Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Amping Up "Power"

Reading science fiction stories written during the Great Depression in the midst of the Great Recession is an exercise in retroactive deja vu. It's particularly startling to read a middle-of-the-road mechanical engineer like Harl Vincent declaim about the oppression of the capitalist system and become dreamy at the thought of a dictator seizing power in the United States and instituting radical reforms, as he does in "Power", a story from the January 1932 issue of Amazing Stories magazine. So it's important to place the story within its proper social context.

"Power" was probably written in the middle of the year 1931. The stock market crash of October 1929 and the start of the Great Depression were a year and a half in the past, and the economic crisis had been growing steadily worse ever since. Bank panics had grown increasingly common, unemployment had risen to 15.9 percent, and shantytowns called Hoovervilles had appeared in every city, populated by people who had lost their homes and had nowhere else to go. A government dominated by pro-business Republicans was helpless to address the situation, cutting spending in a counterproductive effort to balance the federal budget, and clinging to the gold standard.

A year earlier, Vincent had written "Gray Denim", a story in which he introduced his stratified world of a purple-clad elite ruling over gray-clad masses. In that simple and rather improbable adventure story, Karl Krassin, who has been raised to believe himself a member of the gray masses, discovers that he is the heir to the throne of the Continental Empire, a state that rules all of Europe, Asia, and Africa. In the end, he turns his back on the Empire, and returns to New York to rejoin the gray-clad workers. In stark contrast, when Scott Terris, the protagonist of "Power", has a chance to gain political power, he grabs at it with both hands and refuses to let go.

Much fiction includes an element of wish-fulfillment fantasy, and this is certainly true of science fiction. "Power", though, is an example of political wish-fulfillment. Unlike the politicians of 1931 who seemed stunned in the face of catastrophe, Scott Terris acts boldly and decisively, and completely transforms his society is less than three months. Terris' dictatorship proves immensely popular, to the point where Gail Destinn, the proponent of democracy, admits in the end that Terris' actions were necessary.

The Bastard of Yonkers has commented on the similarity between Vincent's dystopian future and the one seen in Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis. Although it is unlikely after this much time has passed that we will ever know whether, and how much, Vincent was influenced by the film, it should be noted that Mussolini's rise to power in Italy had made dictatorship a hot topic of the day. For that matter, Matt Crawford of the Power Syndicate was probably inspired as much by Samuel Insull as by any European dictator.

As it turned out, a dictatorship wasn't necessary to deal with the Great Depression after all. The whirlwind of legislation that marked the beginning of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency in 1933 proved that representative democracy was equal to the task of facing the crisis. By the time Vincent wrote his sequel to "Power" in 1939, events had soured him on dictatorship. Set two centuries after "Power", "Master Control" told of the fall of Scott Terris' new order: wars sparked by power-hungry dictators left the world devastated, allowing the telepathic tyranny of the Central Control to take over humanity.

1 comment:

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

One has to wonder what works of art this economic downturn will inspire, although it would seem that the emphemeral nature of a lot of modern writing (hello Blogger!) will make it difficult for future historians to get a really clear picture of what went on in the oughts and teens.