Russians don’t scare me any more,” he announced. “You know what I mean. I thought it was the end of the world when they came, but I learned. They’re G.I.s, and so what? (150)
Even the most right-wing of jaded veterans will tell you the U.S. military is one of the most Communist* establishments in existence today. Voluntary enrollment aside, the culture of state paternalism, restricted freedoms, communal living, and shared provisions differs greatly from the capitalist values espoused by the U.S. government. While not a perfect parallel, it’s a sharp observation, and a good reminder that no system is ever “pure,” nor even true to textbook definitions, but it’s an even better reminder that the boundary between the war machine and totalitarianism is a very fine line.
M. Kornbluth’s 1955 Cold War satire Not This August, also titled Christmas Eve, illustrates this idea by depicting a cold-war-turned-hot on the US-Mexico border, where a combined Russian-Chinese army ambushes the overwhelmed American military. The U.S. surrenders, but not before we catch a glimpse of pre-surrender American life, where occupations are assigned, production quotas are enforced, produce is redistributed, and all of American existence is devoted entirely to national priorities.
So, basically, the U.S. has gone all commie in order to fight the commies.
Former commercial artist Billy Justin works on his assigned dairy farm and chats up the cute mail girl while the U.S. political structure crumbles around him. As Russian soldiers occupy his town and his neighbors come out as fifth column insiders, Justin notices that, despite the change in government, things are pretty much the same. His loyalties waver until he witnesses cruel behavior from Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and then, with the help of the mail girl, a paraplegic neighbor, and a recovering amnesiac hospital patient (who might be faking), he plots to regain control of a lost U.S. satellite capable of dropping hydrogen bombs.
If not for the title—a quote from an isolationist-flavored interwar editorial by Ernest Hemingway— the label of satire might feel misplaced to some readers. In some places, the story feels like pro-war, anti-Soviet propaganda, but the real purpose in these sometimes mixed-messages is to add nuance to both arguments, and to highlight hypocrisy on both sides: “The 449th Soviet Military Government Unit winked at such rampant capitalism when it was practiced by handy, steady, centrally located Mr. Croley” (126). It shouldn’t take much active reading to recognize patriotic Justin’s discomfort with U.S. policies, particularly regarding the unreported Cholera outbreaks in big cities (22) and the U.S. Farm-or-Fight Law (22, 35), however, a glance at most of the seven, count ‘em: seven, reviews on Amazon indicates that maybe the parallels between Soviet communism and U.S. wartime sacrifices went unnoticed. Even Damon Knight’s review in Science Fiction Quarterly compares Not this August to “the gleet of ‘Yellow Peril’ stories—about an America conquered by the Chinese or Japanese—that ended just before WWII” (Feb. 1956, p. 51). Knight also doesn’t notice that the starvation and oppression begins BEFORE the U.S. surrender.
That modern readers and his contemporaries don’t completely get it is a sign of Kornbluth’s very un-Space Merchant-like subtlety. Kornbluth is no Soviet apologist, so even the couple of shocking scenes portraying the cruelty of the Red invaders might feel like anti-Soviet sentiment to readers unobservant of Kornbluth’s distinctions between the regular-guy ground units and the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs. Yet Kornbluth, a young Futurian prodigy returning to writing after his own war-time deployment, who experienced the winding down of McCarthyism and the ramping up of tensions between the East and the West, witnessed duplicitous rhetoric on both sides of the conflict during those decades. The irony of mid-20th warfare is the cooperation inherent between antagonizing parties, and the contact that inevitably occurs between warring troops. The humanity of “the other” is hard to deny when you’re roughing it beside enemy troops at the behest of impersonal governments. Kornbluth saw all of this and brought that experience home, hence the need for his version to include war on his home soil.
Published just six years after Orwell’s seminal 1984 (1949), comparisons are inevitable. It’s been a long time since I’ve read from the literary dystopian canon (and I’ve yet to read Zamyatin’s 1924 We), but Kornbluth is doing something different here. Far from the oppressive, nightmarish overtones of Orwellian and Huxleyian dystopias, Not This August takes a less dramatic approach to the theme: humanizing the enemy while dehumanizing the war machine, poking at irrational fears while unveiling oppression in the quotidian. He likens the Soviet occupation to watching a play from behind a post (50) and applies the average Joe office mantra to nationalism: Different people, same bullshit. When Justin’s sense of nationalism returns after witnessing real brutality from the MIA, he becomes a key player in the insurrection, and discovers too late that the resurrection of Cold War tension will only end in mutually-assured destruction.
Besides all that, it’s a standard ‘50s tale that’s more readable and relevant than most. For modern readers, Justin’s attitude swerves away from modern sentiment with his rude treatment of the unfortunately-ditzy mail girl, and his opinions about wartime refugees are alarming, but these slights feel appropriate for this brash, patriotic protagonist at odds with his internalized belief system. Most disappointing is the potentially haunting ending that collapses after an abrupt and confusing action sequence. A glance at reviews suggest the confusion is Pohl’s doing in the Tor-issued 1981 revision.** (Tor!) (And Pohl is no stranger to peculiar endings.)
Ultimately, though, it’s a worthwhile look at the subtle cynicism of an SF satirist/WWII veteran. Though he died only three years after its publication, Kornbluth’s contribution to the Cold War dystopia subgenre feels significant amidst today’s demonstrations of American fear and extremism. If anything, Kornbluth reminds us that, while democratic liberalism, patriotic will, and even American individualism is vulnerable to change, life will go on. And nothing’s more unyielding than rigid bureaucratic systems, e.g. the U.S. postal service.
For another great look at this novel, go check out this review at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.
*Though definitions tend to morph, this is the capitalized form, most recognizable in mid-20th century governments of combined totalitarianism and socialism, and not the lower-case form most often associated with the late 19th century Paris Communes and later bohemian revivals, nor is it referring to the economic system of socialism, which can be combined with any kind of political system.
**I chose the 1981 copy specifically for Pohl’s introduction, unaware that he had tinkered with the narrative.