haunted by dreams of violent death, and resentments at his job and his boss. His life is quite literally stuck in a loop of unchanging discomfort and unease, that he can never quite put his finger on.

This kind of twisted reality thriller is popular in movies these days – Oblivion, Moon, Source Code, The Truman Show and of course the Matrix and its sequels. In this case, I suppose it’s a kind of mid-life crisis story. Buckhart’s stifled and stultified, and finds escape in a kind of folie a deux with his friend Swanson. Suddenly their sense of oppression has a source, and like maniacs throughout history they find comfort in pursuing their psychosis. It’s another conspiracy theory, like Don’t Look Now, but in this case it isn’t played for laughs – its deadly earnest.

Like the best of these types of stories, it’s got a dark ending. In the end they learn there’s no escape. There is a better world, but they can never be part of it. The despair seems truer than the sunny happy endings you get in other stories. It’s an acknowledgement, maybe, that the strongest cage is the one we walk around in and we’ll never be free of it.

Themes: Despair, modern life is rubbish, anti-consumerism, dystopia, mind fuck.


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