If you’ve read David R. Bunch, there’s a good chance it’s because of Harlan Ellison. The famed author (and renowned grouch of popular culture) selected not one, but two short stories by the little-known writer for his landmark 1967 New Wave sci-fi collection, Dangerous Visions—the only contributor to have more than one piece included. As a result, “Incident In Moderan” and “The Escaping” are where most people’s awareness of Bunch begins—and ends. He published hundreds of short stories in his life, but mostly in small digests, obscure literary magazines, and even fanzines. No definitive bibliography exists; his last published work (a book of poetry) was from 18 years ago, and neither of his two collections of fiction have been in print for decades.
That changes with the publication of Moderan, the latest entry in NYRB Classics’ series, and a fascinating testament to Bunch’s strange talent. In story after story, the author continually returned to his fictional world of Moderan, a future version of Earth through which he satirized mankind’s worst and most foolish impulses. (The emphasis here is on man; his future society has banished all women, to a place called “White Witch Valley,” and sexual needs are met by robotic “new-metal mistresses” stored under the bed. Subtle in his treatment of misogyny, Bunch is not.) Through his Moderan stories, the author creates a world wherein the ugliness of our desire for strength, glory, and certainty stands in stark contrast to the occasional reminders that it didn’t need to go this way. Anyone living through the past few years in this country is getting an abject lesson in how satire can become freshly relevant long after the real world it originally lampooned went away.
The world of Moderan is one of machismo and militaristic fetishism taken to its conclusion. The geography has been reduced to an endless stretch of white plastic, an antiseptic successor to the messiness of nature, eradicating the need for all that difficult business of preserving our ecosystem. Men are more metal than meat, replacing their bodies with bulky steel and blood with tanks of green juices to house the brain, the goal being to retain as few “flesh-strips” as possible in the quest to overcome death. And all society has been transformed into a perpetual war between various Strongholds, largely deathless affairs of constant bombing campaigns and explosive destruction, human life a contest to see which Stronghold master can earn the most plaudits for violence. Meanwhile, the majority of people live below in bubble-dome houses, their isolated lives centered around asocial contributions to thought or progress. All the human qualities once considered valuable—love, affection, kindness—are now weaknesses to be stripped from the mind. And it’s only in rare moments that Bunch’s “new-metal men” are confronted with the possibility of being other than they are: a visit from a lovelorn soldier, the death of a fellow Stronghold undercutting their claims to immortality, the nagging persistence of desire.
It would all seem a bit straightforward (and charmingly retro in its dystopic vision), were it not for Bunch’s remarkable facility with language. His narrators all speak in a highly idiosyncratic and original vocabulary of future terms and invented slang; his dialogue is as unique as Anthony Burgess’ in A Clockwork Orange. The narrator of most of these stories is Stronghold #10 (masters being considered of a piece with their stronghold), and his encomiums to the world of Moderan—and its culture of men-only barbarism—are the most common refrain echoed throughout this collection:
But we were MEN! and a gulf of cosmic distance swung between and was the difference that that existed between a new-metal monster and a new-metal man. When our beautiful plans for war went alive in the world and roared aloft in tangible reality—the White Witch rockets firing, the wow bombs grandly falling, the wreck-wrecks trajectoring, the missiles far and wide homing and all the other hardware our Joy-at-War beautifully functioning—we knew what we were doing.
Bunch had previously collected a number of these stories in a 1971 volume that only received one pressing, but it gave him a chance to shape them, from the first transformation of our primary narrator into a Stronghold Master on through to daily life in Moderan. By the third section, the men of this world start to question the roles assigned them and the value of the system, and even acknowledge the private doubts that gnaw at their brain pans in the quiet of their new-metal meccas, eventually concluding with a dark but fitting final chapter that seemed to close the book on this world. A fourth section, “Apocrypha From After The End,” assembles a number of the stories Bunch published after the Moderan collection had been completed, which bounce somewhat awkwardly between continuing on in the dark times following the end of Moderan, and others that could arguably take place any time in the life span of the society. Bunch had created such a vivid universe, full of such potential, that he couldn’t stop visiting long after he had blown it up.
To join Bunch’s wavelength and explore Moderan through his narrators’ synthetic eyes is to marvel at the depth and intensity the writer brings to what is fundamentally a lampoon of society, an overwrought commentary on violence that seems initially facile but continually reveals new layers and arenas of satirical insight. The book is as much excoriation of philosophical urgings to Übermensch status as it is a parody of war, a scathing attack of the worst of Nietzsche that simultaneously adopts stylistic devices not unlike Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Moderan finds unusual grace in its over-the-top harangues—a hidden reservoir of humanity that, ironically, requires Bunch’s antihumanist narrators to discover it.