Review: Null-ABC, H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, 1953.

It’s a world where department stores launch armed attacks on their competitors. Elections have gangs who beat up and occasionally kill the opposition. (And, if you don’t have your own gang, you can rent one.) Technology has stagnated. High school students assault their teachers regularly. And most of the population is illiterate.

Yes, there’s a Crisis in 2140. That was the better titled selected for the novel when it was republished as part of an Ace Double in 1957. It was originally serialized in the February and March 1953 issues of Astounding Science Fiction, and I suspect editor John W. Campbell gave it a title reminiscent of A. E. van Vogt’s Null-A series which ran in Astounding in the 1940s.

The work is part of a group of 1950s science fiction novels dealing with the theme of anti-intellectualism. They include Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Fritz Leiber’s The Silver Eggheads (which I have not read). Like another such novel, James Gunn’s The Burning, it features a population that blames historical problems on intellectuals, and, in particular, has reacted against that basic intellectual tool: literacy.

There has always been, on the part of the Illiterate public, some resentment against organized Literacy. In part, it has been due to the high fees charged for Literate services, and to what seems, to many, to be monopolistic practices. But behind that is a general attitude of anti-intellectualism which is our heritage from the disastrous wars of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries. Chester Pelton has made himself the spokesman of this attitude. In his view, it was men who could read and write who hatched the diabolical political ideologies and designed the frightful nuclear weapons of that period. In his mind, Literacy is equated with ‘Mein Kampf’ and ‘Das Kapital’, with the A-bomb and the H-bomb, with concentration camps and blasted cities.

Yes, in this society literacy is so rare – but still a necessary skill – that Literates have their own union, the Associated Fraternities of Literates. And men like Chester Pelton, owner of a department store, resent that their skills are needed. And he can do something about it. He’s a senator in the North American Confederacy.

The story opens the day before an election with Pelton running on the Radical-Socialist ticket. His campaign slogan for socialized Literacy? “Put the Literates in their place; our servants, not our masters!”

The Senator, at the breakfast table, is upset that his son Ray seems to know how to read the operating manual for the neighbor’s new helicopter. If only he knew that his daughter is a full-on Literate and carrying on a romance with one.

And when the Senator is poisoned, things go into high gear with election violence, political scheming, and Macy & Gimbel launching a raid on his department store.

McGuire would be the only collaborator Piper ever had, and their joint work is solid though McGuire’s few solo pieces are largely forgotten. According to John F. Carr’s Typewriter Killer,  Null-ABC wasn’t their first collaboration but the first published. McGuire and Piper both lived in  Altoona, Pennsylvania. McGuire would start writing fiction in 1948, and he became friends with Piper after that. The relationship would end due to McGuire’s alcoholism (even Piper, a heavy drinker himself, realized his friend had a problem) and a falling out over one of Piper’s guns.

It’s hard to say which of the two men contributed particular elements to the story. The violent confrontations aren’t that different from Piper’s solo works. Piper’s job as a night watchman at a railyard probably involved some violence – especially in the 1930s, and his friend Jerry Pournelle told a story of Piper routing, with his sword cane, a would-be mugger they encountered in Washington D.C.

But McGuire himself was no stranger to violence. He was an OSS agent during World War Two and, amongst other things, robbed banks in Nazi Germany. After the war, he worked as a prosecutor and investigator of war crimes in Germany. In November 1946, he fatally shot a Nazi sympathizer in Bavaria who came to kill him.

In Altoona, McGuire got a job teaching English at the local high school, but it mostly involved teaching students with learning disabilities. One suspects the following reflects McGuire’s disenchantment with his job and education in America:

So a Twenty-second Century high school was a place where a teacher carried a pistol and a tear-gas projector and a sleep-gas gun, and had a bodyguard, and still walked in danger of his life from armed teen-age hooligans. It was meaningless to ask whose fault it was. There had been the World Wars, and the cold-war interbellum periods— rising birth rates, huge demands on the public treasury for armaments, with the public taxed to the saturation point, and no money left for the schools. There had been fantastic “Progressive” education experiments— even in the ’Fifties of the Twentieth Century, in the big cities, children were being pushed through grade school without having learned to read. And when there had been money available for education, school boards had insisted on spending it for audio-visual equipment, recordings, films, anything but textbooks. And there had been that lunatic theory that children should be taught to read by recognizing whole words instead of learning the alphabet. And more and more illiterates had been shoved out of the schools, into a world where radio and television and moving pictures were supplanting books and newspapers, and more and more children of illiterates had gone to school without any desire or incentive to learn to read. And finally, the illiterates had become Illiterates, and literacy had become Literacy.

Given what I’ve heard from public school teachers, the general decline in reading, the obsession with “audio-visual equipment” in schools (the current version is laptops), and the atrocious “look-say” Dick-and-Jane readers of my early school years, I’d say the crisis in education will be here in America well before 2140. And, of course, American schools are often violent places with many instances of students attacking teachers. However, the authors got it wrong when they thought rural, poor areas might have a higher rate of literacy because they were unable to afford technological aids. Altoona itself was a poor town. Did McGuire think the educational rot was less there than in richer areas?

It’s hard to say whose idea the wheels-within-wheels political intrigues were. McGuire may have known his Machiavelli, but, as we’ve learned, Piper was hugely influenced by him. I don’t know if Piper ever read James Burnham’s The New Machiavellians, but Burnham’s idea of political change occurring when one political elite replaces another is here.

There is not just open conflict in the Confederacy’s political parties. The Literates themselves have a schism. One faction wants to maintain the status quo and give literacy sort of a religious status. The other, to which Pelton’s campaign manager Cardon secretly belongs, wants to force literacy on the public.

If he can get his socialized Literacy program adopted, we’ll be in a position to load the public with so many controls and restrictions and formalities that even the most bigoted Illiterate will want to learn to read. Lancedale says, a private monopoly like ours is bad, but a government monopoly is intolerable, and the only way the public can get rid of it would be by becoming Literates, themselves.

Carr refers to Piper’s use of the “big lie” in stories, and this is another example.

John W. Campbell complained, in regard to Piper’s later Little Fuzzy, of a

most awful confusion of too many people who might be involved. You must have learned how to mentally juggle two dozen relevant characters at once in your work. The average reader hasn’t.

I think in this novel that criticism of Campbell’s applies. This novel has a lot of characters: politicians, their staff, Literates, goons, school teachers, department store staff, and newscasters. It is hard, at times, to keep them all separate.

There is one slight, but interesting, bit at the novel’s beginning when we learn the Peltons spend extra money on natural as opposed to synthetic foods and that the Senator is happy his son can spot the difference right away between fake and real honey. I’m suspecting this might be a McGuire bit given I don’t recall anything similar in Piper’s solo work.

It seems that, even in the Crisis of 2140, the simple pleasures till have their place.

5 thoughts on “Null-ABC

  1. Joachim Boaz January 17, 2022 / 11:37 am

    I’m glad you’re conducting this read-through of his work — he’s not an author I know well.

    I’m assuming his depiction of the union of literate people isn’t a positive one? It appears from your review that the union hordes its skilled workers, rather than explicitly protects them as a union might?

    I bring it up as unions are generally depicted in very negative terms in this era (there are a few exceptions). And Piper’s “Day Of The Moron” (1951) fits the pattern

    Here’s a list of union stories. I’ve contacted the creator to get this particular Piper added.

    • marzaat January 17, 2022 / 11:49 am

      The Literates serve in a variety of capacities — newscasters, department store clerks, accountants — and their union has strict work rules. There’s one scene, after Claire is revealed as literate and takes over some work at the department store, where other union members gripe she’s not a member. Of course, most members of the Literate fraternities have to go armed because of the hostility towards them.

      There’s a power struggle among the Literates and the winning side definitely is presented as the correct one for civilization. However, it’s a victory that will ultimately eliminate the power of the union.

      Curiously, I don’t recall, in the two biographies I’ve read of him, if Piper himself was a member of a union or what he thought about it. It seems likely, employed by a railroad, he would have been.

      SF stories about unions is an interesting theme, and I’ll check out the list. Besides Piper’s work and Heinlein’s union busting “The Roads Must Roll”, nothing comes immediately to mind.

      • Joachim Boaz January 17, 2022 / 12:01 pm

        So it sounds like it would fit the “mixed” depiction descriptor on that list. But yes, the list is great and I’ve found a bunch over the last few weeks that aren’t included.

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