Limbo Essay - Critical Essays

Bernard Wolfe


Limbo follows in the dystopian tradition of both George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) while operating on a somewhat more complex and sophisticated literary level. Martine, Theo, Helder, and other characters exist as other than authorial mouthpieces or interchangeable Everymen. Their situations are those of individuals, and their shallowness of character is to some extent the point of the book rather than an oversight born of the work’s larger social concerns.

If the characters of Limbo are considerably more complex than the standard ciphers of the classic sociological novel, their surroundings are that much more surreal. Unlike Orwell and Huxley, Bernard Wolfe is not trying to warn his readers of some impending civic doom. Rather, as he acknowledges in the afterword to the book, he is writing about the overtone and undertow of 1950 in the guise of 1990 because it would take decades for a year like 1950 to be milked of its implications. Wolfe’s intent is to satirize developments in world culture during the immediate postwar period, particularly lobotomy, cybernetics, nuclear science, and the Freudian analysis of masochism.

The book’s prose is full of random nervousness and brittle, bitter wit. The humor is possessed of a remarkable tension, and all the jokes sound like rehearsals for famous last words. Wolfe was a master of the pun, and Limbo contains what must be several hundred of the cruelest, most complex examples of this form in American literature. The title itself is a pun—limbs counted to zero, or Limb: 0. The puns, however, are more than a clever comic device. They represent the ability of politics and ideology to turn words inside out and upside down.

Wolfe continued to produce science fiction after writing Limbo but never completed anything that rivaled it for sheer imaginative and discursive power. Limbo’s tone verges on the technophobic, with Martine’s notebooks echoing Fyodor Dostoevski’s proposal in Notes from the Underground (1918) that pure mathematical rationalism represents annihilating evil. Later stories developed this strain to near-Luddite proportions. Two short works published in Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions (1972) were accompanied by an afterword in which Wolfe disavows his affiliations with the genre as an organized field. Such statements on Wolfe’s part were almost unnecessary. There is nothing else in the field that approaches this critically acclaimed masterwork in terms of satirical intelligence.