Book Review: The Burning, James E. Gunn (1972)


(Robert Foster’s evocative cover for the 1972 edition)

3.25/5 (collated rating: Above Average)

James E. Gunn’s The Burning (1972) is a fix-up novel containing three previously published but linked novelettes: ‘Witches Must Burn’ (1956), ‘Trial By Fire’ (1969), and ‘Witch Hunt’ (1969).  The first two are contiguous while the third section is more loosely related.  I will rate each separately as I did with the superior The Immortals (1962).

As someone who has lived in areas of the United States plagued by virulent strains of anti-intellectualism, massive higher education funding cuts (especially in the liberal arts), and an increasing emphasis on “practical” fields of study, James E. Gunn’s The Burning (1972) is a profoundly unsettling read.  Of course Gunn’s dystopic future is much more one of doom and gloom: The universities lie in smoldering ruins, the professors (“eggheads”) have been murdered, and the “Lowbrow movement” (39) (a mob) playing on the fears of the common man has seized power.

More than simply a critique of anti-intellectualism, the The Burning contains social themes born from a gamut of Cold War fears — chief among them, increasing public distrust of the scientific establishment whose research created nuclear weapons.  Thus, the intellectuals of Gunn’s future (and perhaps, to this day) fail to see the potential ramifications of their inventions and are thus far from reproach.  Because the public’s security is threatened the universities become scapegoats.

In Gunn’s view both the people who have violently lashed out in fear against the scientists (and other intellectuals) and the scientists themselves deserve the blame.  The way the destructive tides of the resulting Dark Age [queue numerous misconceptions of the Medieval era] can be ameliorated is to bring knowledge to the people by going among the people — if this practical knowledge is viewed as witchcraft and magic, so be it.  The knowledge generated by insular debate amongst academics needs to be translated in some way to the people.

The intriguing subject matter — in a way a demystification of the pre-1950s cult of the scientist — in itself does not make a satisfying novel.  The work reads more as a polemical brochure than a novel.  Despite my adoration and predilection for social science fiction, I found the sheer quantity and length of the social critique exasperating.  Regardless, The Burning is worth reading for fans of James Gunn and social science fiction of the 50s and 60s.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*spoilers*)

Part I ‘Witches Must Burn’ (47 pages) 3.25/5 (Average):  John Wilson, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Psychology is on the run after a mob destroys his university.  The forces at play are the mob driven forces of anti-science — “a continuous threat through the fabric of man’s intellectual history, an antithesis to the thesis of man’s conquest of his environment” (20).  But Wilson is not blameless.  Until he was forced to consider the reason for his dire situation he was blind to the social dangers that his “electroencephalograph” (21), a tool that turns psychology from a “mere intuitive art” to one with an “objective basis” (9), could cause.  His invention has the potential, in that it predicts what people will think, to be used as a weapon.

While on the lam Wilson’s forced to come to grips with his predicament while eluding the “lowbrow” mob.  He meets up with a blonde bombshell named Pam — who engages him in rigorous academic debate about the reasons for the decay of society and what to do about.  She argues that the “Lowbrow movement can’t be stopped, but it can be guided” (39).  Eventually, he meets up with a society of individuals who attempt to convince Wilson to admit he’s wrong: “too long they [the universities] served as fortresses of isolation, walling in the learned man” (42).  More importantly, “the Lowbrow seeks his security in human convictions and faiths and strong attachments; you seek your security in the assurance of Absolute Law.  Both are static; both are equally deadly” (42).  Wilson admits his faults and sets off to find the “truth about himself” (47).  And that involves turning himself in… This “truth” is a compromise between the two static poles.

Part II ‘Trial By Fire’ (51 pages) 3.5/5 (Good):  The world has descended into some variation of the feudal state where the Senator who facilitated the destruction of the universities is now a dictator supported by the masses.  Part II contains two narrative threads which link chronologically at the end.  The first, follows Wilson’s kangaroo court trial for supposedly destroying his own university.  The second follows his earlier position — before he turned himself in — as a “witch doctor” in a rural community where he uses his scientific knowledge to heal common ailments of an increasingly superstitious people who believe science is magic.

The rate of social change (democracy to feudal state) and the complete shift from science as something that can be provable to science as magic strikes me as rather preposterous…  Especially since television and other forms of technology are still in use!  While Wilson’s a witch doctor he tutors students who are interesting in following in his footsteps.  But like him, they need to go out into the world because “knowledge is worthless without an end.  The idle learner is a danger no only to himself but to others.  He will put his knowledge to work only to satisfy his idle curiosity, heedless of the consequences” (57).  Wilson’s trial — through most of which he’s drugged and unable to offer his own testimony — concludes and he’s found guilty.  And, on the way to the pyre he’s rescued….

Part III ‘Witch Hunt’ (53 pages) 3/5 (Average): While the first two parts were straightforward narratives with large polemical digressions, Part III takes a fabulist turn.  I found this strangely jarring and not as effective as the first two parts.  A nameless pilgrim, a student of a witch doctor, journeys out among the people in order to learn about the world and about himself.  On the way he meets a young female pilgrim with whom he falls in love.  Their paths intersect numerous times as he encounters neo-scientists who seek to use science to create a slave class so they can live an easy life and Luddite wanderers who subjugate women.

He’s initially intrigued by the neo-scientists despite their use of electronic collars to punish and even kill their disobedient workers (125): “the pilgrim spent seven days in New Pittsburgh, talking, living a carefree, comfortable, intellectual life, and in spite of the obvious degradation of the man he could not help being fascinated by the equally obvious liberation of the thinking mad to do that which makes man most human” (129).  Likewise, after New Pittsburgh is destroyed by a roving band of Luddites, he’s initially intrigued by the Luddite life: “it was a good, clean, manly life.  The pilgrim felt himself growing lean and strong.  His face became bronzed like those of his captors” (133).  But, after he discovers that his love interest (and all the communities female members) are treated little better than slaves they both run away.  When both pilgrims meet again they are finally ready to be initiated into the society of the witch doctors who are the repositories of knowledge and obligated to teach and heal mankind.

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