from Astounding (1945)
Brown’s “Arena” hit me unawares. So, when he popped up here again in the story merry-go-round, I thought I’d post-facto stress test myself. Turns out I hadn’t been Dutch-Schultz free-associating; the story holds up. In that time and that place, if you wanted to do what Brown wanted to do with that story – as ecumenical a critical metric as you can get – it’s hard to think of someone pulling it off better.
“The Waveries,” while a worthy piece in its own right, brings Brown back down to earth nonetheless. It’s a strange story—a fat chunk of mid-century utopian primitivism. A mysterious alien force knocks out electricity worldwide and, wouldn’t you know, everything works out better! People, it seems, love the simple life. In disengaging from their fast-paced techno-futures – chockablock, as they are, with distractions and superfluities and what later generations would come to call first-world problems* — they find time for themselves and their communities, joining local Vereine and generally not bowling alone anymore. Befitting a story written amidst the Second World War, it evinces a completely un-ironic faith in the benevolence and competence of the central government, a fact that would be hard to square with its concomitant primitivizing ethos in any other decade of the American Century save its middle two.
As for the story itself, all that wide-eyed optimism engenders, after page after page of it washing over you, a queer sort of palliative effect, in which the reader passes through several stages of reaction: first, simple mockery at the depiction; second, rumination on the kind of era that could have created such an alien knee-jerk understanding among Americans; and finally, a pleasant acceptance of the sincerity and gall to follow such a conclusion through to its most optimistic ends. Bonus: fun, non-carbon-based aliens.
* An aggravating phrase, if less prevalent now than a decade ago. Digression here, but I tend to favor Teju Cole’s rejoinder to the sentiment. His thread is worth quoting at length: “I don’t like this expression ‘First World problems.’ It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues on your BlackBerry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: Third World problems. All the silly stuff of life doesn’t disappear just because you’re black and live in a poorer country. People in the richer nations need a more robust sense of the lives being lived in the darker nations. Here’s a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.” Cole’s is a corrective that would serve a lot of writers well to keep in mind.