Pavel TchelitchewPavel Tchelitchew: Phenomena, 1938

It’s been hard to get your hands on David R. Bunch’s best-known work for almost half a century now. Most of the Moderan stories—linked, fable-like tales written in an experimental mode, set on an Earth ravaged by nuclear holocaust—were published during the 1960s and 1970s in magazines and later gathered, along with several additional stories, in Moderan, a collection put out by Avon in 1971. Outside of specialist circles, Bunch has been all but forgotten, the original Moderan volume long out of print.

Yet, in the years since his most prolific period, the nightmarish dystopia he imagined has begun to look increasingly prescient, even prophetic. In Moderan, men who have violently transformed themselves into cybernetic strongholds battle across an Earth paved over with plastic and tunneled under with living quarters. Creature comforts for these men—who are portrayed with sympathy but, first and foremost, as products of a culture of toxic masculinity—include sex robots and seasonal cheer, from spring flowers to Christmas wreaths, regulated by technocrats.

Replace nuclear annihilation with climate change and over-industrialization, and Bunch’s future feels psychologically and metaphorically akin to our modern situation. What are we doing right now but paving over our future with plastic? All while increasing our alienation from nature just as we ought to be doing precisely the opposite. In Bunch’s tales, men become fortresses, trapped in remade bodies that personify ritualized aggression. These bodies are literally and figuratively sequestered from any vestige of the nonhuman world.

That these tales come off as a seamless meld of the eccentric poetics of E.E. Cummings, the genius-level invention of Philip K. Dick, and the body horror of Clive Barker perhaps explains both why they remain vital today and why they were characterized as “fringe” during Bunch’s career. They are wild, visceral, and sui generis, without the signifiers of a particular era that might provide anchors for mystified readers. Popular contemporaries like Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, and even James Tiptree Jr. ameliorated the strangeness of their work with the scaffolding or appearance of more familiar plotlines, even as they wrote stories generally from the point of view of marginalized groups. Bunch, by contrast, foregrounded lyricism over plot and chose to write from the potentially unsympathetic viewpoint of a hyper-aggressive warmonger—a viewpoint clearly quite far from his own. Even his authorial stand-in, the nameless writer of the fictional introduction to this volume, has monstrous qualities.

Nothing quite like the Moderan stories had been written before and nothing like them has been written since. In their intensity and structure, at times they resemble prose poems. They convey an astonishing amount of information and characterization beneath a hyperkinetic exterior that houses a powerful intention: to show a future in which all effort is directed toward war, and in which war is the only worthwhile activity: “Plotting for each other’s total destruction and coming up with countermeasures to protect each his own new-metal hide at all costs are the kinds of human enterprises that put the human animal up close to godliness.”

It’s impossible while reading parts of Moderan not to think of the setting as the wet dream of a certain kind of realtor or land developer or as the apotheosis of those clips shared on social media showing modern inventions that, for example, can destroy a tree in seconds flat. Along with observations about the military-industrial complex and environmental issues, Bunch juxtaposes the metallic with a visceral sense of the humanity being sacrificed by separation from the physical world. In the “The Butterflies Were Eagle-Big That Day,” Stronghold 10 recalls his transformation from man to new-metal man: “and thus they made the move up there to do MY head! to work on the face flesh-strips, the brain slosh pans and the green brain fluids, the knives falling and flicking and snicking like cold silver rain… ‘Knives in left-side eye socket; knives in right-side eye socket; coring out left-side eyeball now… and folks, there’s blood!… always the blood.’”

It is easy to temporarily forget in the age of social media and the electronic presence the importance of the sheer physicality of our bodies, and that amnesia is a micro-example of a macro-malaise: the drifting away of the nonhuman world of trees and animals, of complex habitats, the only world we have. Bunch’s world narrows these distinctions to a sharp point by simplifying the world (smothering it in plastic) and gleefully exposing and exploding the perspective of the despoiler not just by inhabiting that perspective but by doing so joyfully at the level of style and engaging in enthusiastic reverie and rhetoric for what he knows is morally disgusting.

At times, Bunch seems like some kind of alchemist; the Moderan stories contain very unlikely alliances that might be described as a cyborg version of Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective by way of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. The stories are at heart about how we no longer recognize dystopia because it’s been sold to us as utopia, about how we may not understand the irreplaceable value of aspects of the human and nonhuman world until they are irreplaceably gone from our lives. He achieves this by chronicling the exploits, through Stronghold 10, of a death cult intent on destroying the world as it projects the illusion that the world lives on.

Of course, it’s no surprise how the Moderan cycle ends. A death cult cannot live on forever. Eventually, the illusion is shattered by the physical laws of the universe. Eventually, the universe itself reveals the truth no matter what human beings do.

*

Nothing in David R. Bunch’s upbringing suggested unfettered access to a fevered, transgressive imagination, but it’s wise to remember Flaubert’s dictum: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Bunch grew up on a farm in Lowry City, Missouri. He finished all of a PhD except for his dissertation at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, leaving to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He then spent most the next several decades working as a cartographer for the US Air Force, mostly in Missouri.

Bunch wrote prolifically up until his death, publishing his writings across the genre–mainstream divide. In his writing, Bunch strived to be a Cassandra-like prophet of the human condition, the modern condition, and like Cassandra, he was dismissed as a crank. Perhaps there is a special place in hell for those who say a writer has “too much imagination” or is “too weird.” Ironically, it wasn’t the readers of literary magazines who rejected his work but the readers of genre magazines. Letters columns regularly ran pleas to the editors not to publish any more “garbage” by Bunch. Even the entry for Bunch in Twentieth Century Science-Fiction Writers notes that his stories “met with varying degrees of outrage.” And it is undeniable that his literary success was hampered by the characterization of his work as minor or fringe by science-fiction critics of the day.

But Bunch seemed well able to defend himself, perhaps benefiting from an unusual, antagonistic conception of the author-reader relationship. Armoring himself like Stronghold 10, Bunch famously stated in the June 1965 issue of Amazing Stories that:

I’m not in this business primarily to describe or explain or entertain. I’m here to make the reader think, even if I have to bash his teeth out, break his legs, grind him up, beat him down, and totally chastise him for the terrible and tinsel and almost wholly bad world we allow… The first level reader, who wants to see events jerk their tawdry ways through some used and USED old plot—I love him with a hate bigger than all the world’s pity, but he’s not for me. The reader I want is the one who wants the anguish, who will go up there and get on that big black cross. And that reader will have, with me, the saving grace of knowing that some awful payment is due… as all space must look askance at us, all galaxies send star frowns down, a cosmic leer envelop this small ball that has such Great GREAT pretenders.

It may not have helped that Bunch’s two best champions, Cele Goldsmith and Judith Merril, were women working in a male-dominated field. Today, both women are considered among the best editors of science fiction and fantasy from that era, but both, during the time they served as editors, faced considerable resistance to their editorial approaches. This was due in part to sexism, but also to their efforts to make science fiction less “provincial” by buying stories that blurred the distinctions between genre and mainstream, commercial and literary. Merril in particular, in selecting stories for her Year’s Best series that might have first appeared anywhere from Galaxy to The New Yorker, expanded the idea of what work might be considered science fiction. That Bunch, equally influenced by genre and literary writers, fits comfortably in her anthologies and that he now appears central to various literary traditions like the dystopia and the post-apocalyptic tale is no coincidence. It is also no coincidence that just as he was pushed to the fringe of science fiction, Merril was pushed out of the publishing industry entirely, retiring early in Canada.

Bunch was also in tune with greater political and social movements of the day that were making strides in protecting the environment and preserving natural spaces (for instance, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, and the Clean Air Act of 1970). In assuming a worst-case scenario, Bunch may have appeared extreme. Yet, in retrospect, he wrote during an era when cautionary tales like those in Moderan had the potential to do the most good. At the time, a predictiveness embedded in his prose, down to his use of metaphor, could have been as transformative to the ways we question foundational assumptions about our right to destroy the world and to live within it as the works of J.G. Ballard. Now, unfortunately, it is debatable whether calling them “urgently relevant” and “prescient” is just a way of affixing words to a gravestone.

It is perhaps terrifying to contemplate that the worst of the horrors in the Moderan universe do not seem so unimaginable from the vantage of the present day. Yet the humor, insight, energy, empathy, and rare moments of beauty in these stories also suggest that there may be light in even the worst kinds of darkness.


Adapted from the foreword to David R. Bunch’s Moderan, published by New York Review Books.