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The Enduring Machine-Men of David R. Bunch’s Moderan

By Darren Huang.

Review of Moderan by David R. Bunch

David R. Bunch, Moderan (New York Review Books, 2018)

In the twentieth century, rapid mechanisation, fierce ideological warfare, and the rise of totalitarian regimes inspired a number of post-apocalyptic narratives, notably Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. Both of these works imagined highly advanced socialist societies that regulated human obedience to the state through the systematic repression of individualism and free will. These societies deprived man of his most human qualities of love, creativity and independent thought. Effectively, they dehumanised their populations until they were little more than subservient machines.

American short-story writer and poet David R. Bunch carried this notion to its logical and literal end when he envisioned the world of Moderan, where the dominant species were machine-men, men who had transformed themselves into machines for the sake of eternal life. Bunch published his first collection, Moderan, in 1971. Since that time, his stories have been largely overlooked and not been collected in a single volume until a new reissue from New York Review Books. These grimly humorous, pointedly satirical and profoundly existential stories trace the rise and fall of the civilisation as described by a skeptical machine-man. They boldly ask to what extent man, when edited and excised piecewise for maximal efficiency and minimal humanity, remains man at all.

The Moderan society is an Orwellian authoritarian socialist commune created as a solution for the human destruction of natural resources, including the ubiquitous contamination of air and water, and principally, the problem of mortality itself. The solution involves the careful manipulation of climate, the global replacement of soil with plastic and steel layers, the freezing of all large bodies of water, and the mechanical transformation of the human body through a number of “replacement” operations until it has become impervious to any form of decay or sickness. Throats are plated in gold to prevent cancer, hearts are replaceable pistons that pump out pale green blood to joints connecting steel and flesh, and lungs have become flexible metal cylinders that balloon outward to accept air. Children are created by a method of in vitro fertilisation, in which a machine-man and machine-woman donate their respective reproductive cells for their enjoining in a sterile laboratory overseen by programmed machines. The child is born fully fleshed, and when he comes of age, he begins receiving his “replacement” operations until he has become almost entirely metal. Essentially, Moderan seeks to contain all the anarchy and lawlessness of the universe through the precise mechanical reproduction and replacement of original natural processes.

Because the protagonist of these stories accepted the ways of Moderan before significant deterioration of his body, he was transformed into a stronghold, an elite class of machine-men who continuously wage war against each other’s forts for the purposes of maximal destruction and self-preservation. The term “stronghold” not only refers to the machine-man’s fort itself but also to the machine-man himself. His original human name has become obsolete, and he is exclusively known as “Stronghold #10”. In the collection, Bunch is playfully ironic with the naming of things, and names are often puns, euphemisms, and double entendres. For instance, Moderan itself is a pun on “modern”. The “Joys” refer to leisure activities, which include lovemaking with mechanical women. But they are actually the cause of much despair and sadness. Death arouses so much dread and fear that the machine-man must qualify or even avoid the word. He refers to it as “natural-causes death”, “old-fashioned death” or the “Big Dark of the Cold Nothing” as if he were always trying to distance himself further from the possibility of dying. As in any society, names become signifiers of cultural values.

One of the implications of the catechism of Moderan is a universal repulsion with human flesh. The Moderan child’s transitory period with flesh has become a fragile embryonic stage prior to the final transformation into machine. Human flesh has become an obsolete form. In Darwinian terms, the fully fleshed human has become the less evolved species, an ancestor to modern machine-man. In this collection, the unmodified, unreplaced human becomes a rare, mythic figure because he is disappearing into history. Human appearances in Moderan are often strange, inexplicable accidents, as if they were ghosts delivering messages from the dead.

In the cleverly inventive story, ‘A Glance at the Past’, machine-men and machine-women journey from the far reaches of Moderan to gawk at a human heart that has been preserved as a curiosity in a museum exhibit. They view the human heart with pity and wonder at its primitive and monstrous form. Bunch quotes from a pamphlet written by the Moderan people describing the exhibit: “Today, after viewing this monstrosity, you and I must feel great pity for all our ancient ancestors. It was their poor fortune to be born so long ago and inhabit a world where such a thing as this was everyone’s common danger, not the clowning mutant exception, but the common sober rule. No wonder they were wavery and unsure, mushy and vulnerable, scared half to death most of the time and prone to be soft-headed.” This is a finely wrought moment of irony, in which the supposedly advanced civilization proudly congratulates itself for escaping the ignorance of its ancestors. The Moderan people are vulnerable to such hubris because they believe they have outwitted God and become deities in their own right. The Modern people seem to have expunged from their memory the fact that they were once entirely flesh themselves. In this passage, it is interesting that the machine-man enforces a sort of existential distance from the flesh-man. Machine-man believes himself to be a godly species all his own. The past is a source of shame rather than pride. The Moderan society has erected an imitation world that is so plausible that its people not only believe in the truth of the imitation but also start to doubt the existence of the original. For the Moderan people, to stare backward is to stare into an abyss.

Moderan old edition

Moderan society values hardness, militancy and hatred, while it seeks to abolish love, intimacy and compassion. For the machine-man, love is an anachronistic element of human culture and a threat to his civilisation. He believes that love is a form of weakness that distracts from his greater purpose of serving the state through deep meditation and war. The family unit is organised so large physical distances separate members leading hermitic existences and children only see their fathers on holidays for five-minute visits. The family has been economised so the roles of parent and child have been narrowed to the basic functions necessary for the welfare of the Moderan state. Children often undermine these prescribed roles by wriggling out of their solitude and demanding love from others.

Brief family reunions are often comical and tender scenes, in which the child attempts to elicit affection from the withholding parent. In ‘The Complete Father’, a daughter visits her father after one of her significant replacement operations. She starts pleading that they see each other more frequently and act like the loving parents and children on human television. Her scandalised father starts recounting the horrors of ancient, flesh-based family life: “People lived together in clusters of rooms, whole families lumped not only in each other’s consciousness, but together in sight and smell as well as feel. Their personalities were untrue; their characters developed twisted; they were walking nightmares of contradictions because they warped one another by their proximities.” The machine-man obsesses over the purity of the mind because he believes that the mind should always be engaged in the solution of some “universal deep problem”, or in contributing to the advancement of his civilisation. The machine-man’s obsession with solitude is almost as great as his obsession with immortality. Moderan men are all essentially hypochondriacs fearing the most remote source of infection that might compromise their pristine health. In similar fashion, they fear contamination of their minds by the subversive thoughts of others. In a broader sense, the paranoia over the integrity of body extends to that of the mind.

But in ‘The Complete Father’, the machine-man never really believes completely in what he preaches to his daughter. He seems to be saying what must be said or what is expected of him as an abiding citizen of Moderan. While he is excoriating closeness between family members, he is contending with feelings of love for his own daughter. The machine-man narrator sees his daughter dab at her eyes, and he feels “the love tear deep inside him trying again to embarrass him”. Bunch’s machine-man is highly complex because he is always torn between rationality and emotion. The heart (even a mostly steel, mostly artificial heart) rebels against the head. He is after a singleness of mind, a completeness of faith in the scripture of Moderan, but doubt always insinuates itself and nudges him toward existential crisis. The stories of this collection tend to pivot on the machine-man narrator’s doubt toward indoctrinated beliefs regarding the fallibility of flesh-man. When he declares the greatness of the machine-man civilization, he is instructing his daughter but also assuring himself. Despite all his self-flagellation and his attempts at training his own mind to believe otherwise, the narrator cannot help but feel love for his daughter. In Orwellian terms, he is constantly guilty of committing the thoughtcrime of love. The machine-man yearns for the immortality of the machine, while subconsciously and shamefully yearning for the feeling of man.

The protagonist is haunted by death, and his waging of constant warfare is only a distraction from his questioning whether he is truly immortal. In the highly allegorical story, ‘Has Anyone Seen this Horseman’, a horseman tied to his horse visits the protagonist. The allegorical roles have the explicitness and solidity of a fable or an ancient Greek drama. The horseman claims the ropes represent conscience, while the horse, which has been blinded, represents duty. Visitors to the stronghold, like the horseman, children or fully fleshed wanderers, in the fashion of Shakespeare’s fools, bear difficult truths in the guise of insanity or clownishness. Toward the end of the story, the protagonist describes his feelings toward warfare to the horseman. They betray a loss of conviction: “And since it’s come to a discussion, I guess I’m happiest when I’m steel. I guess I’m happiest when I’m in my War Room handing the big orange switch of war to ON and pressing the buttons of launchers. Or, to put it another way, I’m not unhappy or worried or asking questions then—and I’ll settle for that.” The protagonist assumes that the reason for his existence is to wage war but he risks his own sanity when he starts to question whether that war has any purpose at all. The name “Stronghold #10” is ironic because the machine-man is actually weak-willed and prone to lapses of faith. In fact, his ideals are not strongly held at all. He is a creature of deep insecurity, an agnostic who professes to be a believer, or a skeptic who is ashamed of his own skepticism.  

In this highly accomplished and deeply imagined collection of stories, Bunch suspends the machine-man between the realms of machine and human. The tragedy is that the machine-man cannot escape this condition of inbetweenness unless he kills either the machine or human part of himself. These stories are ultimately concerned with what Camus proposed was the only serious philosophical question—that is, the question of suicide, of deciding whether or not life was worth living. In one of the most poignant moments of the collection, in the story, ‘The Final Decision’, the protagonist seriously contemplates suicide and plans to disassemble his machine parts and store his flesh in a box. He cannot find happiness in war-making, love for a metal woman or any of his former joys. The machine-man suffers such despair because though he has been assigned a definitive role in society, he is still eluded by a legitimate sense of purpose. He realises that the Moderan world is all artifice. He knows that he is simply playing a game to pass the time. In Moderan, he functions as a soulless machine and not at all as a human being. His existence in Moderan has become a non-life, a form of spiritual death. For Bunch, love and purpose sustain man, whether part-machine or otherwise, and when neither can be found, he longs for another world. The machine-man does not know what actual death constitutes but at least it contains the possibility of a different sort of life.

 

Darren Huang

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darren Huang is a writer of fiction and criticism based in Manhattan. His work has been published in Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Bookforum, and other publications.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 13th, 2018.