The Burning; or Adventures in Reader Reactions

The mini-James Gunn series continues.

As with the other installments, Joachim Boaz provides the parallel optics on this one.

Raw Feed (1991): The Burning, James E. Gunn, 1972.The Burning

This was an interesting book both philosophically and structurally.

This novel is a fix-up of three stories.

As usual Gunn is interested in exploring philosophical points and his characters are symbolic, but Gunn manages to flesh them out somewhat, usually through interior monologues, particularly Susannah of the last of three stories. This novel, at least the first story — “Witches Must Burn” — is partially a product of the fifties with its in passing talk of security issues involving scientists and its use of the slang term “eggheads”. But it is, in its own way, relevant to now. The novel’s burning of the universities as a reaction to the stresses of modern, technological civilization seems to be mirrored in the current environmental movement with its talk of slower development, “limits to growth”, the arrogance of science, the “fallacies” of traditional western thought. And, one could argue, that the universities are even more isolated from reality (present and historical) than ever now, and it is the isolation which Gunn sees as harmful.

The novel takes an interesting tack. At first, we sympathize with protagonist John Wilson. He is a figure ready for an sf audience to sympathize with: a scientist who flees a mob burning his university, destroying his research, faced with betrayal, murderous irrationality, and cowardice on every side. (There is a parallel to A.E. van Vogt’s Slan here — not only in the hunting of an intelligent man by a less intelligent mob — but also because Wilson has a machine that reads brain waves and can, like a slan’s telepathic sense, warn him of danger.) But that’s only for the first 40 pages.

Then Gunn turns the tables. In a parallel to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (Gunn has written a book of criticism on Asimov), there is a hidden group of scientists. As with the hidden Second Foundation guiding man’s society to lessen the duration of a dark age, this group of scientists is covertly setting themselves up as witches to lessen the impact of man’s new dark age. They become “witches” who turn on Wilson and attack his attitude of the poor, persecuted, rational man. They criticize his academic isolation, his pursuit of scientific truths no matter how they affect society, and his blindness to seeing man as he is — with all the needs, fears, and drives that entails. It’s this scene which justifies Gunn being called one of the most humanistic of sf authors. He wants to deal with man as he is. However, in another part of the book, Wilson says that man is perfectible, that God must serve man.

They see the Lowbrow mobs as seeking an illusory security and striking out at modern, socially transforming science for threatening that security. One even goes so far as to suggest that Wilson’s friends had to die to drive scientists from that social isolation. This seems another cruel statement. Wilson embarks on a pilgrimage to see how man produces both the “witch” and the “witch burner”, what drives each, and what each wants. He then turns himself into the government. The trial that follows is the center of the novel. Wilson, enlightened after his three month pilgrimage, again criticizes the stagnant death inherent in the Lowbrow pursuit of security and the social isolation of the scientists and, using the words of T.H. Huxley, his former child-like worship of science. Scientists, says Wilson, must accept the consequences of their actions.

This is indicative interest of 1950s sf with the social sciences. The desire to rationally plan, control, and direct human society through advanced social science, but not accept man as he is, is the attitude Wilson is condemned for by the witches. Wilson roundly criticizes “sentimentalists” who want all sorts of ideas, even contradictory ones, without their consequences, especially the idea of a “simpler” society while maintaining man’s present numbers.

Gunn makes the salient point that at each point in human development there were those (serf, hunter, gatherers) who were not accepting of the new order. College education has failed to provide this selection. It’s interesting, technically, that Wilson here, in the trial, is distracted from providing an idea for a selection rite. That will be the subject of the novel’s third story — where Wilson appears only in the last paragraph of the novel. Wilson then goes on to bring up a touchstone theme in sf: at what social price Faustian knowledge). Social engineering through skilled social scientists is the suggested answer. The prosecution rightly (Gunn is rarely content to give all the speeches of truth to one character or side in a conflict) brings up the objection of why should we trust the motives of these social engineers.

Wilson is posed the question, but it is several decades in story time and in the second story before an answer is given. It takes the form of a fantasy quest story right down to having pilgrims, witches, marauders, and pilgrims. Slan‘s influence seems to be briefly brought up again at the end where a test of survival — a willingness and intelligence to use spacesuits to survive while in space, location of the witches hideout — is evoked to show the pilgrims’ ability to survive as technological humans and take their place in that society.

The third part of the novel is concerned with the age-old question as to what type of society is best. Susannah and Leonard Kelley come across several societies (which come from sf as well as philosophy). There is a mediaeval type world with it’s feeble empire, to a Rousseauian type society of primitive hunter/marauders. The latter has plenty for all, is communal, but has a lifestyle capable of supporting few, stagnant, and not such a great deal for women. Another society, the Neo-Scientists, is out of pulp sf. They are advanced technically. Naturally it’s great for scientists. But it’s slavery for everyone else — a hive where everybody has a permanent “function” which precludes personal growth and change and social mobility. Gunn’s point seems to be that every society is great for somebody and hell for somebody else. A witch asks Susannah and Kelley how they would make the world better. They reply they would provide more. He asks them, obviously having the “witch-world” in mind, what they would do if there was a place with more but it took a good deal to get used to it and not everyone could. They would let those who could adjust live there and rule everyone else firmly. The witch replies, “A remarkable combination.”

Originally, I thought his reply was approval of their answer. But, now, I think it may have been irony. All the societies depicted on Earth have plenty and ruled firmly over those who don’t like them be they farmers, women, or non-scientists. The witches interfere with none and seem to offer an alternative approach a society freely chosen where one happily fits in.

Technically, this novel is interesting for two reasons besides its sudden shift in characters and setting in the third part. The first is the dreams of the drugged John Wilson in the novel’s second part. They seem to be symbolic like a mediaeval dream, something like Piers the Plowman and also prophetic for Wilson does seem to live, perhaps through scientific aids, into the mediaeval world he dreams of. This dream lends a strange, disorienting air to the novel which does not fade. In effect, the mediaeval setting of the third society is introduced early and is like a magical world overlaying the events actually occurring, a world which partly illuminates the symbolic significance of what is transpiring in the court room.

Finally there is the curious name of Leonard Kelley. I say curious because two characters share it (three actually when one counts the inquisitor of the dream). The first is the chief investigator of the Senate committee that is a cornerstone of the Lowbrow movement. The second is the pilgrim in the third part who goes from persecutor of witches and head of Emperor Bartlett’s secret police to witch initiate (sort of a journey similar to the New Testament’s Paul). However, the dream inquisitor is also Leonard Kelley and a captain in the Emperor’s secret police. The three Kelleys are not explicitly listed as relatives. Perhaps the symbolic function of the name is to show the transformation from Lowbrow to witch via pilgrimage which reveals the truth.


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