Friday, June 12, 2015

Look Both Ways!

In the early 1800s, in England, a group of textile workers began destroying machinery intended to increase their efficiency and reduce the cost of their labor.  One theory is that a young man named Ned Ludd or Ludham had famously destroyed similar equipment as early as 1779, giving his name to the rebel saboteurs, known to us as the Luddites. 

Though the movement was not fearful of technological innovation per se—many of its members were actually highly trained machine operators—the Luddites can be seen as an early form of organized proletarian resistance to deteriorating working conditions at the start of the Industrial Revolution.  The group targeted agricultural machinery and mill works as well, and assassinated at least one mill owner.  They were brutally suppressed by the British government, and were mostly defunct by 1820.

The term Luddite as we understand it these days refers to a general opposition to new technologies, automation, computer applications, and industrialization.  Underlying this opposition is anxiety that technological innovation is a threat not only to economic security—creating structural unemployment in its wake—but also injurious to human health and wellbeing.  The concept is useful when considering the ancient and ironic struggle of human societies to adapt to the technologies they create for themselves or borrow from elsewhere.

David H. Keller takes up this theme in the very first science fiction story he ever published, The Revolt of the Pedestrians, (1928).  It originally appeared in Amazing Stories.  Keller imagines an American society centuries hence where Pedestrians have lost out to the Automobilists.  The government, dominated by motorists, even passes laws that permit drivers to kill pedestrians along any road with impunity.  The Automobilists nearly exterminate every human with the desire and ability to ambulate. 

Evidently, these future pedestrians have forgotten to look both ways when crossing a street, and prefer to walk in the road instead of on sidewalks or foot paths.  Lest this seem like an exaggeration, one can see, on the streets of many college towns even today this Darwinian process, as students cross the road oblivious to the physics of large moving objects in their path.

Keller uses the premise of his story to speculate about the implications of the emerging automobile culture in his own time.  Much of The Revolt of the Pedestrians is tedious back story and explication, with little in the way of characterization or plot, other than to provide a basis for the ideas Keller is expounding.  But his ideas are interesting and prescient. 

He depicts the Automobilists as physically degraded humans, obese, their legs withered and atrophied, entirely dependent on their wheels for movement and stimulation.  Having become the norm, their decrepit bodies are now perceived as beautiful, while the Pedestrians are considered primitive and animalistic with their tanned skin and upright posture.

Meanwhile the world of the automobilists lived on, materialistic, mechanical, selfish.  Socialism had provided comfort for the masses but had singularly failed to provide happiness.  All lived, everyone had an income, no one but was provided with a home food and clothes.  But the homes were of concrete; they were uniform, poured out by the million; the furniture was concrete, poured with houses.  The clothing was paper, water-proofed: it was all in one design and was furnished—four suits a year to each person.  The food was sold in bricks, each brick containing all the elements necessary for the continuation of life; on every brick was stamped the number of calories. 

How many of us have eaten protein bars or energy bars during the drive to work?  How many of us live in subdivisions where the houses are barely distinguishable from each other?  Keller also comments on the restless, aimless psychology of the Automobilists.

No one was content to go slowly—all the world was crazed by a desire for speed…Thus Sundays and holidays were distinguished by thousands and millions of automobilists going “somewhere,” none being content to spend the hours of leisure quietly where they were.

Crime has been eliminated through systematic application of eugenics theory.  However, air pollution from automobile exhaust has made the air toxic and nearly unbreathable.  Keller predicts that the automobile—and the rampant industrialization it represents—will eventually bring about social stagnation, physical deterioration, and class warfare.  

A small band of Pedestrian survivors, all them Luddites at heart, escape to a remote section of the Ozark Mountains.  Here they found a colony and plot revenge against their Automobilist oppressors.  Like Ned Ludd and his peers millennia before, this revenge will involve the destruction of their overlord’s machinery, in particular, their means of locomotion.  The rebel leader and his group have devised the ultimate weapon to use against the Automobilists:

In our colony we have perfected a new electro-dynamic principle.  Released, it at once separates the atomic energy which makes possible all movement, save muscle movement…We do not know how to restore the energy in any territory where we have once destroyed it…

The Pedestrians’ electro-dynamic weapon effectively liberates the tiny group from its mountain confines—but dooms the majority of Automobilists to a gruesome death by starvation and accident, since none of their machines will now operate.  Happily, the rebel leader falls in love with the daughter of a millionaire Automobilist.  She is a genetic throwback, a pedestrian whom her rich father has indulged and protected.  The couple are intended to symbolize a new Adam and Eve in their now de-technologized society.

The Revolt of the Pedestrians is a novella of ideas and speculations; despite the title, there is little actual conflict described, and the epic struggle between Pedestrians and Automobilists is literally resolved with the flip of a switch. 

However, there is a bit of unexpected weirdness near the end, which the deconstructionist in me must mention.  After pages of explication about Automobilist society, and a careful tracing of the family lines of the rebel leader and the Automobilist’s daughter, there is the germ of a shudder pulp tale:  the rebel leader’s male stenographer, a Pedestrian spy, dresses up like an Automobilist female to investigate behind enemy lines.  He attracts the attention of a real female automobilist.

It was a monstrous thing that he should fall in love with a legless woman when he might, by waiting, have married a woman with column of ivory and knees of alabaster.  Instead, he loved and desired a woman who lived in a machine.  It was equally pathological that she should love a woman…

The stenographer later reveals his true gender, and during a passionate but very hazardous embrace, she bites his jugular vein and kills him.  The vignette is completely unexpected and seemingly unconnected with anything that precedes it or follows it.  Why is this here?  Keller, who was a practicing psychiatrist when he began writing fiction, may have been channeling an even darker set of ideas into this speculative tale.

It is interesting to compare The Revolt of the Pedestrians with a similar story published in 1951, Ray Bradbury’s The Pedestrian.  Reportedly based on an actual experience the author had while out walking one evening, it depicts a lone pedestrian being accosted by a robotic police car, in a future society mesmerized by television.  He is taken to the ominously labelled Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies.  Here the threatening technology is not the automobile—no one goes out anymore—but that other device worthy of Luddite rage—the television.


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