Academic journal article Extrapolation

Fear of a Stupid Planet: Sexuality, SF, and Kornbluth's "The Marching Morons"

Academic journal article Extrapolation

Fear of a Stupid Planet: Sexuality, SF, and Kornbluth's "The Marching Morons"

Article excerpt

C. M. Kornbluth's "The Marching Morons" (1951) is simultaneously one of the most honored and most openly disparaged science fiction stories of the period before the New Wave. The story has been both celebrated and savaged for reasons that are not always clearly provided by its commentators. When reasons have been supplied, the story has proven itself subject to several, often contradictory, interpretations. In this article, I set myself the task of developing two separate readings of the story, the second dependent on the first. The central element in both is readerly sympathy for either the elites or the titular morons of the story. The first interpretation involves seeing "The Marching Morons" as an indictment of fan culture; I find it helpful to put Kornbluth in the context of both Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream and A. E. Van Vogt's Sian in developing this angle. The second interpretation is much more sympathetic to a pro-elite reading, and it sees the elites still as fans, but now as fans defined as queer. I offer the second reading both as a further explanation as to why the story is so often read as sympathetic to its murderous elite characters, and as an endeavor to use recent queer theory to investigate issues that, during the golden age of magazine-based science fiction, were all but unspeakable and certainly unpublishable. That queer sexuality was not directly representable in the pages of Galaxy, or any science fiction magazine, in 1951 does not mean, of course, that it did not exist or that it could not affect the way in which a story was written or interpreted. Part of my task, then, lies in finding a trace of queer sexuality in a story that cannot openly admit its presence. In the second half of this article, I thus turn to Kornbluth's obscure pseudonymous non-sf novel Half, which directly represents the conflicted inner life of an intersex person, for insight into how Kornbluth dealt with queer sexuality when its direct representation came to the forefront of a text.

Largely due to its ambiguity and problematic reception history, I see "The Marching Morons" as an extremely useful text in exploring the intersections of science fiction studies and queer studies despite, or paradoxically because of, its production during a time when queer sexuality could still not speak its name. Due primarily to his tragically early death, Kornbluth remains an under-recognized figure among Golden Age authors and, though I think "The Marching Morons" has implications of intolerance toward queer sexuality, the story's rich history of being understood in a variety of incompatible ways marks it as responsive to a nuanced hermeneutical approach that simply would not work in the same manner for the majority of the sf of the 1940s and 50s. Part of my purpose here is thus to bring increased attention to Kornbluth as a writer of unusually polyvalent sf. Moreover, I am interested in how this polyvalence responds to what one might call an imposition of queer theory, and by "imposition" I mean the use of relatively recent and non-homophobic ideas about sexuality in relation to a literary text that does not at first glance seem particularly amenable to them. In other words, I think it is one thing to use queer theory to approach a text such as Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (to choose from innumerable examples), whether one reads that text's foregrounding of gender construction and variable sexuality as an exercise in queerness or a convoluted plan to avoid it, while it is another thing to bring queer theory to a text that does not obviously set itself the task of subjecting gender or sexuality to a science fictional gaze. Yet, if queer theory has an eclectic and innovative position within sf studies, as I believe it does, its applicability needs not to be limited to the more obvious test cases. Thus, I am interested in a queer reading of "The Marching Morons" not only because such a queer reading finds non-normative sexuality in a text with heteronormative assumptions, but also because it finds implications for sexuality in a text that seems not to be consciously concerned with non-procreative sexuality at all. …

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