The General Zapped An Angel: New Stories of Fantasy and Science Fiction by Howard Fast

Sunday, 09 September 2007 04:24 Nader Elhefnawy
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Image"The General Zapped An Angel"    
"The Mouse"
"The Vision of Milty Boil"
"The Mohawk"
"The Wound"
"Tomorrow's Wall Street Journal"
"The Interval"
"The Movie House"
"The Insects"

While few remember it, Howard Fast's seven-decade-long career actually began with the publication of a science fiction story at the age of sixteen.  Indeed, few seem to remember that at one time, Fast was one of the most prolific and visible American writers, his body of work including not only numerous bestsellers, but Imageseveral landmarks in literary history.  His 1951 novel, Spartacus, was the basis for Stanley Kubrick's classic film, and one may wonder if the book would be remembered at all were it not for that fact.  His 1944 Reconstruction-era historical novel, Freedom Road, which opens with a foreword by W.E.B. Du Bois, was one of the most widely read books of the twentieth century, but today does not even enjoy the popular recognition of a Wikipedia article.  Once celebrated as a world-class author in some quarters, and in others so reviled that he was persecuted in ways which had no precedent in the history of the United States, he is today not only obscure (certainly by comparison with, for instance, his daughter-in-law Erica Jong), but that obscurity is so taken for granted that it is rarely even commented upon. (The sole exception I can think of is Ilya Baranikas's obituary for the Moscow News in March 2003, easily the most complimentary of those I encountered.)

ImageAlas, there is no shortage of explanations for this case of affairs.  In his lifetime, the critics generally regarded Fast as a pop writer, "middlebrow" at best, and such writers are not expected to be remembered for very long after they put down the pen (and sometimes before that), no matter how well they sell in their lifetimes.  Fast's penchant for writing unfashionably uncomplicated heroes, and his accessible, straightforward literary style in a century dominated by Modernist experimentalism, only played into that prejudice.  So did his sheer commercial success as America came "to honor its most widely read authors less and less and to celebrate obscure academic writers with little appeal to the general reading public," as Andrew Macdonald notes in his 1996 study Howard Fast: A Critical Companion.  And of course, that his body of work included mysteries, children's books and—horror of horrors!—science fiction, as well as extensive writing for television, only added to their view that he was a writer of "insufficiently serious" literature.  (That same diversity also makes him difficult for academics to tackle, because of the challenge it poses to those who would write about him with scholarly thoroughness.  Too broad an expertise is required, and then there is the sheer inconvenience posed by the unavailability of many of his works.)

As if all this is not enough, politics, too, plays a part.  Political fiction tends to be regarded as artistically suspect, critics all too prone to condemn it as a mere vehicle for the author's message, often disingenuously.  The simple truth is that a total retreat from politics has never been a prerequisite for art, even assuming that such is possible, but the belief that this is the case often provides a convenient cover for the prejudices of critics.  Writers they agree with (or whose politics simply go over their heads, as with Dante or Shakespeare) are commonly credited with being "timeless," transcending the time and place of their inspiration or subject matter.  Those they disagree with they charge with being vulgar propagandists (something that can certainly be said of Shakespeare as the author of Henry V, but which no one ever dares say).

ImageFast certainly never shied away from the political, and his politics were not of a safe sort.  While he was "above all a humanist," he was also a member of the Communist Party for a period of several years, which led to his not only being blacklisted, but spending three months in jail for refusing to name names.  (It also led to J. Edgar Hoover personally using the FBI to intimidate several major publishers into not taking Spartacus from him, an episode to which Fast devotes a full chapter of his autobiography Being Red.)  He broke with the Communist Party in 1956, but unlike a great many ex-Communists who swung all the way over to the right afterward (as for instance, Kingsley Amis did at about the same time), Fast remained on the political left.

It should be noted that Fast's politics were an asset in certain circumstances (he enjoyed enormous popularity in the Soviet bloc, for instance), but in recent decades, this has generally been a liability, given the marginalization of the Left generally, and leftist culture along with it, a theme that in recent years has been treated in several books by Professor M. Keith Booker (who is, incidentally, also one of academia's more interesting writers on science fiction).  Even in Russia, Fast has gone from being required reading to barely having his passing noticed.

As a science fiction writer, Fast may be even less well remembered than as a writer of historical novels.  Still, while even the handful of academics who have devoted some ink to his production have generally overlooked this aspect of his oeuvre (perhaps not wanting to play into the hands of those who see his writing as just potboilers and propaganda), his work in that area is not totally forgotten, as an episode of the recent anthology show Masters of Science Fiction demonstrates by taking its inspiration from the titular story of Howard Fast's collection, The General Zapped An Angel.

General, first published in 1970, contains nine original short stories by Fast.  These stories amply display Fast's considerable gifts as a writer—his clear, concise, often elegant prose, his sense of humor, his gift of sympathetic imagination, and sheer talent as a storyteller.  Some of his stories are undeniably political (though none struck me as Marxist), but it is not necessary to share Fast's politics to appreciate even these tales, and the appeal of most of his stories, like "The Mouse," should cut across political lines.  On the whole, these are not liberal stories, or conservative stories, or "moderate" stories, just all too human stories about a species "that refuses to grow up."

"The General Zapped An Angel" envisions exactly that happening in the then-ongoing Vietnam War.  This over-the-top satire focuses on the reaction of the generals and clergymen to the event.  "General" makes light of the situation of the chaplains who find themselves confronted with the reality of a twenty-foot angel lying in a helicopter hangar, but for the most part they get off lightly, Fast's ire saved up for the central character, two-star general Clayborne "Old Hell and Hardtack" Mackenzie (who "zapped" the angel in question).

Mackenzie, who is depicted as a psychopath and a sadist, is certainly not the only soldier in the story (something that those who will be infuriated by Fast's characterization of him should keep in mind).  However, he is notable because he combines all the traditional clichés about America's warrior ideals (the Old West gunfighter, the cavalryman riding to the rescue, the hard-charging Patton style general, and even the entrepreneur of consummate "leadership" ability) in a single concise package, seen critically. 

It is a striking example of Fast's literary virtuosity, but one that few who do not share his views are likely to appreciate for the reason that the one institution in American life which it is truly taboo to criticize at this moment in history is the military.  As Professor Andrew Bacevich notes in his critique, The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War, "paying homage to those in uniform has become obligatory and the one unforgivable sin is to be found guilty of 'failing to support the troops.'"  (For the record, Bacevich is not a campus leftist, but a former Army colonel and a conservative Catholic.)  Indeed, even irreverent humor can be judged as out of bounds, witness the fate of the film Buffalo Soldiers, a movie that was, as director Gregor Jordan explained, not antimilitary, but set a dark comedy (actually toned down from Robert O'Connor's novel) on an American military base in West Germany in 1989.  (The $15 million production had its release bumped from September 2001 after the terrorist attacks to July 2003, and then only came out on twenty-four screens stateside before slipping quietly onto video.)

The sentiments in Fast's story do not make it old-fashioned because the ideals that Mackenzie embodies (and which Fast so ably skewers) remain with us (and still have their critics), but the forcefulness with which it expresses them in an age of tepid, timid liberalism does give it the feel of something out of a time capsule.  Some will respond to that aspect of "General" with nostalgia, others with relief that such days seem to be long gone—but true conservatives should still be able to appreciate the sentiment expressed at the very end of the story.

In "The Mouse," a group of extraterrestrial visitors, needing a native scout, choose that most unprepossessing of creatures to be their eyes and ears on this planet.  Accordingly, they endow him with sentience and knowledge that enable him to go everywhere and see everything—while presenting him with the conundrum of how he will live after that.  While the theme of an expanded consciousness as a source of agony has been treated masterfully elsewhere (as in several works by Olaf Stapledon, particularly Sirius), and the depiction of the extraterrestrial visitors may strike some readers as rather old-fashioned, this does not diminish the great power of this simple but eloquent, even poetic story about humanity's condition, the most thoughtful and affecting in the collection.

"The Vision of Milty Boil" is the story of "the gentlest and kindest of landlords in all the history of landlordism."  A New York builder, Boil's profits soar as he lowers the ceilings in his edifices to squeeze in more floors, Lestercoro's seventh-and-a-half floor offices in Being John Malkovich the ideal—so much so that it becomes necessary to remake people to fit buildings.  (Having lived in apartments all my life, I can relate.)  A clever subversion of the all-too-familiar paean to the successful businessmen as not just a shrewd moneymaker, but a humanitarian builder of all that is good and great in civilization, it is a reminder that the maximization of profit does not always go hand in hand with progress, as the more naïve proponents of Adam Smith's theories would have one believe—and of course, the readiness of business to readapt the world to take what it has to offer rather than its adapting to meet the demands of the "market."  At its very best, "Vision" is comparable to Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's classic, The Space Merchants, which is high praise indeed, and like that book (or for that matter, Fast's other story, "General"), it is one that may actually seem more radical today than it did at the time of its writing.

In "The Mohawk," a furor ensues when a young Native American named Clyde Lightfeather sits down in front of Saint Patrick's Cathedral to meditate at the high water mark of the counterculture.  Not a piece of speculative fiction strictly speaking (though it does touch on the cosmically theological), the story seizes on the situation's opportunities for comedy.  More than the others, "The Mohawk" shows its age, Lightfeather (the only "wise man" in the book) coming across as the clichéd "Indian who knows The Way" in a comparatively slight but amusing tale.

"The Wound," which leans more toward allegory and fantasy than science fiction, is about a scheme to get more oil out of the ground—and the lengths his characters are prepared to go to do it.  Not the only story in this collection to explore an ecological theme, its central metaphor is an apt one, and the object of the game is surprisingly timely as we confront the possibility of an energy crisis in the years to come.

In "Tomorrow's Wall Street Journal," Martin Chesell, a disappointed man who might well be thought a loser by those inclined to hurl the term about, finds the devil on his doorstep one morning offering him the next day's copy of the Wall Street Journal, the significance of which is the financial page.  (I will refrain from making any of the thousand obvious jokes.)  Tracking as it does the ups and downs of the market, tomorrow's edition reports what stock prices will be not today but tomorrow, and so holds out the possibility of making a quick fortune off of the ultimate insider information.  The price the devil asks is the usual one, Martin's soul (such as it is). 

What one might do if they had the information in tomorrow's newspaper, and the Faustian bargain, are both fantasy clichés, points that Fast acknowledges and takes advantage of it in spinning out not just a funny and surprising black comedy, but his take on what exactly it takes to make a fortune.  If "Mouse" is the best story in the collection, "Tomorrow's" is the most entertaining.

In the next story, "The Interval," pieces of the world are literally being rolled up like a stage set being cleared away for the next act as an elderly, widowed writer sitting out the night at his club with friends from the theater.  The apocalypse Fast describes is a background detail in what is essentially a mood piece about the experience of aging and confronting mortality.  While I certainly appreciated the metaphor, and in fact wished that more had been done with it, the story works on its terms.

"The Movie House" is about a society living its entire existence inside an old-fashioned movie palace (complete with orchestra pit, balconies, and brightly uniformed ushers), unaware that there is a world beyond the locked doors.  Its protagonist and narrator, Dorey, has just been elected the society's President when he finds himself faced with an existential crisis in this unique dystopia.

In the anthology's last story, "The Insects," human beings receive a message telling them that "You must stop killing us" without clarifying exactly who "us" is.  As the title hints, this sets up a version of Daphne Du Maurier's "The Birds" (and of course, Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film based on the same) with bugs—or a parody, depending on how you take it.  Despite the twist, it struck me as rather obvious (certainly compared with the much more creative end of the world depicted in "Interval"), but still a highly readable piece.

Publisher: William & Morrow (1970)
ISBN: 0441279112