The Rocket

“A Portrait of the Luddite as a Young Man”

By Rodney Gibbs

This essay first appeared in the Denver Quarterly, Volume 39, Number 1. Thanks to Rodney Gibbs and the Denver Quarterly for allowing us to place it online at The Modern Word.

In 1958, two Cornell undergraduates imagined a dystopian future, a time when computers would be carried in shirt pockets and corporations hailed as infallible, and they called it 1998. Writing almost ten years after George Orwell wrote 1984, the young authors, one an engineering major turned toward English, the other the editor of the Cornell Daily Sun, vamped off Orwell’s chilling vision of a monolithic totalitarian state, but theirs is a tale more of humor, horniness, Beatniks, and song. The result of their collaboration is a lascivious Luddite satire called Minstral Island. Perhaps it is but one of many technology-loathing, future-fearing, copulation-adoring musicals of the 1950s, but most certainly it is the only one penned by Thomas Pynchon and Kirkpatrick Sale.
Today the manuscript is housed, almost forgotten, in the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. Squat, windowless, impenetrable and exquisitely well air-conditioned, the HRC is quintessential UT architecture, a fortress safeguarding 45 million pieces of a vast collection of notes, manuscripts, and the correspondence of Byron, Keats, and the sisters Brönte as well as Joyce, Pound, and Eliot and, most recently, President Nixon’s nightmares Woodward and Bernstein. Amid acres of curiosities, including Gloria Swanson’s lorgnette from Sunset Boulevard and the first photograph, snapped by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, in 1826, is an unassuming black accordion box containing the typed manuscript of Pynchon’s first novel, V., with deleted chapters and corrections totaling one hundred pages more than the published edition, and Minstral Island, the unfinished musical by Pynchon and Sale. The HRC acquired this material, including a number of personal letters written by Pynchon, after Sale’s wife Faith died, in 1999. Faith Sale was a 1958 graduate of Cornell, one of the founders, with Donald Barthelme, of the influential literary magazine Fiction, and the editor of John Barth, Amy Tan, and Joseph Heller, among many others. As a junior editor at J.B. Lippincott Company, she helped shepherd V. into print, offering line edits and other help, and later did freelance editorial work on Gravity’s Rainbow. Save for a mention on the HRC’s website and a post or two on an Internet newsgroup devoted to Pynchon, the contents of this particular black box have gone largely unnoticed. I examined the material three times over several months in late 2003 and was the first, second, and third person to do so.
Minstral Island is puerile, lewd and, at times, didactic, qualities easy to forgive considering Pynchon and Sale were a couple of college seniors with too much time on their hands. Their musical might be best read as so much spirited, undisciplined juvenilia had the young authors not seized on themes—underground rebellion, technology and its consequences for people, corporate power and its discontents—that they both have revisited and developed for decades to come.
Minstral Island is a kind of love story with a strident dystopian agenda. When the musical begins, the world is dominated, if not entirely subsumed, by one company, IBM. A representative of the company admonishes a ruffled citizen, saying, “I’m only acting in the best interest of our government, so conceived and so dedicated by IBM’s Master Machine. Any threat against me is a threat against the government.” Led by Johnny Badass, its brazen, avaricious, and dot-com-esque president, IBM has radically redeveloped the United States, converting California’s Salinas Valley into a country club for its employees and evacuating Texas in order to make room for one new resident, the company’s largest memory bank. Now IBM has set its sights on Minstral Island, a dilapidated cousin of Coney Island, home to a motley group of squatters: Beatnik-flavored artists, children’s book writers, antiquated craftsmen, and all-around Carpe Diem chasers. Welcoming the dissidents to their brave new world with the company is IBM’s Regional Coordinator for the Federal Committee on Backward Areas, a woman named, simply, Broad. The ne’er-do-wells she encounters on the island include Sailmaker, Bombmaker, Gambler, Jazzman, and Chick, a loose band of malcontents, society’s hapless rejects, who have slowly and grudgingly migrated across the country, repeatedly settling down and getting to like it only to have IBM arrive and displace them again. The band, now dug in at the eastern edge of the continent, is led by a handsome crooner and paladin of everything artistic who, perhaps unsurprisingly, plays a pivotal role in the story. His name? Hero, of course.
A dyed-in-the-wool company woman, Broad storms Minstral Island calling for the demolition of this antique Ferris wheel, the burning of that Kewpie doll. She condescends to Hero and his clan, assuring them that although they cannot, with their backward minds and throwback ways, possibly understand why, the razing of their home and abandonment of their low-tech vocations will make them happier, more productive members of the company and thus, society. A character known as “Whore,” for example, can look forward to a bright future as a Tube Tester, a job for which, one can only assume, she will repurpose one of her more profitable skills. Broad’s ambitious plan for Whore arouses her lackey, a milquetoast number cruncher fortuitously named Test Tube.
Unlike Big Brother, Broad’s strength stems not from the brutal, all-knowing Thought Police but by deploying relentless volleys of bureaucratic jargon and truisms. “Technology functions best in a social and political climate in which there are no disagreements,” she explains to Hero. “This was established in the case of Cal Tech versus the AEC, back in ‘61.” [Note: The reference here is to a struggle between the Atomic Energy Commission and researchers at Cal Tech's Stanford Linear Accelerator Center—affectionately called the Monster and, sometimes, Project M—who insisted the government recognize their autonomy to work and publish their findings.] A stern, feisty IBM fanatic, Broad presumably enjoys the backing of a police force, but assimilating outcasts like these Minstral Island folks without any untoward displays of force is old hat. Technology is infallible; growth at all costs, essential; absorption, natural—with her help, even hippie rubes like Hero and his troupe will one day fill productive roles. When IBM clears out all the artists, she sings to the colonized and cowed islanders, “The IBM state will have arrived at a millennium, an age of gold; / Institution, constitution and prosperity, peaceful coexistence, freedom with responsibility; / No revolutions. Or even demonstrations.” If only Dick Cheney could carry a tune.
Pynchon and Sale abandoned Minstral Island before Broad could fully realize her corporate paradise. Including a typed initial draft of the first act but only outlines and notes, some typed, others handwritten, of acts two and three, the manuscript is far from complete. Pynchon started strong, with a full first act, typed and lightly edited, that concludes with Hero and his gang, desperate to resist the company and retain their art, their home, and their humanity, forging a daring plan to thwart IBM’s plowing of Minstral Island. With the police and military behind the corporation, forceful resistance would be folly. But Broad, though cold and disciplined, is a woman. Their only hope, the group decides, is for Hero to bed Broad, not so much to make her fall in love with him but to reignite the suppressed human inside her with that time immemorial panacea, coitus. One good roll in the hay and Broad will see things their way, or at least buy the clan time to craft a plan B. Whore, a real team player, offers to coach the hesitant Hero. Though apparently privately tutored by her on earlier occasions, he declines the offer. He can handle Broad on his own, he assures the cheering crowd.
Johnny Badass, however, may take umbrage at Hero’s plans. In an outline for Act Two handwritten by Pynchon, Badass parades to his throne in the boardroom of his New York office, barks orders at his claque, and exults over how delighted he is to be settled at what he calls Camelot. If only he had a Genevieve at his side, he laments, he could “join my test tubes with hers in marriage.” His lucky lab partner to-be is none other than Broad. Not one to squander opportunity, Badass advances a proposal-cum-merger acquisition to Broad during a meeting. The terms look good, the investment wise, the sale almost final, when a delirious woman storms the boardroom. She accuses the Master Machine, a never-seen but oft-referenced Wizard of Oz, of impregnating her and then stealing the baby. Apparently a common accusation, her claims raise no worries for the president as guards haul her away. Meanwhile, women in the office swarm Broad, telling her to jump at the opportunity and give herself to Johnny without reservation. Yet the corporate ladder climber hesitates, even though such a merger makes perfect business sense. A puzzling feeling, an unprecedented flutter in her stomach, gives Broad pause. Most baffling is that the odd queasiness only surfaces when she thinks of that backwards and simple man, Hero.
While Johnny Badass’s name may have been meant merely to amuse or act as a placeholder until inspiration struck, the president represents an idea that resonated with Pynchon well beyond his college days. In 1984, twenty-six years after sketching Minstral Island, Pynchon wrote, “Is It Okay to Be a Luddite?” an essay for the New York Times Book Review, in which an archetype known as “Badass” returns. In detailing the history of Ned Lud, the lionized founder of the Luddite movement, Pynchon praises him as a “dedicated Badass.” The legend of Lud stirs Pynchon, and he goes on to define the Badass as a historical figure not memorable for his heroic deeds or “fit[s] of insane rage,” as Pynchon notes the OED characterizes Mr. Lud’s machine-bashing exploits, but rather as a purveyor of a “controlled, martial-arts type anger.” While Johnny Badass would doubtless be Lud’s sworn enemy, his managed but angry outbursts at his employees make him, in effect, the archetype gone corporate, his rebelliousness turned profitable. Men, according to Pynchon, admire this Badass archetype for two reasons: he is Big and he is Bad. “Bad meaning not morally evil, necessarily,” he writes, “more like able to work mischief on a large scale.” Johnny Badass isn’t exactly a malevolent figure, but he holds such immense power that he makes a mess of anyone foolish enough not to acquiesce to IBM’s designs. “What is important here,” Pynchon adds, “is the amplifying of scale, the multiplication of effect.” What fueled the original Luddite movement according to Pynchon were the concentration of capital that each stocking frame machine represented and the ability of each machine to eliminate a certain number of human jobs. The IBM of Johnny Badass, far more efficient and pervasive than nineteenth-century Great Britain’s textile mills, multiplies innumerable effects, which repress Hero and his clan more completely than any stocking frame ever inhibited Ned Lud.
Badass may possess charisma and power, but only Hero can make Broad feel. Sitting alone in her room at the conclusion of Act Two, she turns to her ever-present computer, a kind of proto-Palm Pilot, for help deciphering her strange new feeling. The machine diagnoses her with “love: an archaic word referring to libidinous and almost always sexual stimuli occurring in the pre-civilized humans. Has no meaning, value or application in present society.” Yet, for the first time in her life, Broad doubts the machine. Likewise, Hero, finding there’s more to Broad than a potential score, discovers himself falling for the company gal, an abhorrent notion to his friends on the island. Aching for each other yet separated by ideological differences, the two sing of their love in a split-stage number. Broad sings the “Think!” song, a leitmotif of the musical:

Whenever we worry about the world and its woes, Whenever a crucial electro-tube blows, We think and everything turns out fine.

The anodyne fails to comfort her, and she soon considers a heretical act: leaving the company for love. Hero meanwhile sings of his willingness to join IBM if only to be with Broad. As the star-crossed lovers pine for each other from opposite sides of the stage, Whore enters center stage, caterwauls over the “joys of getting it on,” according to Sale’s notes, tagged on after Pynchon’s outline, and copulates with Test Tube. By now little more than a sketch, the manuscript helpfully points out how this scene contrasts the love of the heart and that of the groin, both of which are alien yet suddenly exceptionally magnetic to Broad.
A few penciled notes in Pynchon’s hand dot the margins of the manuscript—“’Think’ song here?” and “Too on-the-nose” and “Shit!”—yet very little discussion between the authors is evident. Pynchon’s marks call for Sale to insert songs throughout, and while Sale wrote a few lyrics, some running on for five handwritten pages, the collaboration apparently ended before they could plug the many holes. The manuscript, this collection of loose pages in a weathered manila folder, preserves a record of the two authors working independently—brainstorming, more likely—with the intention of integrating their efforts at a later date. Petering out before fully outlining an ending, the authors provide only scribbled notes, some illegible, on the final pages, leaving one uncertain how, exactly, they intended to conclude the work.
What’s clear is that circumstances keep Broad and Hero from uniting, and IBM’s plans, of course, march forward. Sensing defeat, Hero’s gang plots its escape, just as they did years before, when their Texas home was overtaken. Suggesting an alternative tact, Bombmaker unveils one of his more stunning creations. Known for their intricate craftsmanship yet impotent explosiveness, Bombmaker’s latest weapon is no exception. Though it looks marvelous and ornate, the bomb could not muster even a firecracker’s pop. Hero raises the useless invention high above his head and jokes about using it to destroy the Master Machine, wherever they keep the thing. Pulverizing it would be a marvelous step back for technology and a fantastic step forward for humanity, he crows. Broad, having left the company to join her love, stumbles upon the farce and mistakes it for scheming. The shock of discovering that her true love is a terrorist sends her back to the only haven she knows, the arms of IBM. Badass, duty bound to quash any threat to the company and state—it’s hard to tell the two apart—unleashes IBM’s full force on the rebels. The manuscript grows cloudy here, proposing vaguely that Hero and company escape on a boat—sails provided by Sailmaker—just before the corporate invasion. Their destination is unknown, but a paradise without technology apparently is their aim.
Since collaborating with Pynchon on Minstral Island, Sale developed and deepened his nascent skepticism of technology to a fine degree. In addition to his environmental writings and work—he founded the New York State Green Party—he has written many critiques of the pervasiveness of technology and society’s deference to the machine, the most well known being Rebels against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution. Hero may be only a budding if hapless Luddite, fantasizing idly about bombing the Master Machine, but in Sale’s later writing such notions mature and benefit from his philosophical complexity and historical understanding. In his 1995 essay for The Nation, “Unabomber’s Secret Treatise: Is There Method In His Madness?” Sale shows sympathy for those who stand up to technology’s impact:

The Unabomber and I share a great many views about the pernicious effect of the Industrial Revolution, the evils of modern technologies, the stifling effect of mass society, the vast extent of suffering in a machine-dominated world and the inevitability of social and environmental catastrophe if the industrial system goes unchecked.

Six months later, Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was arrested in a one-room, electricity-free Montana cabin. Sale unequivocally condemns Kaczynski’s method—Sale does not advocate harming anyone to protest technology—even as he wants to distinguish and separate that method from the ideas that motivated him and give them serious, sustained consideration.
In Rebels against the Future, Sale makes clear that principled dissidents striking out against industry was not a novel idea in 1958, never mind 1998. Witness Scotland’s Luddites in the early ninetieth century, Ireland’s Fenians of the 1860s, and the coal miners’ Battle of Matewan, in West Virginia, in 1920. Dissertations and books exploring the connections between these movements could—and should—be written, but the remarkable thing here is how Minstral Island, a juvenile, unfinished brain fart of an endeavor, sketches and dramatizes what becomes, for Sale, a life’s passion. In another Nation essay, he delineates seven lessons from the Luddite movement, instructions like “Industrialism is always a cataclysmic process, destroying the past, roiling the present, making the future uncertain,” which could serve as an epigraph for Minstral Island or a rallying cry for Hero and his friends to protest the devastating effect of IBM’s growth. Sale showed himself—and his school chum—to be astute students of history at an age when others are just awaking from four-year beer stupors, and he latched onto a subject that has not only defined his career but also metastasized into the Unabomber’s baffling, indiscriminate crimes.
Minstral Island introduces themes and worries that concern Pynchon still, too, but his collaboration with Sale may be most notable for being his earliest known work to feature show-stopping musical numbers. Characters in Pynchon’s novels are like people, but they are also actors on a stage, straight men, hams, and stars, all giving voice to their outsized feelings and their author’s big ideas. Often they break into song, from “The Tube,” in Vineland, to a Yoyodyne corporate sing-along in The Crying of Lot 49 which features a tune pitched to Cornell’s alma mater and the anthem in Gravity’s Rainbow sung in praise of teen spirit, which begins, “I’ll tell you it’s just —out, —ray, —juss, / Spirit is so —con, —tay, —juss, / Nobody knows their a-ges...”
While the musical prefigures Pynchon’s later use of songs, it also harkens back to an earlier tradition. Minstral Island, as shabby and unfortunately incomplete as it stands, follows in the dissenting spirit of Frankenstein, a novel that Pynchon, writing in “Is It Okay to Be a Luddite?” calls a great example of Luddite literature, “warning of what can happen when technology, and those who practice it, get out of hand.” Both the musical and Mary Shelley’s novel represent earnest attempts “through literary means which are nocturnal and deal in disguise, to deny the machine.”
Suspicion of technology, particularly its pernicious effects on politics and individuality, surfaces repeatedly in Pynchon’s fiction and essays. In his introduction for a new edition of 1984, published for Orwell’s centennial, Pynchon writes of the problems faced by fascist states when controlling desire:

Hitler was known for some unconventional sexual tastes. Heaven knows what Stalin was into. Even fascists have needs, which, at least so they dream, the enjoyment of limitless power will allow them to indulge. So although they may be willing to attack the psychosexual profiles of those who threaten them, there may at least be some moment of hesitation before they do.

Machines, however, can’t grasp desire, making their potential for oppression exponentially worse than any dictator’s. “Of course,” Pynchon writes, “when all the machinery of enforcement is assigned to computers, which do not, at least as presently designed, experience desire in any form we would find appealing, why then it will be another story.” Broad envisions such a day, too, but with naïve optimism. “Not only are there two cars in every garage, two chickens in every pot, but the national debt is higher than ever before,” she says, boasting of the success of IBM. “The Machine knows everyone’s wants and needs before they do.” To Broad, that all-knowing machine represents the apex of efficiency and, therefore, happiness. While she may take comfort in such powerful machines, Pynchon and Sale warn otherwise. And if a little mockery, an underlying argument, and some lecherous songs help make the message go down, so be it.

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