One of the great misnomers in science fiction is the term “apocalyptic.” As critic David Ketter observed, “an apocalyptic transformation results from the creation of a new condition . . . whereby man’s horizons . . . are abruptly expanded,” but the word is all too often used just to denote any postdisaster setting.
The “apocalypse” in Jack Dann’s 1984 novel The Man Who Melted (reprinted this year by Pyr Books with a concise, insightful, and spoiler-free introduction by Robert Silverberg) truly qualifies. Rather than merely wrecking the world, “the Great Scream” at the center of the story creates a truly new condition. As one character says, “Communicating with the dead is a common and indisputable fact” now, and the doors to the unconscious have been flung open—for reasons, and with results, that those living through the event can only guess at.
The Great Scream turned millions of people all over the world into “Screamers,” human beings with bicameral minds. They “hallucinate instead of think” and, when their gathering together hits a critical mass, “become telepathic and develop mass empathy or a collective unconscious.” Anyone who comes into contact with them runs the risk of being not only torn apart by their rampaging mobs but also psychically damaged by them, even if they escape physical injury. There is also a chance of succumbing to their collective insanity and becoming a Screamer oneself. Following the Great Scream, Screamer mobs “tore New York City apart, leaving thousands dead and countless others roving about like mind-deadened victims of a concentration camp,” a fate since suffered by a great many other cities as the Screamers overran countries and continents.
The source of the Great Scream is debated more than explained in the story, starting with the epigraphs at the front of the book. The first is a passage from famed psychiatrist R. D. Laing’s book The Politics of Experience about “schizophrenic alienation from the alienation of society,” hinting that what happened was a reaction of the irreconcilable to a deranged world, which nearly destroyed it and may yet complete the job. The prospect provokes terror in most of the survivors (governments resort to bombing cities fallen to the Screamers), though others fervently await the day. The Church of the Christian Criers, seeing in the Screamers a doorway into the neglected, repressed, sacred unconscious, awaits a “Great Purge” that will complete the Great Scream’s work and finally end humanity’s collective estrangement from its “internal world.”
Rather than dating The Man Who Melted, this idea has made it more rather than less relevant over time. The book’s cults and religious fundamentalisms (there is not just the Church of the Criers but a Mahdi as well) and the celebration of the unconscious and irrational that one character scornfully compares to that of Nazi Germany echo our own time to perhaps an even greater extent than the one in which Dann was writing. Social commentator Morris Berman wrote in The Twilight of American Culture about the pendulum swinging back toward a “Jungian world of symbols rather than thoughts”; journalist Chris Hedges talks about the abandonment of a “reality-based world” by tens of millions of Christian fundamentalists as the politics of three decades ago became established, even entrenched, in the mainstream.
Maybe because the idea of a mass reversion to an unconscious way of living has become more rather than less pertinent, other science fiction writers have used the theme since Dann penned his classic, some quite successfully (perhaps most notably, Neal Stephenson). However, none of the other treatments match the sheer scope and force of Dann’s vision, his effective handling of it in precisely the postapocalyptic terms mentioned earlier.
As Silverberg notes, Dann wrote The Man Who Melted as a poet, not an engineer, “concerned primarily with the future as a visionary construct, almost as a dream, rather than as a tangible reality.” Given the subject matter of Dann’s book, it is hard to picture it having been written any other way, the essence of this world being in the line between dream, daydream, and hallucination on the one hand and reality on the other, and the implications of that line’s abruptly vanishing, things that cannot be neatly rooted in a futurist’s projections. There is everywhere in Dann’s future a giving way to the irrational, the extranormal, the unconscious, to things like telepathy (“natural” and through psyconductors that let people “hook into” one another’s minds), speaking with the dead, and broken landscapes of broken minds. (Even Dann’s protagonist Raymond Mantle is a “subliminal artist” who specializes in creating paintings filled with details that the onlooker perceives only unconsciously.) There is everywhere an obsession with death, manifested in ways that can only be depicted surreally, from casinos where players hooked into one another gamble for organs to elaborate suicides based on the re-creation of historic disasters—epitomized by the resinking of the Titanic, using the salvaged and refurbished luxury liner itself.
Nonetheless, despite its extravagant and surreal touches, Dann’s early twenty-second-century future is carefully detailed. Even from an engineering standpoint, some of his extrapolations are surprisingly prescient, not least his depiction of “the Net,” which today seems far closer to the mark than its presentation by contemporaneous cyberpunks, partly because of its subtlety. The references to outmoded technologies like floppy disks in William Gibson’s Sprawl stories, for instance, cost them some verisimilitude when read now, but while reading Dann’s book it is possible to have no idea how old it is without checking the copyright date. (Ironically, two of the ways in which Dann’s novel shows its age, namely its preponderance of jet-set luxury and casual sex, so much more common in popular fiction when he conceived this story, actually heighten the dreamlike feel so crucial to its effect.) Fortunately, the invisibility of the gadgetry does not deprive Dann of the opportunity to offer striking images, ranging from the haunting to the revolting and grotesque. The settings are especially rich, from the backstreets of a Naples overrun by the Screamers in the opening scene (powerful in its vividness and bleakness) to the “great glass beast” of Dann’s multilevel future Paris, the cold epitome of Gaullist hypermodernity on the surface but something quite different underneath.
More important, Dann seamlessly blends the story’s speculative elements with its human ones. For all its breadth and spectacle, The Man Who Melted is less devoted to building a big picture of the disaster than telling the story of Raymond trying to put the pieces of his life back together in the aftermath of the Great Scream. Believing that his missing wife, Josiane, may have been killed by the Screamers or become one of them, and stripped even of the memory of her by the psychic havoc they have wrought (which heightens rather than diminishes his pain), he is completely consumed by the search for her. The core of the drama is Ray’s need for Josiane, and the tortured relationships among the people still there for him: his lover Joan Otur and his old friend Carl Pfeiffer, their tangle of inescapable connections and deep-seated needs, into which the psychic and technical changes of their surroundings play. Ray, Carl, and Joan are all damaged people, their tragically interconnected life stories a reminder of how this world came to be on the verge of being overrun by Screamers and perhaps a warning of what remains in store for them and their world.
Again, given the content, it is no great surprise that The Man Who Melted‘s narrative is not always neatly linear, and on a first reading, at least, it appears to suffer from what would usually be considered flaws in its structure (since some major events happen with too little foreshadowing, and the story seems to meander a bit in the middle third). Nonetheless, Dann’s characters and world are self-consistent, and the strangeness that could so easily have been a weakness ends up as an asset, lending credibility to the plot twists by contributing to a genuine sense that anything might happen. While this can of course simply be taken as a sign of haphazard plotting, the shattering conclusion amply justifies what came before. Put simply, even when the book is not straightforward, it is not sloppy, it does not cheat, and at no point should readers feel that their patience is being tried. Where so much great literature becomes frustrating or impenetrable in its attempt to portray things that cannot be described, The Man Who Melted never does, to its great credit.
Nader Elhefnawy is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Literature at the University of Miami for the 2007-08 year. His articles and reviews of science fiction have appeared in several publications, including the New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, the Internet Review of Science Fiction, and Tangent Online.