The James Gunn series continues, and I’m starting my look at The Unpublished Gunn, Part Two.
Review: “The Whip”, James Gunn, 1996.
Seemingly, from the introduction in The Unpublished Gunn, Part One, this story was written in late 1952 or early 1953.
Gunn said, in that volume, that he thought this story might have been rejected by editors because it was too depressing. It’s a near miss, but I think the story suffers from the same problem many other unpublished Gunn stories do: too obscure. This one also has some loose ends I would have liked wrapped up.
It’s a fairly long story, the 23rd that Gunn wrote. It takes up 20 pages of a 68 chapbook.
I suspect the masochist element of the flagellants may owe something to the 1950 Fritz Leiber story “Coming Attraction”, a story Gunn admired very much and wrote extensively about in his 1951 thesis Modern Science Fiction. The flagellants, of course, could have come from history, specifically they were a reaction in Europe to the 1347 Black Death pandemic.
In his thesis, Gunn hoped science fiction would use more symbolism, and that’s certainly here.
The whip here signifies a very characteristic Gunn theme: that humanity needs a prod, that it stagnates in comfort and happiness. It doesn’t even matter, as the story’s end shows, what the purpose for man’s struggle is or its probable success. It’s that a struggle exists that’s important.
The story opens with “Why do men go north?”.
Our hero is Jason. (Note the name is of a legendary and questing hero.) He’s walking through a forest. He wonders why he’s there, why he’s being whipped. He’s 40 years old. He comes from a society that is rather utopian, libertarian even.
Life was freedom. Freedom to do as one pleased. One must respect another’s freedom or lose his own. Freedom is indivisible. All are free or none.
Jason wonders who is whipping him because no one has the right to. He thinks,
Life is not pain. No one has the right to whip me. The whip is imaginary. The pain is imaginary.
The next scene starts with “Death sat in the corner of the room”.
We see Jason in this room. There is a cup, “the ritual cup”, in a niche. Its poison promises the “ultimate freedom.”
We see further evidence of a sort of libertarian paradise where privacy is respected when another man, Micah, has to ask permission to enter Jason’s room.
We find out about Jason’s life work. It seems, 20 years ago, Micah found a spaceship, a human spaceship in the desert. For all that time, the atomic fuel, called “fuel-metal” here, to power it has been sought. Micah isn’t even sure who built the ship, but Jason insists it was “men like us”. Jason, having seen the spaceship, says it was built for men like them. The builders may be gone. “Or perhaps they are here,” he says. He and Micah are men like those who built the ship.
Micah disputes that.
We learn that humans no longer live in “swarming cities”. Indeed, they never gather in groups “more than three or four”. Micah says Jason must explain why the builders of the spaceship left no trace in the memory of men nor any records. He must
“Explain why the past ends a few hundred years ago, and explain the ruins and why we never go there.”
Micah goes on to say the “civilized world” has been searched for atomic fuel. None has been found. But, points out Jason, the ruins of those cities have not been searched. They haven’t been searched, Micah points out, because it’s “psychologically impossible”. The men of their world can’t be forced to search the cities. That would be violating their freedom.
Jason asks if anybody has “gone north”? Micah replies their mutual acquaintance Theron has.
Then is a discussion of how many in this society have checked out. “Two persons of every ten” “drink death”. Two more out of ten go “into lifetime seclusion”. “One out of ten disappears. Completely.” They’ve “gone north”.
Some who go north may not have been flagellants, not followers of their Prophet.
Jason asks if Micah intends to order him north. “Of course not”, Micah replies. But Micah says Jason should think of his wife and his son.
The next scene establishes the pattern of the story as we go back to the timeline of the first scene.
Jason is being whipped. The man in front of him, also being whipped, reminds Jason of his son Dion.
We return to an earlier timeline with the next scene. It’s in Jason’s community, and it seems to hint at homosexuality. Dion is taking a bath with a young boy, Clare, standing by. When Jason enters the bathroom, he says “These are new amusements”.
Yes, Dion says, it is a new amusement.
“But then, what have we to do except amuse ourselves? Does it matter, as long as we interfere with no one else?”
Jason asks if that is his new philosophy. It’s not new at all, replies Dion. He makes reference to “Dear great-grandfather Samson, he tamed the sun for us.” Work is no longer necessary. Houses can be sprayed “in a few hours”. Power is plentiful. A few hours a week “tending the hydroponics” supplies the food. The rest of the time is available for amusement.
Jason says it is a “self-defeating” philosophy that can’t be sustained. Something new will come up, replies Dion. Jason rejoins that he only thinks that because he’s young. Jason (who, of course, also escaped the lotus-eaters) asks his son which he’ll choose: suicide, seclusion, or going north?
“What would you have me do, father? … Waste my life as you have wasted yours?”
Dion reminds Jason he has found nothing in 20 years. He hasn’t even been able to retain any assistants in the past five years.
Jason replies, “At least … I had twenty years with something I believed in. What do you believe in?”
“Pleasure”, replies Dion. Dion then shows his father a sculpture he created. It’s a rather erotic work showing Dion’s former wife, Avis, who went north to become a flagellant. The sculpture has her being whipped, a look of “ecstasy, almost sexual passion” on her face. Avis heard the Prophet predicting the end of the world. Jason asks Dion, who we learn is 18, why he let Avis go. Dion angrily says his father is intruding in his affairs.
Jason then asks “What is wrong with our race?” Dion says there’s nothing wrong. They have freedom and leisure, “What more can you ask?” Jason replies the race no longer has the “will to live … I wonder how the race has survived this long”.
Jason asks Dion to go north with him. Dion refuses.
In the next scene we continue with the account of Jason going north. He realizes he’s whipped a man to death. Why? What is he doing? He feels “disembodied”.
Walking, dazed, he finds himself in front of “a kind of partial shelter”. He tries the door and is told to “Go away!” The voice inside asks
“Why do you keep coming? Why do you keep bothering me? I don’t want anything to do with you.”
Jason doesn’t see the speaker, only a light. The voice from the shelter tells him he’s beat his partner to death and now wants “someone to take his place”. The speaker says she has no intention of being whipped or in doing the whipping.
A while later, Jason finds himself stumbling through the night and collapsing. Someone then turns him over, a woman. He calls out a name: “Jeri”.
The next scene again returns to the timeline of Jason preparing to go north. It is of a vine covered house, its “plastic seemed dimmed by age”. It is isolated and Jason remembers when the house was new, the lawn trimmed and perfect. He lived there with its current inhabitant. He remembers a conversation he had with that inhabitant, his former wife Jeri. She asked him if the people who lived in this country, before the ruins were created, ever lived in some place so perfect. She thinks they were like Jason and her and “they did something very bad and then they were punished.”
But their idyllic time together is ended when Jason leaves to pursue his work. They quarrel and Jeri asks how he can “be serious about going millions of miles away!”. Jason left the home and Dion did too, but Jeri stayed.
Jason finds the house now depressing. We learn that this scene is set just before Jason goes north. He asks to see Jeri, but the house tells him he will not be admitted. It seems that Jeri is one of those who locked herself away. She may even be dead.
The next scene returns to Jason trip north. Jason is being tend by a woman he first thinks is Jeri, but she is not. She feeds him and tends his wounds in a wooden home. Jason finds himself sexually attracted to her though she is very different in appearance to Jeri.
She asks Jason how he got involved with the flagellants. He’s obviously not one of them. She can tell by his wounds which are different than theirs. He hasn’t been whipped over a long time. Also, they don’t talk like did in his fever. They don’t groan either.
He asks her if she knows why men go north, why they are attracted to the whip. “Do you?”, she responds.
He then enigmatically says he knows the answer to one of those questions.
The scene then changes to the very beginning of his journey north when a helicopter took him much of the way. We hear about his two days of walking, his muscles stiff from the unusual exercise, wondering what he will do for food now that he no longer has access to the hydroponics.
At the end of the second day he hears a noise. It is a man whipping another figure. The figure turns out to be Avis. “Her back was scarlet, like Dion’s floor matting” which is a nice linking of cultural decadence to death, and Avis dies from her whipping.
After Jason covers her with leaves, he notices the man who whipped her is still standing there. Angrily, he tells him “Go away!” The man just stands there watching “as if he saw everything and understood nothing”. Jason grabs his whip and begins whipping the man. Then he realizes the man’s back is scarred from previous whipping.
“He wants to be whipped north.”, he realizes. The two begin walking north, Jason whipping the man.
The next scene is with the woman who rescued Jason. Her name is Diana. He has told her of his quest for the “fuel-metal”. She wants to know why it’s important. Jason tells her
“It might make a difference to the race. If it were a beginning instead of an end. … It would be something different to attempt, something to conquer.”
They dispute which one will sleep on the bed that night. Jason tries to kiss her. She rebuffs him, and he begs her forgiveness for treating sex with her like a casual need to be fulfilled like eating or drinking. He offers to leave. She angrily tells him that she knows his kind:
“Everything is a game to amuse you for a moment. Nothing is worth fighting for or living for. But you can find plenty of reasons for dying.”
Jason resents being told what to do. Diana tells him she will not let him leave. He needs food, warmth, to heal. He agrees.
She then tells him of her early life, how her mother died when she was young and the early memory of her father weeping afterwards. Then, a year ago, he joined the flagellants, and he was killed.
She tells him how her father told her to “never go south . . . The world is a painted corpse; underneath the paint has begun to decay.” It seems her father was from the south, the same world as Jason’s, and he left to build the wooden shelter himself. Her father told her a mate for her would come from the south freely and he will be worth having. Diana alleviates Jason’s concern he is too old for her.
The next scene’s setting is the same place but a dream of Jason’s. He is walking through a dying world, whip in hand. He is in a desert. He comes across a house. The house begins to bleed and crumble. He shouts “Jeri!”. He then walks on and comes across others in the desert. (The whole thing seems to be symbolic of all those he has known who are lost to civilization decadence).
They are walking in the wrong direction and insist they must be free to do so. He comes across Dion in a tub in the desert. When he tries to pull him out, Dion just says “Clare is waiting.”
Jason comes across a spire surrounded by people, bare to the waist. Their backs are only bones. Gray dust puffs from them when the lash of the whip descends. The figures see a “gray mist” on the horizon and head toward it, and Jason whips them to hurry towards it.
One of the figures turns back to Jason and repeats the words of Diana the night before about him not being too old for her. A fountain comes in view. But it is not a fountain spewing water but gray dust.
The scene changes back to Diana’s home. Diana asks Jason where he’s going. “North”, he replies. She tells him not to, that he’ll be killed. “Not if I’m one of them”, he replies.
Jason sees Diana half-naked. Her youthful breasts are “high and firm”, and she symbolizes a vitality uncorrupted by the civilization of the south. Diana says she will go with him, that Jason can’t stop her.
As they walk north, Jason has Diana whip him.
The next scene is all in italics and a dialogue between Micah and Diana. She asks why some secret is not divulged to Jason. Micah replies that Jason has to discover it himself. She replies that she supposes the speaker knows best. (The whole conversation must be telepathic since no radios, writing, smoke signals, or carrier pigeons are involved.) Micah responds that Diana doesn’t
“realize the strength of a system of beliefs. They must be broken gradually, one by one. He must come north because he wants to break free, because he wants something he does not know exists. I have done my part. Now you must do yours.”
Diana replies they’re going to a lot of trouble for one man. She is told Jason is important. “We need his knowledge.”
The scene changes. Diana and Jason have come to ruins in a valley, the ruins of men says Jason. Around the ruins are figures walking through he rubble. Jason tells Diana she doesn’t have to go to the ruins with him.
He also tells her that he doesn’t believe she took him in for the reasons she said. He thinks she never lived in that house. She says she did, long ago. She tells him he has to trust her. Why, he replies. She kisses him, implying that she loves him.
They go to the ruins together and come to a tunnel. They enter caverns packed with people. It is an “artificial cave” with a stone platform with a table on top of it. On the table is a “rusty metal sphere” and, on a wall, is the “figure of the Prophet”.
Jason realizes the sphere is made of the “fuel-metal” he seeks. He sees a figure put another sphere on the table. It is his old colleague Theron.
He pushes towards him, but he is rendered unconscious by a blow on the head.
The scene again changes with Jason coming to. He is bound and on a grassy slope outside of the caverns. He realizes it was Diana who hit him.
He then sees a “swirling ball of fire” in the dying light. It ascends into the sky, seemingly a nuclear explosion.
He realizes he knows the answer to things now. Why men go north and why they shun the ruins. The ruins are
where the past is buried. But it is not buried deep enough. It is buried in us, too, and we remember how we destroyed ourselves. The memory is a sickness that infests us all. Some of us come north to die, scourging ourselves, and the rest choose other deaths to home, quiet, dusty deaths. There should be a word for it … one word to wrap up the regret we feel for something we have done and the penance we inflict upon ourselves. One word the for the emotion, no less real for being subconscious, and the punishment, no less severe for being misunderstood. As I felt about Jeri. We destroyed the past, and now we have destroyed the future.
Then Diana shows up and releases him. And then Jason realizes the truth of something Diana told him: “All who go north do not have to be whipped.”
He then tells Diana that he realizes he spoiled her attempt to get the “fuel-metal”. No, she says, he saved them, “We didn’t know it would do that.” Then, seemingly suggesting that the explosion killed the people in the cavern, she says“If we hadn’t brought you out, we would have been there.”
Then Jason asks after the others.
Diana tells him that Theron and Micah have gone north. They are part of “Several hundred who decided that freedom is not as important as striving.”
Then we hear how man took a wrong turn, destroyed himself because he was afraid. The truth, Jason, does not lie south. It lies in striving to fuel the ship.
“Where was the truth? It was wherever men sought it, eternally unsatisfied.”
The story ends with Jason and Diana heading north. The last line is: “Somewhere they had lost the whip.”
The elements I found obscure? What is the truth that Jason must learn according to Micah? He seems, even before he journeys north, to know his civilization is stagnating. Is it the nature of the ruins? The hope that other ruins, normally shunned, hold “fuel-metal”?
Jason’s travails don’t seem to entirely be justified. And Gunn merely seems to imply that Micah and Diana telepathically communicate but nothing is made of telepathy’s existence, how it is facilitated or came to be.
Another, I think, justifiably rejected story from Gunn.