In the 1950s, the post-war American empire changed the politics of the world. It took a science-fiction novel, Gore Vidal’s Messiah, to see how that change was not necessarily for the good.
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In the 1950s, mainstream science-fiction was changed forever by the outpouring of b-movies warning of alien invasion and creatures who would take over your mind and soul in their relentless quest for world domination. It mythologized the fears of a people still recovering from the horrors of the Second World War as they entered the Cold War era. The United States was the new superpower, rich from the spoils of war, and as the old powers to the East crumbled it warned of a world in danger from Communism. In 1948, George Orwell considered the dangers of the totalitarian state in the science-fiction novel 1984. In 1954, Gore Vidal responded with Messiah, but the danger he saw was of a very different kind to the one Orwell described.
Vidal came to the idea of sci-fi not through the pulp b-movies of Hollywood but through novels such as 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The popular idea of what made for sci-fi had changed between the publication of 1984 and Messiah, and that was largely down the b-movie, which brought the pulp magazine stories of the 1930s and ‘40s to the big screen. As a result, the definition of sci-fi splintered. Brave New World and 1984 would, in later years, come to be known speculative fiction, whereas sci-fi would mean space ships, aliens and monsters. Fiction that dealt with an alternative version of reality – that was considered speculative, and not real sci-fi.
Yet as George RR Martin recently observed, “We can make up all the definitions of science-fiction and fantasy and horror that we want. We can draw our boundaries and make our labels, but in the end it’s the same old story, the one about the human heart in conflict with itself. The rest, my friends, is furniture.” 1984 and Messiah predated the conflict between Old Wave and New Wave sci-fi, and the divisions between Golden Age sci-fi, hard, extreme, apocalyptic, space opera, cyberpunk, steampunk, etc. The furniture here was recognisable, and the subject was a society in conflict with itself.
In Messiah, Vidal speculated on what could happen in America as a result of the social and political upheavals of the anxious post-war years. And he did so because, in a tangled way, his homosexuality had threatened to derail his chosen career as a novelist. His progress toward writing a sci-fi story about America in the grip of post-war hysteria in fact started with the publication of his novel The City and the Pillar in 1948. Through its tale of a young man struggling with his homosexuality, Vidal inadvertently entered the realm of speculative fiction, of exploring the possibilities offered in the affluent post-war America. Yet what he found was not the “individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression” that the US President Harry Truman promised when he outlined American’s global mission in 1947, but instead a culture that was rigidly oppressive and deeply conservative.
When Vidal’s first novel was published in 1946 it was celebrated as “masculine” and “straight out of nature”. It was a novel about men in wartime. The City and the Pillar on the other hand was about men in love. Its narrator makes the simple observation that “life would certainly be happier for everyone in a world where sex was thought of as something natural and not fearsome, and men could love men naturally, in the way they were meant to, as well as to love women naturally, in the way they were meant to.” This was dismissed as propaganda, and the reviewer for Best Sellers went as far as to say that Vidal abused the idea of democracy “as the rationale for perversion.” Another reviewer concluded that the book should be in a psychology library, “not in the hands of effeminate boys pampering their pathological inclinations.” Vidal was therein considered an outsider and his work was marginalized. “No offence is so heinous as unorthodoxy of behaviour” as the Director in Brave New World instructs Bernard, the rebel in embryo. “Unorthodoxy threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at Society itself.
The post war years were a time of social and political instability that changed the character of the United States, and Vidal was made to feel the full force of that change. As the historian David Caute wrote in The Great Fear, there was “an artificial straining for social cohesion and national unity.” Political opportunists rode to success on this instability for they offered “the chance of being taken for a good American simply by demonstrating a gut hatred for the Commies.” There was even an inexplicable link drawn between homosexuality and Communist subversion. Senator Joseph McCarthy, who rode this wave harder than any other opportunist and effectively held the country to ransom for years as he went blindly on the rampage, called for the removal of “sexual perverts from sensitive positions in our Government” on the grounds that they were a security risk. It was the time of the demagogue whose skewed ideas preyed on the fears of an anxious nation.
Messiah is about the rise of an alternative religion in this unsettled America, and is narrated 50 years after the fact by Eugene Luther, one of the architects of the new religion. “The first dozen years after the second of the modern wars,” Luther writes, marked “a time of divination” throughout which “not a day passed but that some omen or portent was remarked by an anxious race, suspecting war.” The nation he describes is one in a state of panic, and its omens were reports of UFO and alien sightings from a people “more than usually upset by signs of nonconformity”.
All this, Luther explains, set the stage for the coming of a mystic, a man who would offer security and truth. “Considering the unmistakable nature of these signs, it is curious how few suspected the truth: that a new mission had been conceived out of the race’s need, the hour of its birth already determined by a conjunction of terrible new stars.” What follows is the rise of evangelist John Cave – “a pair of initials calculated to amaze the innocent” – and the establishment of the Caveite religion as the dominant social and political force in the US.
The hunger for faith – as well as the marked increase in UFO sightings – was rife in the post-war US. In 1946, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ stated that, “at the present time all signs . . . lead to one conclusion. Americans are going back to God.” By 1952, the year that Vidal wrote Messiah, this had become a national phenomenon. This trend, of course, ran parallel to, while it also fed off, the anxieties generated by the post-war era.
The Today Show / 1950s America
The messianic mission of Truman’s America to bring democracy to the world had suffered a series of setbacks by 1952. In 1948 the negotiations over the division of Germany led Stalin to block access to Berlin; in September 1949 the Soviet Union had successfully developed the atom bomb; the government in China, which had long been supported by the United States, fell to Communism; and following that the country became mired in a war in Korea. Politics, as Godfrey Hodgson wrote in his influential book America In Our Time, therein worked on a very simple formula.“America is so powerful. Yet things are not going as we want them to. Ergo, we are being betrayed.” This atmosphere was exploited by opportunists like Senator Joe McCarthy and Congressman Richard Nixon, whose careers were made by laying the blame on the mysterious “them”: the traitors, the Communists, the nonconformists. Looking at this troubled era, Vidal saw not the coming of a totalitarian state, like Orwell did in 1984, but a state in which the people would willingly trade freedom for security – and he realised the technological change that could make this possible was television.
The messiah, John Cave, is a mortician by trade, and he preaches quite simply that “death is nothing; literally no thing; and since, demonstrably, an absence of things is good, death which is no thing is good.” Luther is drawn into the organisation that builds up around Cave to write texts that give “a firm historical and intellectual base” to his vision. Yet this vision would have gone nowhere, Luther explains, without the power of television. “Television, ultimately, was the key,” Luther writes, for it was not the Word itself but Cave’s delivery of the Word that was all-important.
The initial success of Cave’s message is dependent on its being heard. In the first television broadcast, Luther is struck by how the television screen gave Cave an additional authority. It was the stance rather than the words that ensured his success. The medium allowed Cave’s words to seem, “in short, the truth.” What Cave offered in an age of social and political instability, Luther recalls, was “to be no longer an observer, a remote intelligence,” but, instead, to be “part of a whole.” The result of his weekly half-hour sermon was that millions witnessed “the creation of their own secret anxieties and doubts, a central man.”
In the groundbreaking work Understanding Media, published in 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote that the primary medium in any society “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” It was in the post-war years that television became the primary medium in the US. According to the Nielsen ratings system, January 1946 was the first time that more televisions than radios were operating during prime time – the hours between 6 and 9pm. “As the United States entered the Cold War,” J. Fred MacDonald observed in Television and the Red Menace, “it did so in an atmosphere of anti-Communist fear that gained persuasive popular expression in TV.” From drama to the news to the talk show, television presented an “oversimplified” picture of the “honest, selfless United States . . . forced to defend the free world against the barbarous onslaught of Communism.”
The rise of Cavesword in Messiah – from its defeat of the Churches to its infiltration of the highest levels of government – relies on the fundamental change that television brought about in American society. The “home altar” of television, Luther writes, prepared the way for a demagogue. The rise of McCarthy had shown this all to clearly. McCarthy “skilfully manipulated half-truths and misrepresented facts,” MacDonald wrote in Television and the Red Menace. “He distorted history by ignoring political context and careful analysis. He pounded the lectern authoritatively, cited documents, and sounded sure of what he was saying. With little or no convincing rebuttal to his opinions, viewers were left ill-equipped to doubt McCarthy.” The truth did not matter; it was the emotion that mattered, which is exactly the point that Vidal hit on with a sci-fi allegory on McCarthy’s rise. “And that, finally, was the prevailing note of the age: since reason had been declared insufficient, only a mystic could provide the answer, only he could mark the boundaries of life with a final authority, inscrutably revealed.”
Where Vidal differed from Huxley and Orwell is that, in Messiah, it is the rhetoric of the free society rather than the point of the gun that sustains Cavesword. The religion is a success because it is based on “what the people want to hear”. It is then marketed like a product to respond to the needs of an insecure populace. “Our whole power is that people come to us, to Cave, voluntarily,” as the organisation’s PR man Paul Himmell tells Luther, “because they feel here, at last, is the answer.” The threat is more insidious than the totalitarian state Orwell depicts in 1984. The Word is maintained not through an oppressive system but through propaganda that promises liberation from fear. As a work of visionary sci-fi, Messiah is a smarter and more convincing satire than either Brave New World or 1984.
Both Brave New World and 1984 are products of the Old World, and of the totalitarian states that followed in the wake of First and Second World Wars. Messiah is a product of the New World, and the new empire it forged from the ruins of the Second World War. While Hollywood turned to sci-fi as a way to mythologise people’s fears and transform the everyday into the alien, Vidal turned to sci-fi to write an allegory of America at mid-century. It was Vidal’s sexuality that released him from an upbringing that was conservative, wealthy and patrician, and it led him to write a dystopian sci-fi that bore witness to the dangers of the new era at the very moment it was being set in motion.