Science Fiction Studies

#72 = Volume 24, Part 2 = July 1997

David Seed

Deconstructing the Body Politic in Bernard Wolfe's Limbo

In 1952 there occurred in America the publication of one of the most unusual and original novels of the early postwar period. Bernard Wolfe's Limbo was the first novel of a Yale psychology graduate who had served for a time on Trotsky's staff in Mexico and then held a series of posts as editor or correspondent for a number of periodicals. Limbo has been routinely mentioned in histories of dystopias and more recently within the context of cybernetic fiction (Warrick 146-50; Gary K. Wolfe 211-24). True, a few lone voices have spoken up on behalf of Wolfe. J.G. Ballard for one has recorded his great respect for the author's "lucid intelligence," which so impressed him that he began to write fiction himself (Ballard 1984, 119).1 And Carolyn Geduld has written a volume on Wolfe for the Twayne US Authors series which does an outstanding job of explaining his interest in Freudian psychology (Geduld 1972). Of recent years there have been some signs of a rise of interest in Wolfe who is now being read as a precursor of cyberpunk, but to date there has been no sustained attempt to explain the political dimension to the novel with the ending of the Cold War it is easy to forget the period of unparalleled world crisis out of which the novel grew. The Korean War was at its peak; the nuclear arms race was accelerating; and the novel was published in the same year that the USA detonated its first H-bomb in Eniwetok Atoll.

Not surprisingly, Wolfe took the arms race and human aggression in general as his subject, but he chose an unusual and unfashionable method in his approach. The dustwrapper to the U.S. first edition promised the reader that Limbo was a "novel of action, suspense, adventure, science-fiction and sex." For once this description did not overstate the case since the novel constantly disconcerts the reader by moving from genre to genre. In fact it belongs within the mode of encyclopedic narratives identified by Edward Mendelson and exemplified in works such as Moby Dick and Ulysses. For Mendelson this genre is itself multigeneric and inclusive: "encyclopedic narrative identifies itself not by a single plot or structure, but by encompassing a broad range of qualities" (Mendelson 1270). Limbo does exactly this. It includes within itself among other genres the novel of espionage, journal, dystopia and narrative of scientific experiment. It covers an extraordinary range of texts from ribald jokes up to summaries of brainmapping and the origins of game theory. In his notes at the end of the novel Wolfe describes his work modestly as a "grab bag of ideas," but this totally understates the subtlety and complexity with which he has given these ideas novelistic expression. For sheer intellectual reach Limbo could be compared to William Gaddis's The Recognitions or Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and it is consistent with its syncretic method that Wolfe should draw on such cultural commentators as Arthur Koestler, Norbert Wiener, and probably Lewis Mumford.2 Limbo marshals its materials around a probing and bizarre analysis of Cold War aggression, and it constantly foregrounds the human body as the site of this enquiry.

1. Limbo is set in the year 1990 in the aftermath of the Third World War which broke out in 1972. The enormous devastation which that war brought has reduced the habitable land area of East and West. The USA has become the Inland Strip since all seaboards have been laid waste and a confederation loosely analogous to the Soviet Union, called the Eastern Union, has emerged. The novel's protagonist is one Dr Martine, a medical officer who fled during the war to an uncharted island in the Indian Ocean, where he has been performing experimental lobotomies on aggressive locals. When a group of Americans with prosthetic limbs visits the island, Martine decides to return to America, where he finds to his amazement that facetious remarks he made in a wartime journal have been taken seriously and developed, in the wake of the war, into an international movement ("Immob," i.e. Immobilization) dedicated to the eradication of human aggression by voluntary amputations ("vol-amp") and their replacement by prosthesis. The novel traces out Martine's gradual discovery of this movement and reaches its climax at the prosthetic Olympic Games when the Eastern Union team guns down the judges and war breaks out again, this time on a smaller containable scale. This war comes to an end with the death of the Western premier and overthrow of the Eastern Union regime by its citizens, and the novel concludes with Martine returning to his island.

Wolfe presents the Cold War implicitly as the particular historical inflection of a general human predisposition towards aggression. The novel follows a trajectory backwards as Martine returns to his home nation and to his birthplace. Investigation of his own personal past is constantly linked to his investigation into developments which have taken place in America since the Third World War. As we shall see, the individual psychological dimensions to the action can never be separated from the social and political.

Limbo, like Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano (1952), identifies its action as taking place in the years following World War III and both novels emphasize the central role of computers in planning and conducting the war. Vonnegut's EPICAC takes over these human functions as if it were itself human: "EPICAC I had been intelligent enough, dispassionate enough, retentive enough to convince men that he, rather than they, had better do the planning for the war that was approaching with stupefying certainty" (§11:105). Wolfe similarly foregrounds the computers of East and West which this time actually conduct the war, but he also contextualizes the war as a culmination of a historical process outlined in James Burnham's Managerial Revolution (1941), whereby smaller nations give way to massive bureaucratic power blocs whose sheer size outstrips the language of each culture. The latter degenerates as a result into a "constant gush of slogans and catchwords."3 The war occurs absurdly because their languages are deemed to be incompatible:

In 1970 Russia and America simultaneously came to a hallucinated decision: they, and not merely their vocabularies, were such diametric opposites that they could not exist side by side on the same planet. So the Third, the global EMSIAC war, broke out. And this was the most grotesque irony in human history, for the EMSIAC war proved only one thing: that the cybernetic-managerial revolution had been carried to its logical end and now Russia and America were absolutely and irrevocably alike. In fact, it was precisely in preparation for the global showdown of the EMSIAC war a war predicated on the assumption that the two had nothing in common that they had come to be mirror images of each other. For each was now the monster that Wiener had warned was coming: the totally bureaucratized war machine in which man was turned into a lackey by his own machines. And each was presided over by the super-bureaucrat of them all, the perfect electronic brain sired by the imperfect human brain. §11:135-36.4

Behind the polarities of Cold War discourse Wolfe locates a crowning irony: the homology between the two superstates. The World War therefore also occurs at a particular phase in the process of mechanization where the national computers (given identical names) displace the human brain and attempt to fulfill their own agendas of rationalized expansion. Limbo clearly joins those dystopias which show humanity to be the prisoner of its own technology. Where Vonnegut's computer survives into the postwar period and extends its "nervous system" into a series of ever larger models, in Wolfe's narrative the war comes to an end because each side bombs its respective computer. Both novelists were capitalizing on contemporary cultural commentary which diagnosed a mechanization of the present. Lewis Mumford, for instance, an ardent supporter of disarmament, described the Atomic Age as being "machine dominated" (Mumford 1946, 4) and in his plea for humanistic renewal, The Conduct of Life (1951), wishfully pushed this "domination of the machine" into the past: "Whereas the mark of the machine age was the dehumanization of man, the new age will give primacy to the person" (Mumford 1952, 223). Wolfe anticipates such later novels as Mordecai Roshwald's Level 7 (1959) where a nuclear war breaks out because of errors in the defence computers and D.F. Jones's Colossus (1966) where a supercomputer takes over American foreign policy and then links up with its Russian equivalent, totally excluding humans from the exercise of political power. The destruction of the two computers in Limbo appears to signal that humans have regained control over their own actions, but that turns out not to be the case as is proved by the Immob movement.

The latter can be seen as an elaboration of an idea Wolfe sketched out in preliminary narrative called "Self Portrait," published in Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1951. This work consists of a journal set in 1959, kept by a scientist named Parks, who secures a post at the Institute for Advanced Cybernetics Studies. His immediate project is to design efficient prosthetic legs for a Korean war casualty, which he finally manages by dividing up the laboratory work on a more efficient basis. Parks is an utterly humourless researcher and therefore in no way a prototype for Dr Martine. The only ironic or facetious voices in his journal belong to others and they make two suggestions which ridicule Cold War confrontations. The first is the proposal that each country's computer should calculate when hostilities could begin. On that day the following ceremony would take place:

In each capital the citizens gather around their strategy machine, the officials turn out in high hats and cut-aways, there are speeches, pageants, choral singing, mass dancing—the ritual can be worked out in advance. Then, at an agreed time, the crowds retreat to a safe distance and a committee of the top cyberneticists appears. They climb into planes, take off and—this is beautiful—drop all their atom bombs and H-bombs on the machines (Wolfe 1951, 72).

This would happen simultaneously in each capital. The event would be commemorated as International Mushroom Day, and after it the scientists would go back to their laboratories to devise new series of superweapons which would result in future Mushroom Days. This description partly echoes James Agee's satirical sketch "Dedication Day" (1946), which describes the unveiling in Washington of an arch of fused uranium to signal the importance of the discovery of atomic fission. What gives the event an ominous dimension is the smouldering beneath the monument of the Eternal Fuse, as if the whole ceremony was being performed over a bomb. Both this satire and the situation imagined in the quoted passage look forward to the Olympic Games Peace Day in Limbo held, ironically, at Los Alamos.

The second proposal in "Self Portrait" makes a facetious application of game theory to the Cold War, once again involving computers. Now casualties for each side would be calculated in advance and then volunteers would be called for to undergo amputations in return for compensation. That way the conduct of a war would be simulated without using any actual arms. The voluntary amputation programme in Limbo is essentially an elaboration on this basic idea, but one far richer in its self-contradictory symbolism. We could best think of it as a movement aimed at controlling aggression since "cybernetics" literally denotes the science of guidance or control. Both Player Piano and Limbo estrange the reader from the historical moment of their publication by shifting the notion of postwar one phase forward into the future. "Vol-amp" attempts to regain control of the impulse which produces war and is articulated as reason attempting to reimpose itself on human conduct. In his examination of the psychological impact on America of the atomic bomb, Paul Boyer suggests it induced fear of "death of a new kind, death without warning, death en masse." This fear was particularly unsettling, he continues, because it introduced the irrational into human destiny and also challenged American confidence in progress, producing the "sense that the meaning of one's existence— at least in social and historical terms—was being radically threatened" (Boyer 278). This impotence was expressed by Lewis Mumford as an atrophy of humanity into mechanical figures. For him humanity had become a "race of moral robots" (Mumford 1946, 27); and he insisted: "the main task of our time is to turn man himself, now a helpless mechanical puppet, into a wakeful and willing creator" (Mumford 1952, 5).

Wolfe conflates such analogies with the concept of prosthesis. He probably took the following passage from Civilization and Its Discontents as his starting point. Reflecting on how the gods embody an "ideal conception of omnipotence and omniscience," Freud concludes: "Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times." (Freud 28-29). The "queer-limbs" in Wolfe's novel act out this dream of power by performing astonishing gymnastic feats which seem to free the body from gravity. Prosthetics appear to liberate humanity from a limitation identified by a speaker at the Immob academy: "the tragedy of the human condition is precisely the entrapment by the vile engine of bone and muscle" (§14:165). Paradoxically the amputation movement presents itself as a flight from the "engine" of the body precisely by applying a mechanistic conception of the body as consisting of replaceable parts.

In 1930 Freud saw an approximate realisation of qualities which had traditionally been viewed up to that point as unattainable. By 1948 Norbert Wiener in his study Cybernetics (an acknowledged source for Wolfe), saw that the science of prosthetics was developing rapidly and immediately linked these changes to the dystopian tradition: "it makes the metaphorical dominance of the machines, as imagined by Samuel Butler, a most immediate and non-metaphorical problem. It gives the human race a new and most effective collection of mechanical slaves to perform its labor" (Wiener 1962, 27). At the beginning of the next decade Wiener's evident realisation that the military-industrial complex was appropriating such sciences sharpened his anxieties about the immediate political future of the USA which he saw as sinking into a sinister machine age dominated by a "threatening new Fascism dependent on the machine à gouverner" (Wiener 1950, 214).

Wiener's stance as the spokesman for an embattled humanism sits rather uneasily with his application of servomechanisms, and Paul Galison has argued that "Wiener's efforts were devoted to effacing the distinction between human and machine" (Galison 245-6). For him Wiener totalized the feedback mechanism into a whole principle of human behaviour. Purporting to protest against the machine, he actually covertly assimilates the machine into his view of humanity. One of Wiener's two published short stories, "The Brain" (1952), coincides uncannily with the date and central subject of Limbo in discussing a contemporary fad for curing depressive insanity. The narrator unconsciously testifies to Wiener's internalization of technological brain models when he reflects: "No, I shouldn't like to have anyone tamper with my inner wiring diagrams" (Wiener 1962, 299). Although Limbo confines its examples of prosthetics to arms and legs there is no intrinsic reason why these substitutions should not extend to other parts of the body, even to the brain itself. Raymond F. Jones's novel The Cybernetic Brains (published in magazine form 1950 and book-form in 1962) borrows some of Wiener's ideas and describes a future regime where the Cybernetics Institute has a worldwide remit to use the brains of those who are dead in body. One such brain regains consciousness and forms a telepathic link with the others to reveal the extent of their exploitation by the Institute. Jones constructs a parable of power reflecting his own hostility to the welfare state, where the promise of cybernetics is betrayed into a kind of centralized nannyism within which citizens are infantalized into a dependence on the state.5

Wolfe's incorporation of cybernetics into Limbo, then, was clearly picking up on contemporary anxieties over the apparently unbridled growth of technologies which risked displacing human figures from fields of action and even from the decision-making process. One of the figures he refers to positively as introducing a new way of thinking about this issue was Alfred Korzybski, the founder of the General Semantics movement. And in turn Wolfe cites A.E. van Vogt's novel The World of Ā (1948) as a pioneering attempt to give narrative form to Korzybski's ideas. There are indeed some similarities between this novel and Limbo. Van Vogt's protagonist Gilbert Gosseyn (i.e. `go-sane') experiences a series of crises of identity, figured as deaths, and so emerges in phases as Gosseyn I, II, III, and so on. He finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy by the galactic empire to take over the Earth. And the action of the novel is presided over by a massive column-like Games Machine, a self-renewing electro-magnetic brain which is responsible for allocating jobs. The action therefore focuses as a struggle against this symbol of power which is destroyed towards the end of the novel. Even prosthetics make their appearance in the person of "X," referred to as if under erasure: "He had been in an accident. He was a patched monstrosity. He had a plastic arm and a plastic leg, and his back was in a plastic cage. His head looked as if it were made of opaque glass; it was earless...his resemblance to anything normal depended partly upon the mental concessions of the observer" (Van Vogt §4:35). "X" is the most overt war-monger of the novel, boasting: "We're geared for action on a scale not seen since the third world war" (Van Vogt §14:108). Wolfe's density of historical reference is completely missing in van Vogt's novel, which constantly presents external events as part of the protagonist's monodrama, but the association between prosthetic limbs and weaponry is nevertheless made clear.6

The Immob movement in Wolfe's novel can be seen as an absurdist extrapolation of fears of uncontrolled technological development and perceptions of a dissociation of the populace from political processes. The scheme itself is subjected to ironic scrutiny by Martine, its unwitting inventor, who serves to reveal its resemblances with earlier movements as well as its paradoxical nature. The latter becomes more and more obvious as the novel progresses since artificial limbs prove to be more efficient "arms" than their originals and the movement professes a question contradicted by its own moral fervour. When Martine hears a public speaker whipping up enthusiasm for amputations he sounds like a cross between a salesman and a politician. The meeting which follows contains two analogies, one American and the other Russian: it seems to be a gathering of a religious cult on the one hand, and also the recruits "were about to sign their own Moscow confessions and death warrants" (§14: 182). The conflation of resemblances from both cultural poles of the Cold War takes an added twist from the fact that a kind of conscription is taking place. Most absurd of all is that society's self-mystifying abuse of language. The public speaker impatiently brushes aside verbal difference as hair-splitting: "Pros are such good Immobs that we refuse to make a fetish of any word at all" (§13:154). Words, we saw, were largely responsible for World War III in Wolfe's future history because cultural discourse had lagged behind technological and political change. Now once again words become separated from actuality, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the campaign slogans which vary from unrecognised puns ("WAR IS ON ITS LAST LEGS") to miniature revisionist texts like "ARMS OR THE MAN" (§10:115). The new conjunction attempts to separate humanity from its own extensions by altering the phrase from the opening of the Aeneid ("Arms and the man I sing") which was further popularized by Bernard Shaw's 1894 anti-militaristic play about the Balkan Wars. Needless to say, the possibility of epic combat is totally excluded from this narrative.

The novel situates itself within the dystopian tradition by combining allusions to Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell. Wolfe reverses the usual utopian pattern by having a member of the old world return to it as stranger from a remote and uncharted island in the Indian Ocean. Martine, for Carolyn Geduld primarily a "talkative spectator," returns to his world as a stranger to find an apparent new world order (Geduld, 45). Immob society has established itself on a basis of universal pacifism, but Wolfe exploits the traditional dystopian ironies of the result not matching the intent and of the new system bearing many similarities to the old regime supposedly superseded. The Inland Strip contains a society with a very marked hierarchy, where prosthetic limbs are the most conspicuous signs of status. It is riddled with party oppositions and has merely internalized the language of political supremacy into attempts to "master" or "control" the body through rigorous exercises. The outward and visible sign of the new order is a Wellsian city named New Jamestown after William James, author of the 1910 essay "The Moral Equivalent of War," in which he proposes diverting military energies on to Nature.7 New Jamestown is a concentric symmetrical paradise of cybernetic order (it is a machine à vivre) which Wolfe, through Martine's eyes, represents in bodily terms: "it was all too hygienic and prissy, a bit too meticulously scrubbed behind the ears, too well-groomed, too goddamned aseptic" (§8:91). If this city represents the apotheosis of a Puritanical resistance to disorder, the enormous industrial complex beneath the capital Los Alamos represents the triumph of the Taylorian industrial system. Wolfe, like Vonnegut in Player Piano and Frederik Pohl in his stories of the 1950s, depicts a factory system whose sheer scale dwarfs human figures—"whole cities run together and put under the surveillance of the machina ratiocinatrix" (§22:334). The complex is implicitly linked to military production and—again ironically—preserves a caste system in its reduced workforce which consists mainly of negroes. There is a certain poetic justice—albeit rather too easily achieved—in the disappearance of this city towards the end of the novel in a cataclysm. Nature, it seems, gets its own revenge.

The main implication of these ironies and of the novel's black humour is that humanity is denying its own nature in such schemes as the Immob movement. This was recognized early by one of Wolfe's few commentators. Chad Walsh declares that Limbo demonstrates the following moral: "Man is not dangerous because he has teeth that can bite and hands that can hold a rifle or press a guided-missile button. He is dangerous because of his mind and spirit" (Walsh 150). Carolyn Geduld puts more or less the same point more specifically: "modern man is vetoing ambivalence in favor of consistency. In trying to force a two-sided world into a one-sided pigeonhole, he is being more than just damaging; he is being suicidal, for the ultimate consistency, in theory, is the frozenness of death" (Geduld 47-48). This ultimate end-point is hinted at in the self-contradiction of Immob, i.e. immobilization, being a movement, and in the introjection of aggression as a violent impulse against the human body. It might seem that the Freudian polarities of eros and thanatos merely essentialize the stark oppositions of Cold War politics, but Wolfe steadily undermines this possibility by revealing a similarity, even homology between East and West. Once again Norbert Wiener offered him a way forward in The Human Use of Human Beings when he disposed of the Russian bug-bear (pun intended since written into the novel: "Russian bear never reigns but it paws": §17:247): "To a large extent, this enemy is not Russia, but the reflection of ourselves in a mirage. To defend ourselves against the phantom, we must look to new scientific measures, each more terrible than the last. There is no end to this vast apocalyptic spiral" (Wiener 1950, 141).

In order to move out of this vicious circle Wolfe tracks Cold War rhetoric and social behaviour to their roots in the collective psyche and finds symptoms of the deathwish in the "lure of the One" which is phrased with careful political symmetry: "the communist yearning for the oblivion of the proletarian herd or the American yearning for the oblivion of the Jonesian herd" (§24: 389). As if wanting to distance himself from such balances and the finely tuned ironies of the novel, Wolfe in his endnotes stresses that such a sarcastic examination of political power would never have been permitted in the Eastern bloc. And in his notes to his novel about the Trotsky assassination, The Great Prince Died, Wolfe launched a whole attack on modish leftism: "Left-bound intellectuals have arrived at such a nicety of discrimination that they...will defend the masses only against blows from the right; all blows from the left, however vicious, they will take and dress up as caresses" (Wolfe 1959, 395). Although this was written some years after Limbo, Wolfe stays consistent with his earlier novel in making the body the site of political experience.

2. The trope of the body politic has traditionally expressed a legal fiction defined in the OED as "the nation in its corporate character" ("body" 14.c). The metaphor expresses a whole and entails a power structure implied in routine expressions like "head of state," and Nietzsche's appropriation of the figure in The Will to Power ("the body as an empire") only makes explicit the connotations of power in its application (Nietzsche 134). Limbo opens with a sequence which explores this metaphor by depicting the surgeon-protagonist Dr Martine as a modifier of bodies and as paternalistic ruler over his domain. Like Wells's Dr Moreau, Martine has found refuge for himself on an uncharted island where he can pursue morally ambiguous experiments. Where Moreau produces his Beast People, Martine solves the "behaviour disorders" of the islanders by giving them lobotomies. Both his surgical operations and his sexual acts with his native lover Ooda are encoded politically; when he caresses the latter he is putting forward "propaganda" to persuade her into submission. Martine has sought refuge in flight just as travelling into space opens up the welcome possibility of escape from McCarthyist paranoia in James Blish's They Shall Have Stars (1956—the opening volume of the Cities in Flight sequence). In practice, however, he uses the island as a social laboratory to cure "deviants" from prescribed social norms. In other words, although Martine himself views his island as an innocent refuge from corrupting Western society, he is implicated at every point in a power structure deriving from the very society he has ostensibly left behind.8

Nowhere is this political involvement more clear than in the symbolism of mapping which runs through the first sections of Limbo. The novel establishes a series of analogies—jungle like individual consciousness, brain like terrain, body as territorial expanse, and so on—where exploration becomes an act of appropriation and therefore once again an exercise of power. Ooda's body, for instance, falls "under the reconnaissance of his [Martine's] hands" (emphasis added), and a clear distinction emerges between Martine's self-image and the perspective of the novel as a whole. Martine sees himself as a neurological pioneer, a second Brodmann who could pursue the science of cytoarchitecture or brain mapping so far that he finally uncovers the physiological bases of human behaviour. As a quester for knowledge Martine engages in symbolic acts of penetration—of the island jungle, of his patients' cranium. He oscillates between a conviction that he can break through to some discovery and moments of a heightened consciousness of surfaces when, for instance, skin is perceived to be as impenetrable as steel. In this context mapping involves at once the unfolding of knowledge and a bringing under control. Like most processes in the novel, this one is made the subject of explicit commentary by a lecturer at the Immob academy who quotes with approval Alfred Korzybski's warning that "the map is not the territory," i.e. that the representation should not be confused with the thing itself. Korzybski's actual words warn against language in general: "A language is like a map; it is not the territory represented, but it may be a good map or a bad map" (Korzybski 498).

While Martine prides himself on his linguistic expertise, this self-awareness does not exempt him from the power structures of the novel, as we have seen. Professing to mock the self-mystifying rituals of the new America under the Immob movement, he has installed himself as a priestlike medicine man among the Mandunji. This race was modelled on the Zuni tribe as described by Ruth Benedict. She identified their culture as an Apollonian one based on a sense of measure. This character type, she explains, "keeps the middle of the road, stays within the known map" (Benedict 56). This statement bears with direct irony on Limbo, since Martine has literally flown off the map to get to the island and, as we shall see, a number of puns in the novel's text suggest that measure itself (i.e. proportion or moderation) has fallen victim to Martine's activities.

It is one of the main ironies of the novel that Martine the lobotomist should be so horrified by a widespread programme of amputation since, as Gary K. Wolfe has pointed out, there are repeated parallels between the two operations throughout Limbo (Gary K. Wolfe 219). Another of Wolfe's source texts reinforces this linkage and makes it more than an ironic analogy. Wolfe quotes from and acknowledges a 1950 collection of essays entitled Perspectives in Neuropsychiatry, specifically from an essay by Mary A.B. Brazier where she discusses the appropriation of feedback mechanisms into neurology from cybernetics. Not surprisingly the most prominent theorist she discusses is Norbert Wiener, and a series of analogies emerges between human beings and servomechanisms, brains and computers, and other pairs (Brazier 35-45). Brazier and her colleagues examine ways in which cybernetics can shed light on the relation between mind and body ("psychosomatic" is a key term in their volume), just as Wolfe develops an elaborate symbolism around the hyphen as a linking device. Wolfe therefore is writing out of a historical moment where the concepts of cybernetics were extending outwards into such fields as neurology, in effect a gradual expansion of mechanistic discourse.9

Analogies in Limbo can be read, then, as a series of intersections between different intellectual and experiential fields. Prosthetic limbs depends on the mineral columbium just as atomic arms depended on the availability of uranium, and when the "queer-limbs" visiting Martine's island use naturalistic research and gymnastics as a screen for prospecting for this mineral, Wolfe is at once placing his novel within the history of economic colonialism and also implicitly drawing the reader's attention to Cold War urgencies. Lobotomy and prosthetics both involve an amputation, which was a trope used by Arthur Koestler to describe the mass deportations taking place in Eastern Europe. For him these represented amputations "from the national body" since "a nation thus deprived of her backbone and nervous centres becomes a kind of amorphous jelly, reduced to the degree of malleability necessary to adapt herself to the conditions of Soviet Dictatorship" (Koestler 1945, 208).10 Such politicized analogies bring out the problematic implications of control in cybernetics whose very title derives from the Greek term for "governor."

3. Bernard Wolfe by his own account served on Trotsky's staff in Mexico and, although this has never been corroborated, appears to have had a background of Leftist activism.11 Limbo, however, severely limits or complicates the very possibility of meaningful political action. The novel foregrounds the image of the steamroller which represents the unchosen element of experience, especially in a war. A character in "Self-Portrait" explains: "Steamrollers are very undemocratic.... Never consult people on how they like to be flattened before flattening them" (Wolfe 1951, 77). The steamroller therefore represents any process so large that its momentum is irresistible by the individual, like a mass movement, for instance. Secondly, Wolfe's use of the Freudian concept of deathwish renders human motivation problematic at its very source. Limbo in that respect situates itself close to that body of postwar thought which held that the Cold War could best be understood by internal self-scrutiny. Psychological analysis was used during World War II and in the years that followed as a means of explaining political action.12 Lewis Mumford, for example, warned Americans: "we are no longer confronted by external examiners: the most dangerous enemy we face lies within us," and he located this danger in the infantile origins of a fantasy of omnipotence (Mumford 1946, 28).13

When Martine travels back to a diminished post-holocaust America his action can be read as a deliberate process of self-examination. The narrative is punctuated by a whole series of recognitions, pivotal moments of recall or realization stretching back into earliest childhood. But this action can never be read as purely personal, since Martine is a child of the atomic age, his birth coinciding with the first A-bomb blast at Alamagordo. Similarly he arrives at the Inland Strip on Independence Day, and the climactic games occur on Peace Day. Martine repeatedly finds himself participating in public events and—even more unnervingly—finds that he has been transformed into the messianic founder of the Immob movement. He has become institutionalized and explicitly identified with the future destiny of his country. His notebook has become scripture; his birthplace is a national shrine; and his own metaphor of the steamroller has turned into a national icon. These details clearly imply that Martine's investigation of himself involves at the same time a process of enquiry into his own culture.

In order to escape from the holocaust of World War III, the ultimate robotized war, Martine has to cut the umbilical cables linking his roboplane with the central computer. This gesture of disengagement goes into reverse during his return to America, where an 18 years-absence estranges Martine from almost every aspect of his culture. This prospective device is used from his very first sight of a ruined and surreal Florida where escaped zoo animals stalk the ruins. Lectures on cybernetics and philosophy in the university of New Jamestown introduce Martine to the conceptual framework underpinning the Immob movement, while a device named the "Hallucinator" gives an implicit warning that perceptual gestalts might depend more on desires and expectations than on facts. The American landscape offers Martine apparently endless instances of parable and symbolism; even the shape of the Inland Strip is construed as a torso with truncated limbs. Part Four of the novel ("Dodging the Steamroller") is one of the densest in its intellectual references contextualizing Martine's sense of Western culture within post-Nietzschean theory and diagnosing World War III as a tragic result of the myth of the self as victim. Warfare, in anticipation of Dr Strangelove, is identified as a substitute for sex, while the succeeding section moves into the mode of espionage to dramatize sexuality as a means of warfare. It is appropriate that Martine should drive to his birthplace in Salt Lake City at this point in order to try to locate the primal scene of his own supposed victimization by his mother. He dreams of the "one key that would open all doors" (§19M:295) but simultaneously questions that desire as virtual paranoia and a new and even more dangerous delusion of totalizing explanation.

Movement in time is represented in Limbo as a lateral traversing of the novel's landscape. Wolfe also uses the traditional vertical hierarchy of mental levels by having Martine descend into his subconscious figured as a lake. This same hierarchy is used to depict the suppressions within the brave new world of Immob. The utopian clinical order of New Jamestown noted earlier is built over a massive underground substructure where the workers labour. Norman O. Brown has argued that "a city reflects the new masculine aggressive psychology of revolt against the female principles of dependence and nature" (Brown 281-2), and certainly Martine encodes his own personal memories as struggle with a feminized Nature.14 In cultural terms the new city conceals and so suppresses the very labour which underpins it, and the fighting which takes place at the end of the novel performs the function of countering this suppression, and quite literally bringing labour to the surface before the wondering gaze of Martine.

Once he has left the temporary security of Mandunji Island, Martine oscillates between perceptions of himself as subject and object. The properties of his self—name, notebook, home, etc.—are all taken from him for public use and so, prior to his self-revelation, Martine uses the appropriate pseudonym of Lazarus, since he is indeed back from the dead. The espionage episode already discussed neatly captures the polarity of activity/passivity by showing Martine having sex with an Eastern agent, then inducing paralysis in himself, and finally making an escape. As the carrier of information he is temporarily reified into a valuable commodity. The climactic penultimate section of the novel ("Games") amasses a series of revelations where surfaces are stripped away to reveal their opposites. Martine sees the vast robotized city underground and discovers an anti-Immob movement (another "underground"). He then recognizes his identity with the idealistic Theo and the sceptical Helder (the duo of opposites who control the strip) and he kills his own son as the hated embodiment of his own masochism. Martine's single act coincides with the larger event of an attempted invasion by the Eastern Union. Once again his individual actions are synchronized with developments in the political arena as if one were mirroring the other.

4. One hall-mark of Martine's style is a compulsion to joke, to turn every perception into a pun or wisecrack, and one measure of Wolfe's originality is the way he uses humour as a means of political enquiry. The title of Limbo is at once a pun on prosthetics ("limb-0") and an allusion to that region in Christian mythology near to Hell described in Paradise Lost as the "Paradise of Fools." Traditionally the term denotes a state of neglect or transition between phases. As one figure points out in the novel, the current technological situation has put human desire one further remove from the real so that they engage in meta-gestures: "Now, in the cybernetic limbo, men grasp for the instruments of grasp" (§14:164). We shall come back to the implications of such statements. Suffice it for the moment to recognize that the title anticipates the novel as a whole in playing on different areas of meaning and that the perception of semantic difference occurs through low puns.

Freud clearly supplied Wolfe with the rationale for such word-play. In Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious he identified three main techniques which resemble those operative in the dream-work: condensation, the multiple use of the same material (i.e. recurrence), and double meaning. The last of these items was elaborated by Arthur Koestler into a whole theory of jokes which, he argued, depended on "bisociation," in other words a recognition of doubleness. He defines a joke therefore as the "intersection of two independent and self-contained logical chains" (Koestler 1959, 25; his emphasis). It depends on suddenness and on the listener's capacity to respond to semantic alternatives. Different mental systems—what Koestler calls "operative fields"— therefore meet at the moment of a joke which Koestler describes metaphorically as a "junction." Most of his examples and discussion revolve around double meaning ("a mental concept is simultaneously perceived under two different angles": Koestler 1959, 36) but there is no intrinsic reason within his theory why a joke should not include a perception of three or even more dimensions of meaning.

Wolfe assimilated this post-Freudian interpretation of humour so thoroughly that Limbo contains no single stable frame of semantic reference. Propositions are always relative and provisional, subject to constant modification; and this instability frequently clarifies the novel's political themes. We can see this technique at work in one of the earliest episodes of the novel, where Martine is performing a lobotomy on an African woman. Here as everywhere else in the novel Wolfe is picking up on a subject that had become a matter of controversy by the early fifties. Although lobotomies were more and more widely carried out, there was considerable opposition to an operation which, many felt, "converts patients into docile, inert, often useless drones" (Wallace 24). The controversy revolved around the problem of medical risk and the broader issue of whether a supposedly therapeutic operation was actually being used for administrative convenience or even social coercion.15 This controversy manifests itself as a series of disruptions to Martine's consciousness by apparent nonsense. But this "nonsense" turns out to be charged with a meaning he has been suppressing because it is so unwelcome. The title phrase from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure flits through his mind, glancing at a work which depicts the masked operation of authority (Martine too is literally masked for the operation) and then initiating a series which deforms the line from the negro spiritual "massa's in the cold, cold ground":

(i) Measure's in the cold, cold ground (§2:15)

(ii) Massa in the cold, cold groan (§2:15)

(iii) Masseur in the cold, cold groin (§2:16)

(iv) Messiah's in the cold, cold ground (§24:388)

The original line relates the embodiment of racist authority to death. The first variation suppresses the power-term, suggesting instead the demise of proportion. The second substitutes a sign of pain or grief for death, suggesting this time the suffering which Martine is supposedly trying to cure. The third revision changes both key terms when Martine realizes that the operation has destroyed the woman's sex drive, metaphorically rendering her body as a place of death. In other words, the distortions of the original line make manifest Martine's latent doubts about the operation and render it as an exercise of colonialist violence against the member of a subjugated race. This is confirmed by Wolfe's reference to the islanders' ancestors as "X-men" and "X-women," former humans under erasure. The final occurrence of this line in the novel comes at a point where Martine has finally confronted (and subdued?) a megalomaniac impulse in himself.

The verbal substitutions just discussed represent the emergence of suppressed opposite views of the lobotomy and of Martine's dealings with the African islanders. As such, they exemplify a principle on which the discourse of Limbo is based, namely that of ambivalence. Wolfe even makes it a principle of Nature: "every cell contained a seething mixture of Eros and Thanatos; ambivalence was its glue..." (§18:257). A tension between opposing impulses is historicized by summaries of Nietzsche and Freud, and then written into the text again and again as a series of dualities. For instance, Mandunji Island contains two narcotic weeds, the one inducing tranquillity and the other stimulation. The Immob leaders Theo and Helder represent opposite political polarities of idealism and realism. And so the list could go on. Every instance in the novel presumes its opposite which will appear sooner or later. That is why Wolfe includes reversible paired terms like Dog-God; and why palindromic names like Ubu appear. Vonnegut uses the same device in his title Player Piano, which reverses a phrase away from human activity (piano player) to the purely mechanical. But Wolfe extends this device into the whole rhetoric of Limbo so that every proposition implies an opposite counter-proposition.

The novel demands a reader who is constantly on the alert to varieties of verbal connotation and register. Since Martin returns to America after a long absence, he is so estranged from the new culture he encounters that, like the reader, he scrutinizes recurring terms and slogans for their meanings. This process of decoding involves a recognition of the transferability of language from one domain of experience to another: we are told at one point that "the rhetoric of love is remarkably like the rhetoric of war" (§14:168). The same proposition is implied in Martine's lobotomy operation, which is described as "firing" "bullets" of strychnine into the brain. Words themselves therefore become unstable signs. When Martine visits the Immob academy in America, a lecturer warns against confusing words with referents. The solution, he declares, is "to understand that the word is not the object, eloquence is not photography, sound does not equate with substance" (§11:132). When the novel shifts temporarily into the genre of spy fiction, that shift only makes explicit a general tendency within the language of the novel. A Communist agent in Wolfe's 1957 espionage thriller In Deep philosophizes this dimension to language arguing that "communities are based on the common acceptance of words and their meanings: they're cemented by language." Spying on the other hand induces "moments of eerie doubt as to whether the cover words mean anything" (Wolfe 1958, 254-5).

In Limbo political positions correspond to different linguistic usages as much as action. The utopian hope expressed by Theo is that political discourse has moved into a post-Cold War language of fraternity, but that hope is dashed by Vishinu's opposition. Wolfe borrows Koestler's symbolic polarity of political change, the yogi and the commissar, and embodies these extremes in two speakers. A quadro-amp articulates the desire for a whole ("world no more in fragments") through a series of identifications between opposites ("Eros is Agape"), but his utterances flatten out into a Beckett-like flow of single words which totally undermine his oracular intentions towards Martine. At the opposite extreme stands Vishinu's familiar Stalinist rhetoric of triumphalism dressed up as liberation: "we represent the fresh new spirit of the East which is blowing up now a real cyber-cyto hurricane to sweep the world clean of the foul imperialist odors of the old Western masters... Your imperialist crimes can no longer go unpunished. You are traitors, saboteurs, terrorists, schemers, and you will be dealt with as such... We have knocked you off your smug thrones cybernetically" (§20:308-09). Vishinu claims the moral high ground to authorize and naturalize his actions as a necessary cleaning of the corrupt West. He exploits a few transparent tricks of rhetoric like the repetition of cue words ("imperialist") or the use of simple oppositions like old/new. Ironically it is Vishinu who accuses the West of indulging in the "old crap" of imperialism, but his very language demonstrates Wolfe's sceptical awareness of how persistent words are. Korzybski is cited earlier in the novel to express this conviction that humanity is surrounded by a "smoke screen" of "signs and symbols" which obscure rather than reveal actuality.

This notion of verbal disguise is embodied particularly in Martine who, in an analogy with the phases of cybernetic mechanisms, separates himself into a series of selves in his notebook (Mark I, II, etc.) and who negotiates his way through the novel by adopting different aliases like Lazarus (back from the dead), Brigham Rimbaud, and so on. Martine's notebook represents the core of the novel's text. Not only does it give us brief glimpses of World War III; it also contains Martine's reflections on his own expressions. In other words, the notebook sections are the most self-conscious section of the novel. Each entry will be followed by Martine's retrospective examinations of his own words, the implicit desire for a readership in posterity, and his own half-conscious motives. The order of notebook entries is also crucially important. So we have an excerpt from Mark II describing Martine's return to America; his discovery at the end of Part 4 of his original wartime notebook (Mark I) published in book form; a retrospective assessment of himself and the Immob movement (Mark II again); and finally a brief conclusion. In Mark I Martine is confronted with his own private journal made public as an Immob text and "canonized" by explanatory footnotes from the Immob leader Helder. Martine devotes part of the text to an imaginary dialogue between himself and Babyface (cf. "Babyface" Nelson), a war casualty later to be renamed Theo. At the end of this dialogue Martine facetiously proposes a way in which people can overcome their fear of helplessness before the larger processes of war (the "steamroller") by volunteering to be amputated. The programme could function as a recruitment campaign, but directed now towards pacifism:

It would have to be suggested that the volunteers wouldn't be hurting themselves but actually doing themselves and the world some good. You could easily do that with a few well-chosen slogans, such as—oh, I don't know, slogans to the effect that there's no demobilization without immobilization, pacifism means passivity, arms or the man: anything that makes a wound into some kind of boon. And then, of course, as you've suggested, you could offer special inducements to the recruits: cash awards, bonuses, pensions, hero status, medals and decorations, membership in exclusive clubs, leisure, women, all in proportion to the degree of amputation or other forms of crippling. How many men were actually clipped in World War II—25,000, 30,000 on our side alone? How many in World War III—many hundreds of thousands around the world? Hell, you could round up millions of volunteers if you just put a heavy enough stamp of social approval on it and offered enough juicy come-ons. You'd get precisely the same results that you get from war now, except that everybody would be happy and feel himself the dignified master of his own fate. And, secretly, revel in the enormous amount of pain he'd arranged for. (§14M:204)

To Martine's horror, he finds that a joke has become reality. His ironic suggestion has become institutionalized in an international movement and he himself has been mythologized as its founder. In short, Immob has been established on the basis of a misreading of his text.

Wolfe peppers his text with references to Gide, Joyce, and Mann among others, and reproduces squiggles from Tristram Shandy, all with the purpose of inducing a self-consciousness into the reader's processing of the novel. This self-consciousness reaches its peak in Martine's notebooks, which are modelled on Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. The thematic link between the two works would lie in Dostoevsky's narrator's thinly disguised masochism rationalized as a diagnosis of the perversity in so-called civilized man. Underground is a symbolic "hell of unsatisfied desires turned inward" just as Martine engages in an oddly evasive process of self-diagnosis (Dostoevksy 57-8). But the style of the two narrators is even more important in its similarity. Martine constantly writes a second self into his notebook, a critical or antagonistic reader who will ridicule his statements, just as Dostoesky's narrator engages in an extended dialogue between self and other. Both narrators claim to be writing for themselves but both inscribe external authorities into their texts, and Mikhail Bakhtin has argued that Underground Man's relation to that authority is ambivalent in the extreme: "extraordinary dependence upon it and at the same time extreme hostility toward it and nonacceptance of its judgements" (Bakhtin 230). Less starkly Martine repeatedly presents his self-consciousness to himself as a means of avoiding slipping into a messianic role, but at the same time writes his notebooks for posterity as the other. In other words, he unconsciously falls victim to the duplicity woven into the novel's humour.

The centrality of jokes in a novel dealing with such a sobering subject as warfare has been more than some critics could stomach. In his review of Limbo Philip Wylie praised the satirical ideas and the solution but objected that Wolfe "takes non-classical liberties with scientifiction, so that his story as a story is almost childishly implausible" (Wylie 11). Paul Bryans argues that Limbo "represents the farthest extreme of antipacifist muscular disarmament fiction" and he rejects an ironic reading (Bryans 71). David N. Samuelson has been one of the very few critics to date to admit the power of the novel's black humour and argues that "this central absurdity [the voluntary amputation programme] functions straightforwardly as an estranging device" (Samuelson 79). In fact its functioning is quite complex since the whole emphasis on amputation actualizes a metaphor embedded in such routine expressions as "disarmament" and "lay down arms." The punning is as obvious as representing Immob fanatics as refusing prosthesis and therefore needing to lie in baskets; i.e. they become "basket cases." Such jokes drain off the solemnity of the pacifist movement and render it absurd. However, Wolfe's central complex of metaphors skilfully combines political and psychological analysis.

The human body functions throughout Limbo as a holistic image which the very title of the novel tugs against by suggesting synecdoche. So the central pun on "arms" bears directly on the historical moment when Wolfe was writing. The phrase "arms race" was first used in the 1930s to describe the competition between military powers. In the postwar period the phrase took on an extra urgency when it was applied to weapons of mass destruction and was accelerating in the early 1950s. The cause of disarmament is described by Wolfe as growing from error (misunderstanding Martine's journal), confusing means with origin (limbs with aggression), and pursuing self-contradiction in designing prosthetic limbs even more powerful than the original. Scott Bukatman finds in Limbo an anticipation of postmodern science fiction which treats the body as the site of exploration and transformation, which helps to explain Martine's spatialisation of his African lover's body as a colonialised terrain (Bukatman 293). The body as trope, however, goes through many more permutations. The diminished American landscape is figured as a torso with two truncated arms. And the whole concept of the body politic lies behind Wolfe's depiction of the functioning of post-World War III society. Once again Norbert Wiener underpins the analogy when he draws comparisons in Cybernetics: "It is certainly true that the social system is an organization like the individual, that it is bound together by a system of communication, and that it has a dynamics in which circular processes of a feedback nature play as important part" (Wiener 1961, 24). The relation of body to society then can be read at various points as synecdoche, metaphor or systems analogy.

The political climax of Limbo demonstrates the internal coherence of Wolfe's application of the body trope. The prelude to the Olympic Games, which in the postwar period had become a matter of political controversy over where they might be held and which nations might participate, is an accusation made over the television by Vishinu, the Eastern Union delegation leader, that an ostensibly innocent visit by "Strippers" (members of the Inland Strip, i.e. America) to Mandunji Island was in fact to prospect for colombium, the rare metal needed for the manufacture of prosthetic limbs. As we have seen, this is a valid charge. Vishinu tries to corroborate this charge by catching Martine in a "honey trap," a sexually compromising situation with a nubile Eastern agent. During the games themselves the Unionists win all the events and there follows a ceremony where the Strip leader Helder praises the non-military value of the games only to have his words thrown back in his face by Vishinu, who declares an intention to knock his opponents off their "imperialist thrones" giving a signal to his team who then gun down the Western judges.

A clear set of analogies emerge here. In order to construct "arms," the superpowers need a rare metal: for columbium read uranium, one source of which was the Congo. The games combine an attempted transposition of military rivalry on to peaceful competition à la William James, but the ceremonies can also be read as a parodic version of the United Nations where Vishinsky (cf. Vishinu) made a name for his constant denunciations of Western imperialism. The games represent a literal arms race whose competitiveness is evaded by the naive Theo. The games themselves at once parody the jockeying for power (with a possible glance back to the absurd games of Lilliput) and also enact the overturning of American presumption of technological supremacy. Vishinu's team in its perfect discipline resembles an "electrified centipede," i.e. cohere into a single body; and their use of prosthetic weapons restores the concept of military extension to "arm" while the biological limb has become elided. To compound the political reference, this time to the 1936 Munich Olympics, the Union team hold out their arms in unconscious imitation of the Nazi salute.

What we have been considering as a doubleness of language can now be seen as a duplicity at work. The pacifist movement patently fails because war is going on "behind the scenes." The last sections of the novel contain revelations which confirm this perception, not least Helder's admission that he has secretly retained weapons and placed agents in enemy territory. Within the series of identifications Wolfe constructs, one emerges between Martine and both Helder and Theo, as if the latter represent two sides (pragmatic realism versus idealism) of one consciousness. Martine is thereby drawn into the internal politics of the Strip just as his decision to grow a beard which makes him resemble General Smuts implicates him in colonialism.

The grotesque analogy between the Union team and an "electrified centipede" noted above exemplifies Koestler's proposition of humour occurring at an intersection between semantic chains. Wolfe plays on the proximity between the concepts of team and body (the latter in the sense of a collectivity) and concretizes the metaphor through a creature that combines singularity and multiplicity. It also specifically links these figures with war, since Martine argues in his notebook that "each war brings the human race a little closer to the insects, whose lives are all `it' and no `I'; at the end of the war people feel less human and more insectlike..." (§14M:200).16 Insects therefore offer one means of expressing the dehumanizing processes of war. This instance, however, is not a self-perception, but rather a realization by Martine of a sinister dimension of the team's discipline which is compounded by the epithet "electrified," which suggests that they form a collective technological simulacrum of life. The team now becomes linked with a mechanizing process cast in a negative light throughout Limbo and one associated specifically with the totalitarian centralism of Stalin. In Wolfe's The Great Prince Died, the assassin's fanatical mother gives him a disingenuous lesson in believing in his own acts: "if their will...moves you like a robot," she tells him alluding to his directors in the politburo, "then you do your work out of weakness, not strength!" (268). But it is exactly that kind of unquestioning robotic obedience that she is trying to induce in her son. Similarly the members (etymologically, the "limbs") of the Olympic team move in absolute obedience to Vishinu's signal and their latent connection with warfare becomes overt and explicit once they gun down the judges.

Limbo, then, draws on late Freud for its view of human behaviour as contradictory and ambivalent to mount a sustained critique of Cold War symbolism. Its exploitation of puns uses humour to expose to ridicule the self-mystification of power bloc polarities, the arms race and the attendant pacifist movement. Even Wolfe's most aware character, Dr Martine, finds himself in the predicament common to the novel's characters as a whole in having to negotiate tortuously through meanings which prove to be unstable and reversible. The novel's treatment of its central subject of prosthetics ironically undermines any confidence in scientific progress because the purpose of artificial limbs keeps rebounding on their wearers. The complex humour of the novel reflects Wolfe's sense of the need for a new aesthetic which will grant comic relief from the darker side to human experience ("a form of laughter, designed to take the sting out of ineradicable pain") and which will counter the monotonous uniformity pursued by the cybernetic imperative of efficiency. The absurdist humour of the novel insistently resituates incongruities within rationalist schemes of human behaviour. Wolfe's pedigree of precedents includes sceptical Modernists like Dostoevsky, Mann, and Gide. Although this humour reveals itself through wordplay that play is never trivial but rather hints at suppressed irrational impulses which a movement like Immob can never accept. Martine's journey back to America thus could be read as a return of the repressed joke on which Immob was based. Jokes in Limbo demystify cultural positions and subvert the status of authority figures in the novel. Every such figure is undermined, killed, or questioned in some way, and this anarchic process even rebounds against Martine when he discovers that he has been transformed into a messianic founder figure and must then revise his own status. Despite not being better known, Limbo has had a discernible influence on Thomas Pynchon's V. (1963) where the symbolism of prosthetics is incorporated into a presentation of a gradual decline towards the inanimate from the turn of the century; and it also has helped to shape the definition of technological environments in the novels of Ballard and the cyberpunk writers. Wolfe anticipates all these later instances by carefully blurring the border between humanity and its own technological constructs.


1. Ballard also singles out Wolfe as one of the best science-fiction writers in a review of 1971 (Ballard 1996, 207).

2. Koestler and Wiener are named several times in Limbo. Mumford's general discussion of the mechanization of humanity and his references to Wells, Toynbee, Adelbert Ames, and to William James's essay "The Moral Equivalent of War," all of which appear in the novel, make it virtually certain he was one of Wolfe's sources.

3. In identifying this process, Wolfe explicitly follows the argument of industrial rationalization put forward in James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution (1941) alluded to by name in the following quotation.

4. Chapter 11 of presumably any edition, pages 335-36 of 1987 Carroll and Graff edition and of the undated Ace Books edition. In addition to its 25 chapters Limbo contains three intercalary sections "from dr. martine's notebook," indicated herein as §6M, §14M, and §19M. The novel has also been published in an abbreviated form in the UK under the title Limbo 90.

5. At one point in the novel a character reflects: "What the human race might have accomplished if cybernetics had been utilized to reduce such feedback in the mind of every man! Instead we chose to build the Welfare State. Instead of reaching for maturity we chose a return to the womb" (Jones 102).

6. Van Vogt's novel concludes with a final meeting between Gosseyn and an old man who is identified as the main apostle of the system of thought called Null-A and the builder of the Games Machine. Gosseyn strips away the beard from the old man's face to discover it is his own.

7. James proposed "instead of military conscription a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against nature" (James 171).

8. At this point Martine resembles a different prototype, but one equally bound up in the processes of colonialism—Robinson Crusoe.

9. Cf. Galison 254 for details on the application of cybernetics to other disciplines.

10. The Yogi and the Commissar is another of Wolfe's acknowledged source texts. The two key terms in the title denote change from within and change from without respectively. Koestler attacks the Left for clinging on to the conviction that "man is an entirely rational being" (123), an attack absolutely consistent with the ironies of Wolfe's novel.

11. "In the course of time I was invited to join Trosky's small secretarial and household staff in Mexico" (Wolfe 1972 32). Wolfe served there for one year only and apparently was invited as a result of his writings in the 1930s for Trotskyite journals like The Militant and The New International.

12. Cf "The notion that the roots of war were to be found in the psychological particulars of national character and the universal truth of frustration and aggression did not evaporate at the end of World War II. In the period between 1945 and 1960, psychological experts pursued questions about how to derail the development of militaristic aggressiveness..." (Herman 64). Maurice L. Farber questioned both the motivation and the methodology of identifying a national character, arguing that it was based on unprovable assertions and might make war less likely or actually fuel the Cold War.

13. Cf also Mumford's warning in The Conduct of Life: "Our very will-to-survive is subject to destructive irrational turnings upon itself' (Mumford 1952 13).

14. The notion of vertical symbolism is made explicit in chapter 9 of Limbo as a consequence of western puritanism and of the contemporary industrial "time-sense." The latter operates like a chronometric super-ego measuring out pleasure in fleeting moments where the male psyche attempts "hasty soarings" (99/97). Brown's exploration of the implications of the deathwish for history sheds constant light on the set of concepts appearing in Wolfe's novel.

15. The controversy is commented on by Wiener (Cybernetics, pp.148-9). A similar anxiety emerges over the function of electrotherapy in novels such as Invisible Man, The Bell Jar, and One Flew over The Cuckoo's Nest. Wolfe knew Ellison well and would certainly have been familiar with the latter's novel.

16. Martine bolsters his argument by drawing an analogy with Kafka's "Metamorphosis," written during World War I. The terminology here derives from Georg Groddeck's The Book of the It (1951).


Agee, James. "Dedication Day," The Collected Short Prose of James Agee, ed. Robert Fitzgerald. London: Calder and Boyers, 1972. 103-117.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Ed. and transl. Caryl Emerson. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984.

Ballard, J.G. "From Shanghai to Shepperton," Re/Search, 8/9:112-124, 1984.

-----. A User's Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews. London: Harper Collins, 1996.

Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. 1935. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971.

Boyer, Paul. By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1994.

Brazier, Mary A.B. "Neural Nets and the Integration of Behaviour." Perspectives in Neuropsychiatry. Ed. Derek Richter. London: H.K. Lewis, 1950. 30-45.

Brown, Normal O. Life Against Death. The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. NY: Random House, 1959.

Bryans, Paul. Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895-1984. Kent: Kent State UP, 1987.

Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham NC: Duke UP, 1993.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. White Nights and Other Stories. Transl. Constance Garnett. NY: Macmillan, 1950.

Farber, Maurice L. "The Problem of National Character: A Methodological Analysis." Journal of Psychology 30:307-16, 1950.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. 1950. Ed. and transl. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1961.

-----. Civilization and its Discontents. 1930. Transl. Joan Riviere. Ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1975.

Galison, Peter. "The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision." Critical Inquiry 21:228-66, 1994.

Geduld, Carolyn. Bernard Wolfe. NY: Twayne, 1972.

Herman, Ellen. "The Career of Cold War Psychology," Radical History Review 63:53-85, Fall 1995.

James, William. Essays in Religion and Morality. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1982.

Jones, Raymond F. The Cybernetic Brains. 1962. NY: Paperback Library, 1969.

Koestler, Arthur. Insight and Outlook. NY: Macmillan, 1959.

-----. The Yogi and the Commissar and other Essays. London: Jonathan Cape, 1945.

Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelean Systems and General Semantics. 3rd ed. Lakeville, CT: International Non-Aristotelean Library, 1949.

Mendelson, Edward. "Encyclopedic Narrative: From Dante to Pynchon," MLN 91:1267-75, 1976.

Mumford, Lewis. The Conduct of Life. London: Secker and Warburg, 1952.

-----. Programme for Survival. London: Secker and Warburg, 1946.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Transl. Anthony M. Ludovici. Edinburgh and London: T.N. Foulis, 1910.

Samuelson, David N. "Limbo: The Great American Dystopia," Extrapolation, 19:76-87, December 1977.

Van Vogt, A.E. The World of A. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1948.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Player Piano. 1952. St.Albans: Granada, 1977.

Wallace, Irving. "The Operation of the Last Resort," Saturday Evening Post, 20 October 1957: 24-25+80+83-84+89-90+92+94-95.

Walsh, Chad. From Utopia to Nightmare. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1962.

Warrick, Patricia S. The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction. Cambridge MA: M.I.T. Press, 1980.

Wiener, Norbert. "The Brain." 1952. Great Science Fiction by Scientists. Ed. Groff Conklin. NY: Collier Books, 1962. 297-313.

-----. Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. 1948. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1961.

-----. "The Miracle of the Broom Closet." 1952. The Expert Dreamers: Science Fiction Stories by Scientists. Ed. Frederik Pohl. London: Victor Gollancz, 1964. 163-69.

-----. The Human Use of Human Beings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.

Wolfe, Bernard. The Great Prince Died. London: Jonathan Cape, 1959.

-----. In Deep. London: Secker and Warburg, 1958.

-----. Limbo. 1952. NY: Carroll and Graf, 1987.

-----. Memoirs of a Not Altogether Shy Pornographer. NY: Doubleday, 1972.

-----. "Self Portrait." Galaxy Science Fiction. November 1951: 58-83.

Wolfe, Gary K. "Instrumentalities of the Body: The Mechanization of Human Form in Science Fiction," in The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction. Ed. Thomas P. Dunn and Richard D. Erlich. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1982. 211-224.

Wylie, Philip. Review of Limbo. NY Herald Tribune Book Review. 14 December 1952: 11.

ABSTRACT. Bernard Wolfe's Limbo (1952) remains an unjustifiably neglected novel despite some signs of growing interest in recent years. It draws on contemporary cultural criticism to burlesque the development of technology in a number of important aspects: the use of supercomputers to wage an atomic war particularly and also to depict a mass movement dedicated to the removal of human aggression by amputating limbs. The latter movement explains the black joke of the novel's title and emerges as an exercise in self-mystification since the new prosthetic limbs turn out to be vastly more powerful than their originals. Like Vonnegut in Player Piano, Wolfe shows cybernetics to involve a dangerous series of substitutions for the human, dangerous because they obscure the divided and ambivalent nature of humanity. In order to bring out such ambivalence Wolfe implicates his surgeon-protagonist Dr. Martine in the novel's power structures and also uses a series of puns and other word play to alert the reader to a duplicity not just in Cold War political statements but in expressions of human purpose more generally. Limbo anticipates later fiction by Pynchon and the cyberpunk group in its ironic examination of humanity's technological constructs. (DS)

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)Back to Home