Thursday, June 23, 2016
VINTAGE PAPERBACK OF THE WEEK: Harold Livingston, THE CLIMACTICON (1960)
Harold Livingston's Climacticon barely qualifies as science fiction. Set in the present of its writing, it's really a satire of that moment. It's a moment the 21st century knows through the Mad Men TV show, and like that series Climacticon is focused on the world of advertising. The ad businesses fascinated and horrified people during the 1950s, a decade in which advertising became unprecedentedly intrusive thanks to TV. Critics decried the raucous banality of oldschool hard-sell sloganeering advertising, but also saw a distressing resemblance to the propaganda industries of totalitarian powers. Others found it all so stupid that it was just funny. Livingston falls in that category.He's fascinated by the raw hucksterism of it, as practiced by colorfully grotesque corporate huskers who make Donald Trump look presidential by comparison. The ad agency where our hero works is run by a southerner and a former college football star; that gives Livingston an excuse to write the character's dialogue in drawling dialect and stuff it with gridiron metaphors. The industrialist whose account the agency covets -- its main product is a laxative -- talks in staccato telegraphic outbursts consciously modeled on the supposed efficiency of newspaper headlines. One problem a modern reader will have with Climacticon is Livingston's assumption that these odd ways of speaking are inherently funny. These characters are outsized clowns to exaggerate the contrast with our hero and narrator, a typical neurotic corporate striver who bumbles his way into a coveted five-window office thanks to his almost random encounter with an equally archetypal "milquetoast" scientist whose invention is the dread Climacticon, the wonder device that by the time of the novel's opening retrospective chapter has been banned by the United States government.
What is the Climacticon? Nothing quite as climactic as its name suggests. Let its inventor, Richard Richards, explain:
The Climacticon is a simple device. It detects and measures emotion.It is capable of measuring the very peak of an emotion, its climactic moment. Hence the name, Climacticon....It receives impulses. Vibrations. Like a Geiger counter. This, on the extreme left, this is the 'emometer.' Merely by consulting this meter, and by proper correlation, I can determine what type emotional vibrations are being transmitted....The second instrument measures the intensity of an emotion. For example, I could determine whether two women in an argument were likely to become dangerously violent....The third instrument is a quite elementary homing mechanism.The 'homer,' as I call it, is an almost exact facsimile of an aircraft radio compass. It simply homes in on the signals -- the vibrations -- and indicates their geographic direction.
Thanks to an authorial gimme, the Climacticon can only detect female emotions. Richards had been hoping to detect love, but that has proven too subtle for his invention's sensors. It's better at detecting "urgent desire." Practically speaking, it allows a man to determine who in a room full of women is horny, ready and willing. It has the potential to be a time and labor saving device for single men and straying marrieds. Our hero borrows it to test its potential, lets a colleague from the laxative company borrow it, and is fired when the colleague is laid up the following morning. The hero's superiors are understandably doubtful when he explains how the man exhausted himself, but after the bosses take the Climacticon out for an evening they not only rehire our hero but leap into the Climacticon business, albeit at a moment when Richard Richards is still expecting our hero to return his prototype.The hero persuades Richards by hooking him up with a onetime girlfriend and the factories start to hum.
At some point The Climacticon becomes less of an ad-agency satire or mild sex comedy and more of an outdated political satire. An inevitable female backlash against the Climacticon -- its slogan is "Does She or Doesn't She?" -- gets the attention of the congressional Immoral Activities Committee and its boisterous chairman, Sen. Jim Maginty. Yes, with Joe McCarthy three years in his grave, and his movement dead before that, Livingston proceeds to regale us with not so much a satire of McCarthyism than a parody of McCarthy and his ambiguous minions, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine. You know, "I have in my hand" this, "Point of order" that. Perhaps, you don't know, since all this happened a long time ago, but it probably seemed like a long time ago within very few years, and I can't help thinking that people would have found Livingston's mockery of McCarthy akin to beating a literally dead horse, if they didn't find it still too sore of a subject to be funny. The second option is unlikely, for we were thicker-skinned people in those ancient days. The end result of it all is that the Climacticon is banned and our hero is fired again. His last-ditch attempt to redeem himself involves burning the Climacticon factory for the insurance money, but there are just a couple more abrupt twists in his trail to that five-window office. Suffice it to say that his triumph is based on the ruin of innocent people -- not that he cares, this being a satire and he being a soulless organization man with a contraband Climacticon in his closet. There were many like him in popular fiction of the time, and you might catch a faint resemblance between him and the desperate status-seeking corporate strivers in some of Philip K. Dick's early novels. While Dick made his novels timeless by projecting them into the future, Livingston's Climacticon is trapped in its own time and is worth reading only as an artifact of that era, for those who might find its datedness more entertaining now than its satire was then.