Dirt: The future is Moderan
The existential anxieties of an empire that finally understood it could die.
Bijan Stephen on a midcentury warning from David R. Bunch.
I have read the future and it is Moderan. The new-metal place, where man has covered the Earth in plastic and finally mastered death by paring down his flesh to almost nothing. There is no love in Moderan, only Joys, and hate is the true virtue.
Moderan was written into existence in the midcentury by David R. Bunch, who first spent 22 years as a cartographer for the Defense Mapping Agency in St. Louis. Bunch’s Moderan stories began appearing in sci-fi magazines in the 1950s; in 1971, the first Moderan story collection, Moderan, was published, and was promptly forgotten. I mean, kind of.
Bunch is remembered as a writer’s writer. Meaning that his work was largely too “out there” for the reading public while he sat at his writing desk — and Bunch was publishing poetry and fiction right up until his death in 2000. But that status also led to the reissue of an expanded version of Moderan by NYRB Classics in 2018. A rediscovery.
Today, Bunch’s dystopia feels alive and weirdly prescient: the Moderan stories are morality plays from the future we’re barreling into. “I’m not in this business primarily to describe or explain or entertain,” Bunch told the magazine Amazing Stories in 1965. “I’m here to make the reader think, even if I have to bash his teeth out, break his legs, grind him up, beat him down, and totally chastise him for the terrible and tinsel and almost wholly bad world we allow.” You can feel it in the work.
I cracked Moderan open on a train from New York City up to Hudson, and I was immediately engrossed — as much by the ecstatic language as by the plausible oddness of the world Bunch thought up. Let me give you a quick primer.
In Moderan, which is a country that seems to take up most of Earth, people replace most of their bodies with “new-metal.” The more metal you have — the less flesh you have — the more senior your position in society. (Bunch has a particular fascination with gold plating one’s throat to prevent cancer.) They did this, obviously, to kill death. The people in Moderan coated the world in a few feet of plastic, and while the air is poison to those without flexi-flex lungs, the weather is controlled by Central — the government.
Depending on the month the air itself is colored by what they call a vapor shield. All plant and animal life is dead and replaced by tin simulacra. Families grow up separated. Daughters in one place, sons in another, wives somewhere else, and fathers at work. The old world does still exist as a country called Olderan (or Olderrun), which the people of Moderan loathe. It is quite an inventive future.
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Most of the stories concern a man named Stronghold 10, which is also the name of his fort. Strongholds are something like feudal lords: they are the movers and shakers in society, analogous to the people who get streets named after their families in the present day. Their main activity is war, which they do in highly regulated fashion — with the guns, the missiles, the walking doll bombs, the high-up weird screaming wreck-wrecks, the White Witch rockets, the Honest Jakes. Stronghold 10 arrives in Moderan nameless from the Old Land, and is transformed. Here’s how his transformation is (stomach-churningly) described.
Do you like to watch blood? Do you like to watch your own blood? Do you like to watch any blood spurting, gurgling, gushing, falling into very clear clean glass containers, missing and falling on to the floor sometimes, going all over everything is that funny foamy red color, with all your towels, rugs, cloths and sponges soaked and the smell…? Do you? Do you like to watch flesh being snipped, sliced, carved, shredded and made over. Do you? Do you like to watch your own flesh………? How about bones? Do you like to see bones sawed? I mean, like butchers in a butchers shop? Do you like to watch live near-relative bones being gone after with big axes? Do you like to see own bones slipped out of flesh and skin? (Oh, they seem strange, so unhomed wet and slick!) I mean, do you like personal boning? Do you…………………………?
The process, Stronghold 10 reports, took 9 months. He says the surgeons don’t make a cut unless you’re awake and aware: “(It is well known that the ordinary average everyday person in the Old Days went through his entire average-Joe or average-Jane life without scratching the surface even of the solid experiences of physical pain the human body can be made capable of. And that was of course, in a way, a total experience loss.)”
It’s worth it for 10, and he is proud of his crossing over. He’s proud of his castle, his kingdom, never mind that what happened to him may have driven him mad. Stronghold 10 is very sane for his society:
“To be forever a metal man! with just a few flesh-strips playing my tough self down! DEATH lay defeated! TIME stood trounced, Stronghold-whipped.”
Moderan is us. Bunch’s stories were his attempt to channel the existential anxieties of an empire that finally understood it could die. That it might not go on forever as it was, that it might be right to fear any change because that might then mean the end. Instinctually empire rebels: it coats itself in plastic to try and stop the inexorable dark, and declares war on the idea of death itself. This is how Moderan lost its humanity. (Though as the later stories show: human longings never leave us, even if we’re disconnected from the words to express what we’re searching for.)
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Bunch’s society does spare a thought for the people who aren’t Moderan’s masters. The half new-metal people, the ones who aren’t deemed worthy enough to become Strongholds, exist only to serve the Moderan Dream — the one that’s dreamt by those former Strongholds who have graduated to the highest council. The visions of the richest and most powerful. And this is the Moderan dream:
But now we’re in the clear, thanks to science, our once-dirty Earth-ball clean now, coated with plastic, our hardly-used air, mostly a decoration now, colored in beauty with a different hue each month (oh, lovely vapor shield!), our once garbage-wrecked oceans frozen to solid, with any surplus space-hauled long ago, and our temperatures as quiet and as changeless as ever we want them to be, through Season Control in Central. And the birds! The birds are colored tin now! And the animals all are engined. While the trees in eersatz leap through the planned Earth holes and bloom us up “real” leaves that last the course. AH MODERAN! Land where leaves do not drop; land of the plasto-coated land—sweet sweet my shard-hard home.
Plastic has begun to coat the world, and our planet is rapidly becoming uninhabitable for many of us. We have not yet begun to replace ourselves with metal. But the dream is already being dreamt. — Bijan Stephen