Box Of Paperbacks: Not This August
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 36.)
The best I can tell, I don't come from a long line of readers. In fact, I know of only one book passed on from my grandmother's house to my mom, None Dare Call It Treason by John Stormer. In case you haven't taken the time to pull this once-ubiquitous paperback first published in 1964 off the shelf of your nearest thrift store–if there's not a copy there, just wait for the nearest old Republican to die–let me sum it up for you: We're all doomed because of communism. Truman, Ike, Kennedy: All soft on communism. Every American institution: Crumbling because of communism. Your neighbors: Probably communists and if not they will be soon. A member of the John Birch Society–but of course–Stormer is a still-active writer and pastor who followed Treason with a sequel in 1990 called None Dare Call It Treason 25 Years Later. That may sound like bad timing, what with the Berlin Wall about to fall down and all, but he apparently still found communism everywhere and suspected that maybe all that Glasnost nonsense was an elaborate Soviet trick. I bring this up not to promote Stormer, but to point out that the Cold War made his kind of paranoia not just possible but sort of plausible. If two competing ideologies could point world-destroying weapons at each other then, sure, maybe you should look under your bed for the enemy. Why not? Getting in that mindset can only help in appreciating Not This August, a 1955 novel by Cyril M. Kornbluth. A member of the Futurians fan society, Kornbluth knew Isaac Asimov and Frederick Pohl, the latter of whom frequently served as his writing partner throughout Kornbluth's short career. Kornbluth's most famous book, Not This August (a.k.a. Christmas Ever), was a solo venture, however. Whether or not Pohl, a former member of the Young Communist League, didn't feel comfortable with the project, I don't know. (Pohl would later provide an afterword to the book in later editions but I haven't read that. Readers?) The novel opens on a war that the United States is destined to lose. Double-teamed by the USSR and Red China and operating with an exhausted military, it's forced to surrender and submit to a takeover by the Reds. (Not the Cincinnati baseball team, of course, though the book appeared around the time that they changed their name to the "Redlegs" to avoid the appearance of being fellow travelers. My dad still calls them the "Redlegs" today.) America's new Chinese and Soviet overlords arrive to find much of their work done for them. Protagonists Billy Justin, a Korean vet and freelance artist, has already been reassigned by the U.S. government to work as a farmer under the logic that America needs fresh eggs more than it needs slick commercial illustrations. Justin's unhappy with his lot as the book opens but fears that bad can turn to worse in his rural upstate community once the communists start to have their way. Not all his neighbors share those fears. That nice couple up the road are particularly pleased. Turns out they were communists all along helping to pass on information and stir discontent in the years before the takeover. They're more than ready for the glorious revolution. But here's the thing: The revolution isn't ready for them. In a chilling reversal of fortune, they're the first to be shot to death when the communists hit town. Moscow does not believe in traitors, it turns out, even traitors working for its own cause. Not This August is a novel of Cold War paranoia taken to its logical extreme but taking things to their logical extremes is at least part of what science fiction is about. At times it's a bit hysterical. Kornbluth frequently suggests that it's a flaw in the Soviet and Chinese characters makes them so evil, not their politics. At a certain point it becomes clear that the invaders are less interested in converting the U.S. into another outpost of communism than using it as a slave labor supply center for industrial and agriculture products for the rest of the empire. But Kornbluth is good at supplying the details of his particular vision of communist dystopia. With Soviet rule well-established in the Eastern United States, Billy watches the propaganda machine kick in. Visiting a store run by an exploitative capitalist-turned-commie-stooge, Billy checks out a comic book called Billy Spencer, Northeast Farmboy:
The hero was a clean-cut kid who lived only to make his milk norm and thereby build peace and the North American People's Democratic Republic. Disaster threatened when his butterfat production slumped below 50 per cent and all the other kids jeered at him. But one night he saw a sinister figure skulking around his barn and who should it be but Benny Repler, the loudest of the jeerers. Benny, caught in the act of administering an unspecified slow poison to Billy's cows, broke down and confessed he was a tool of unreconstructed capitalist traitor saboteurs, and was marched off, head high, to expiate his sins by hard labor for the N.A.P.D.R. Billy, in a final blazing double spread, was awarded a Hero Of Agricultural Labor medal by the President himself, and took the occasion to emit a hundred-word dialogue balloon pledging himself anew to the cause of peace and democracy under its great protector the Soviet Union.
If anyone thinks that's far off the mark, I invite you to check out the movie East Side Story and its scenes of kick-ass musicals like Tractor Drivers and Ernest Thalmann, Class Leader. Naturally, Billy joins the underground. I'll skip over the details–including a convenient nearby underground bunker housing a super-weapon and a road trip with a crazy self-professed prophet–and skip to the end as Billy starts spreading the word of a coming counter-revolt simply by spreading the habit of using the words "Christmas Eve" as a goodbye. It works, but the novel closes on a curious grace note as Billy recognizes the horrible cost of military supremacy and simply steps aside, the madness of a war-without-end leading him to seek comfort elsewhere. If Not This August isn't the first commies-take-over-the-U.S. fantasy, it's far from the last. The waning days of the Cold War, preceded by heightened tension and ratcheted-up fear, scared up a bunch of these in the form of Red Dawn, Invasion U.S.A., and the 14 and ½ hour 1987 miniseries Amerika. Kornbluth, however, didn't live to see this. He died in 1958 at the age of 34, never knowing if the downfall he'd foreseen was on its way or not.
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Then: Space Lords by Cordwainer Smith