David R. Bunch, who passed away in 2000 at age 74, may be the best kept secret in New Wave sci-fi. As far as I can tell, only two of the hundreds of stories he wrote are still in print. These two tales, included in Harlan Ellison’s pathbreaking 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions, served as my introduction to Bunch’s work. And what a stunning introduction they were—in an all-star collection, filled with the stars of 1960s sci-fi, Bunch’s two brief tales impressed me more than any of the other illustrious narratives.
Ellison himself clearly recognized Bunch's exceptional talent. Bunch was the only contributor to have more than a single story accepted for the volume. In his intro to one of the stories, Ellison noted that Bunch was "a writer whose work I admire vastly. And a writer who has, oddly enough, barely received the acclaim due to him." Looking over the assembled talents who participated in Dangerous Visions—a cast of free radicals that included Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard and Samuel R. Delany—Ellison added: "Bunch is possibly the most dangerous visionary of all those assembled here."
I was so struck by Bunch’s whimsical and outlandish prose style and arch attitudes, that I decided to track down more of his work. This proved much harder than I anticipated. Bunch only published two short story collections during his career, and both of them have been out-of-print for decades. A few second-hand copies are available from online retailers, but are usually sold at astronomical prices. I did some online snooping and found that, for some puzzling reason, several copies of Bunch's most famous workModeran were available from booksellers in Spain at only modestly outlandish prices. I placed an order from a librería in Granada, Spain. When my copy of Moderan arrived a couple weeks later, I opened the package in eager anticipation—only to learn that it I had just purchased an (out-of-print) Spanish translation of Bunch's book. At this point, I turned to US sellers of overpriced, beat-up, out-of-print sci-fi paperbacks, and after shelling out a sizable chunk of change, I finally acquired Bunch's Moderan in English.
Yes, it was worth the time and trouble. Bunch didn't play by the same rules as most of his peers in the genre fiction field. Moderan is written in an extravagant first-person style that attempts to emulate the speech patterns of a robot-and-human mashup from a future dystopia. Every sentence and paragraph of this book has been polished to a fine metallic finish, and while reading it I found myself compelled to recite certain passages aloud, just to savor the odd cadences and phraseology. Here our narrator talks about the scientific breakthrough of Moderan society—which consists mostly of quasi-men who have replaced the majority of their flesh parts with advanced metal components. The most privileged members of the society are more than 90% metal.
"As steel men we were essentially but extensions of what man has always been. The essential man had been extended, I'm trying to say. The essence of normal man was and is and always will be the feeling of, 'I AM the greatest and most deserving thing in ail the Universe and I should have preference wherever I go.' This is true collectively and it is equally true individually. There was never normal man so lowly but what he, if given the smallest smallest chance to rise, would start regarding himself as a winner for sure. The domain of his aspirations will have no NO ceiling and no NO walls: The whole universe will be his pumpkin, his and his alone. A ghastly, slimy, ungodly contrivance he, in many ways, is. But he has, let's face it, one saving grace. He is to be counted on to be his ghastly, rotten, slimy, true-bad self until the end. He is reliable, let us say, in that his total badness is assured. And in that he is godly."
Unlike almost every other dystopian sci-fi book, Moderan lets the rulers of the degraded future society speak for themselves, in their own words, and in defense of their own actions. For this to work, Bunch needs to impart a degree of hidden irony and double-meaning to virtually every paragraph in the book. Yet he also gives his warlord narrator a touch of a poetic sensibility, and even a bit of human sentimentality. By any measure, this is virtuoso performance—and I can’t think of more than a half-dozen sci-fi authors of the era who could have pulled it off with such finesse and persistence. The end result is an odd but convincing combination of humor, social criticism and psychological insight.
The closest book to Moderan, among the other futuristic works of its era, is Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, released around the same time that Bunch began publishing his Moderan stories. Like Burgess, Bunch realized that the conceptualization of a different kind of society ideally involves the creation of a different kind of language, a new body of speech patterns. Burgess's wordplay is largely indebted to Joyce and other experimental authors of the first half of the 20th century. Bunch's sources are harder to pinpoint, but his futuristic metal men sometimes remind me of medieval chroniclers in their language, at other times their words resemble the belligerent taunting of skinheads at a British football match right before the rioting and hooliganism get out of control. To emphasize the effect, Bunch liberally uses exclamation points and all capital letters. Yet he also mixes in sweet metaphors and quasi-Shakespearean imagery. The finished product is sui generis, a way of expression that exists solely within the pages of this book.
The philosophical content in Moderan is almost as fascinating as the work's linguistic effects. The name Nieztsche does not appear anywhere in this book, but clearly his fingerprints are all over its dystopian society. In Moderan, the sword is truly mightier than the pen—and supersized bombs are mightier than either. The practical result of the melding of advanced metals with flesh is that the 'improved' citizens of Moderan are almost indestructible. This new- found invincibility inspires them to devote most of their energy to warfare and domination. Many of the most poetic passages in the book are devoted to singing the praises of various weapons and their consequences. Behind all this bluster, Bunch makes a case for peace and fellowship—but only by presenting this over-the- top counterexample.
The only clumsiness in this book is due to its origins as separate short stories. Bunch made some token efforts to create the appearance that Moderan is a novel not a collection of isolated tales. But he didn't successfully integrate the separate works into a flowing, holistic narrative. As a result, the connecting passages don't adequately connect, and the individual sections are marked by repetitions and occasional contradictions. In most of the stories, the Moderan civilization is devoted to warfare, but in a handful of 'chapters'the narrator adheres to much different priorities, aiming to spend as much time as possible meditating over deep philosophical issues. Another cavil: too many of the stories here repeat a predictable plot of a visitor coming to a warlord’s stronghold and sharing a more humanistic and traditional viewpoint. The ensuing dialogue between worldviews is fascinating, at least at first, but not after the fifth or sixth repetitions. Even with these flaws, Moderan is a tour de force, worthy of praise (and a return to print); but it would have been even better if Bunch had exercised some judicious editing and pruning.
Although I offer these tiny gripes about the book, my main complaint is targeted at the parties who have kept this work out-of-print for decades, and haven’t salvaged more of the hundreds of stories Bunch published in magazines during his lifetime. Make no mistake, David R. Bunch was a big-time talent even if he only left behind a small-time reputation. He can't change that now, but we can…and should.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book, a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.