Bernard Wolfe’s 1952 Limbo is a science fiction satire.
In 1972, Dr. Martine fled from a computer-directed World War Three. The African medical facility at which he had worked was obliterated in a rain of hydrogen bombs. As far as the world knows, Dr. Martine is dead.
Having found refuge on a particularly obscure island of pacifists, Martine has no interest in ever returning to the world. Inconveniently for Martine, his bucolic life spent performing lobotomies for the locals1 comes to a sudden end in 1990 when the world comes to him.
Many of the visitors are amputees, their limbs replaced by futuristic prosthetic limbs. The cheerful visitors claim to be as peaceful as the natives. However, their furtive survey of the island raises questions about their true motives. The doctor cannot help but wonder what would happen should he, a deserter from the war, be discovered by the strangers.
Leaving his wife and son behind, Martine flees the island under an assumed name. His flight will eventually lead him back to what remains of the United States of America, where he makes a very unexpected discovery. Unbeknownst to Martine, he has left a world-shaking legacy.
When Martine fled the African facility, he left behind a notebook filled with bitter, satirical commentary on the world (the ease with which pacifists became warmongers particularly offended him). Co-worker Helder found the notebook and took it with him when Helder accompanied a patient back to the USA. Having no sense of humour, Helder took the contents of the notebook at face value2.
On its own, that would simply be funny. Helder was as persuasive as he was literal-minded. Using Martine’s notebook as his bible, Helder convinced the post-war world that Martine’s vision offered a way to free the world from war. The age of war is over.
There is one very small flaw in this new world order. The two remaining governments, the Inland Strip in the former USA and the Union in Eurasia agree on principles. They do not agree on implementation. Furthermore, each of the two governments fear that their rival is plotting to monopolize the rare minerals needed to make prosthetics. Also, that their rival’s public commitment to peace may be a ruse intended to cover war preparations.
Suspicion alone is sufficient proof3. In the name of peace, the Inland Strip and the Union secretly prepare to defend peace, no matter how many people they have to kill.
The vocabulary used in this book is characteristic of the era when it was written.
And now I can say I read an SF novel by one of Leon Trotsky’s secretaries.
We aren’t told all that much about conditions in the Union. The Inner Strip, however, gets a lot of attention. As shown, it is not all a utopia. Women are second-class persons, as are non-white residents. Senior politicians acknowledge the inherent injustice of this fact (which undermines the Strip’s security by providing the Union with Inner Strip persons highly motivated to become fifth columnists). However, doing anything about the situation is deemed impractical, because white men are too committed to bigotry to be reformed in the time available.
To be honest, it’s quite possible that the author wasn’t especially interested in women’s rights. There are not many women in the book and those who do make an appearance are portrayed negatively in various ways.
If I had to sum the reading experience up in one word, that word would be “chore.” Various sections, such as the spontaneous road trip the doctor makes to his childhood home in Utah, dragged on and on. The satire seemed laboured. I can see elements I’d have liked … at a somewhat shorter length.
However, I seem to be in the minority here. Pundits from J. G. Ballard to the Science Fiction Encyclopedia (specifically David Pringle and John Clute) laud this as a classic. The fact that I found the novel interminable no doubt says terrible things about my critical sensibilities. There are some mildly amusing bits, and one certainly cannot disagree with the author’s assessment of American sexism and racism as intrinsic characteristics incurable even by a mass extinction event. Nevertheless, this was not to my taste.
1: The islanders has long ago adopted lobotomy as a means to eliminate violent impulses. The doctor provides a safer version.
2: The bizarre custom of arm amputation and subsequent use of a prosthesis is due to Helder’s relentless literalism: people must embrace disarmament by dis-arming themselves.
3: One must acknowledge that both sides were doing exactly what the other side thought they were doing, even if tangible evidence was lacking.