Vintage Treasures: Moderan by David R. Bunch

Vintage Treasures: Moderan by David R. Bunch

Moderan, by David R. Bunch (Avon, May 1971). Cover by Norman Adams

The week between Christmas and New Year’s may be my favorite time of the year. Nobody’s working. Life slows down. Everybody’s eating cheese. And I can finally kick back and tackle the reading projects I’ve wanted to get to all year.

At the top of my list is a Moderan, a classic science fiction collection that reviewers at Black Gate have referenced countless times in the past few years — most recently Rich Horton, who wrote here back in February, “Bunch of course is best known for his remarkable Moderan stories, many or most of which were published in Cele Goldsmith Lalli’s Amazing and Fantastic.

Rich knows how to pique my interest. Start with superlatives, then name drop a bunch of old science fiction magazines.

[Click the images for vintage versions.]

Okay, so what is Moderan, exactly?

Here’s a crisp summary, slapped on the back of the New York Review Books Classics edition, published in 2018 with an introduction by Jeff VanderMeer.

Welcome to Moderan, world of the future. Here perpetual war is waged by furious masters fighting from Strongholds well stocked with “arsenals of fear” and everyone is enamored with hate. The devastated earth is coated by vast sheets of gray plastic, while humans vie to replace more and more of their own “soft parts” with steel. What need is there for nature when trees and flowers can be pushed up through holes in the plastic? Who requires human companionship when new-metal mistresses are waiting? But even a Stronghold master can doubt the catechism of Moderan. Wanderers, poets, and his own children pay visits, proving that another world is possible.

“As if Whitman and Nietzsche had collaborated,” wrote Brian Aldiss of David R. Bunch’s work. Originally published in science-fiction magazines in the 1960s and ’70s, these mordant stories, though passionately sought by collectors, have been unavailable in a single volume for close to half a century. Like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, Bunch coined a mind-bending new vocabulary. He sought not to divert readers from the horror of modernity but to make us face it squarely.

The New York Review Books Classics edition includes eleven Moderan stories not in the 1971 Avon volume. It’s still in print, and the best bet for modern readers. I tracked down the Avon edition, but that’s just because I’m a nut for vintage paperbacks.

Moderan (New York Review Books Classics, September 11, 2018). Cover by Pavel Tchelitchew

What are the talented and ever-astute folks here at Black Gate saying about Moderan?

Here’s Rich again, from his review of the July 1960 issue of Amazing Science Fiction Stories, edited by Cele Goldsmith.

David R. Bunch was one of the central writers of Goldsmith’s career at Amazing/Fantastic, and his primary series of stories concerned a city called Moderan, inhabited by half men/half machine people. Bunch (1925-2000) was a Missourian, a graduate of Central Missouri State (where my son got his degree) and of Washington University in St. Louis. He also attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lived in St. Louis most of his life (though I never met him). He was a controversial figure to Amazing’s readers – the letter columns I’ve read featured plenty of screeds against him. But I find his short, very satirical, pieces continually intriguing, if at time a bit difficult.

“Penance Day in Moderan,” one of his earlier Moderan stories, is one of the best, I think. It is told by a vain cyborg, on Penance day, when all the citizens of Moderan march out to shed fake tears. The narrator boasts of his accomplishments, and of what he will do when next they war against each other. It’s quite funny, and quite pointed. (Bunch had only two collections printed in his life, the first was Moderan, from Avon in 1971. For some reason I have a dim memory of reading that book from the library, but it was a mass market paperback, and my memory is of a Doubleday hardcover – obviously my memory is failing me, but it really is a persistent memory. Perhaps that was another timeline.)

Cyborgs, robot cities, and old science fiction magazines. It’s like this book was made for me.

Some of the original appearance of the Moderan stories: three Amazing Stories
edited by Cele Goldsmith. November 1959, April 1960, and November 1960.
Covers by Leo Summers, Albert Nuetzell, and Ed Emshwiller

Is there anybody not named Rich Horton who even remembers Moderan?

Aidan Falk at the Chicago Review of Books celebrated the arrival of the New York Review Books Classics edition, in a 2018 article titled “All Hail NYRB For Bringing Back Moderan, a Lost Sci-Fi Classic.” Here’s what he said, in part.

With enough steel and plastic, what can’t be created and controlled? This is the question that dominates Moderan, a future world where metal trees and flowers spring from a plastic ground at the flip of a switch. Populating this landscape are the strongholds and their keepers, seemingly immortal “new-metal” men who, when not sleeping with their new-metal mistresses, wage perpetual war to avoid confronting that which can never be answered — the true meaning of their existence.

Although certainly a reflection of their time, David R. Bunch’s collection of short stories continues to reverberate, especially with a new introduction by Jeff VanderMeer. In the satirically hyperbolic Moderan — with its massive fortresses, arsenals of fear, and hyper controlled landscapes — one can see how hilarious and disturbing Bunch found modernity when they were first published in the ’60s and ’70s.

Moderan is founded on one simple conviction: that anything felt can be controlled. Everything from weather and seasons, to procreation and life itself is carefully moderated by committees. In this world lives the protagonist of Bunch’s work, the bizarre and contradictory character of the “Stronghold master.” The Moderan stories loosely follow this man’s life from his first journey into the plastic landscape to his rebirth as a “new-metal man,” from his life as the Stronghold master to the downfall of his entire civilization… As the Stronghold master explores his new kingdom, meeting characters such as the “bird-man” who is in charge of all the mechanical birds that populate Moderan’s skies, he rejoices at how “our once dirty Earth ball is clean now, coated in plastic…”

Although your initial entry into Moderan can be difficult, once you find a foothold, the story is riveting. At its core, Moderan is less plot-based than it is a character study, and it is in the rambling dialect of the Stronghold master that Bunch’s work finds its strength. The more one reads the stories, the more familiar the stronghold master becomes…

Moderan is a powerfully immersive book which, despite the frequent changes in scene and the ontological difficulty of dialect, is impossible to put down.

Here’s a few more of the lovely old magazines these stories originally appeared in.

More original appearances: Amazing Stories July 1960 and January 1969, and
Fantastic Stories October 1970. Covers by Harrel Gray, Johnny Bruck, and Gray Morrow

Not too surprisingly, Rich Horton has discussed more Moderan tales than anyone else at Black Gate. Here’s an excerpt from his review of the June 1965 Amazing Stories.

The last story is from probably the most original writer of Cele Goldsmith’s tenure, David R. Bunch, who has been brought back to print by of all organizations The New York Review of Books, via their NYRB Press imprint, with Moderan, a collection of his stories about the half-robots/half-men of Moderan. “The Flesh-Man from Far Wide” is one of the earlier Moderan stories, and it probably serves as a decent introduction. The narrator, a typical psychotic man of Moderan, gets a visitor, who seems possibly to have no robotic “replacements” – no metal parts. And he has other strange ideas, about happiness – he wants to find Moderan’s Happiness Machine. But what do those of Moderan need with happiness?

From June, the cover story, David Bunch’s “The Walking, Talking, I-Don’t-Care Man,” is a pure Bunch Moderan story, with the narrator, ruling his personal castle, encountering a man/robot who just keeps walking, and refuses to stop, even as his path leads him right through the narrator’s property. It works pretty well, really, in a somewhat talky way.

Here’s a slice from his review of Fantastic, December 1959

And Bunch’s “Was She Horrid?” is one of his first stories. He’s an author much associated with Goldsmith, though his first two pieces were in If, in 1957 and 1959. His first story for Goldsmith was in the November 1959 Amazing, followed by this one, a Moderan story, about a half-metal man visited by his daughter, ever suspicious that it’s all a plot by his wife in what seems an unending war. Strange stuff, the essence of Bunch already from the beginning.

Here’s a few of those magazines Rich was talking about, since all good Vintage Treasure articles include a ridiculous number of magazine scans.

Fantastic Stories containing Moderan stories, all from the Cele Goldsmith era: March 1960,
February 1963, and August 1963. Covers by Paul Frame, Lloyd Birmingham, and Vernon Kramer

Moderan collects a remarkable 46 stories set in Bunch’s unique and compelling world. I’ve only sampled a few, but I can see that Rich, Steven H Silver and all those Black Gate bloggers who gave a shout out to Moderan were on to something.

Here’s the complete table of contents.

Introduction by David R. Bunch
“Thinking Back (Our God Is a Helpful God!)”
“No Cracks or Saggings” (The Little Magazine, Spring 1970)
“The Butterflies Were Eagle-Big That Day”
“New Kings Are Not for Laughing”
“One Time, a Red Carpet…”
“Battle Won”
“Head Thumping the Troops”
“New-Metal Mistress Time”
“And So White Witch Valley”
“The Bird Man of Moderan”
“Bubble-Dome Homes”
“One False Step” (Fantastic Stories of Imagination, May 1963)
“Survival Packages” (Fantastic Stories of Imagination, April 1963)
“Of Hammers and Men”
“The Stronghold”
“2064, or Thereabouts” (Fantastic Stories of Imagination, September 1964)
“Penance Day in Moderan” (Amazing Science Fiction Stories, July 1960)
“Strange Shape in the Stronghold” (Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, March 1960)
“Getting Regular” (Amazing Science Fiction Stories, August 1960)
‘The Walking, Talking I-Don’t-Care Man” (Amazing Stories, June 1965)
“To Face Eternity”
“In the Innermost Room of Authority”
“The Problem”
“Playmate” (Fantastic Stories of Imagination, May 1965)
“A Husband’s Share” (Fantastic Stories of Imagination, October 1960)
“The Complete Father” (Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, January 1960)
“Was She Horrid?” (Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, December 1959)
“A Glance at the Past” (Fantastic, October 1970)
“It Was in Black Cat Weather” (Fantastic Stories of Imagination, February 1963)
“Sometimes I Get So Happy” (Fantastic Stories of Imagination, August 1963)
“Remembering” (Amazing Science Fiction Stories, April 1960)
“A Little Girl’s Xmas in Moderan” (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 1960)
“The Flesh-Man from Far Wide” (Amazing Science Fiction Stories, November 1959)
“The One from Camelot Moderan” (1962)
“Reunion” (Amazing Stories, February 1965)
“The Warning” (Amazing Stories, November 1960)
“Has Anyone Seen This Horseman?” (1961)
“Interruption in Carnage”
“The Miracle of the Flowers” (1966)
“Incident in Moderan” (Dangerous Visions, October 1967)
“The Final Decision” (Amazing Stories, February 1961)
“Will-Hung and Waiting”
“How They Took Care of Soul in a Last Day for a Non-Beginning” (1962)
“How It Ended” (Amazing Stories, January 1969)

Lastly, here’s three more magazines where these stories originally appeared: two Fantastics, and an F&SF.

More original appearances: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction January 1960, and two
Fantastics — October 1960 and May 1963. Covers by Emsh, Leo Summers, and Vernon Kramer

Moderan was published as a paperback original by Avon in May 1971. It is 240 pages, priced at 75 cents.  The cover is by Norman Adams. A digital version of the New York Review Books Classics edition was published on September 11, 2018.

See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.

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Thomas Parker

I had never read any Bunch until last year, when I got the NYRB edition of Moderan and read it straight through. It’s one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever read, uncompromisingly depicting a shiny, steel-plated, machine-tooled utopia of the utterly insane.

Aldiss was right; Moderan combines the ethics of Neitzsche with the rhapsodic self-celebration of Whitman, and to make it even wilder, Bunch wraps it all in a vocabulary that sometimes reminds me of Dr. Seuss. The combination is very strong stuff indeed, and I can’t think of anything else remotely like it.

Last edited 2 months ago by emcgargle
Gary Farber

“Is there anybody not named Rich Horton who even remembers Moderan?”

Sure. He also got lots of critical praise back in the day, as well as as noted, lots of complaints in letter columns.

He was never a huge seller, but he was entirely memorable, whether you loved him or hated him. (Few fell in between, it seemed.)

K. Jespersen

So… sort of Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” and sort of Lem’s “Cyberiad,” if either or both had been set to the tune of Steakley’s “Armor.” Please answer one question: is this stuff better read with a hot chocolate or with a whiskey?

K. Jespersen

J O’N:

^_^ I’ll wait for them to weigh in, then. Thanks. Best wishes for enjoying exploring Moderan, girded in a bandolier of cheddars, swisses, bries, and jacks!

Thomas Parker

One thing I’ll say – the stories are so similar in style and tone (and subject matter) that it’s best to space them out and not dilute their impact by reading too many too close together.

K. Jespersen

Thank you, Thomas Parker. Very good to know! Best in discrete doses.

Peter Fadness

I have the NYRB edition of this book. Normally, I also like to go the vintage paperback route, but I am a big fan of NYRB in general. Their science fiction offerings are slim (I also have Priest’s “Inverted World” and Sheckley’s “Store of the worlds” editions among others), but I like the design and quality of the books themselves. You can often find them heavily discounted as overstock at various bookstores. Have yet to plunge into “Moderan” but I’m moving it up my ridiculous TBR pile.

Rich Horton

The other NYRB SF book I can think of offhand is D. G. Compton’s THE CONTINUOUS KATHERINE MORTENHOE.

I like Moderan, but I do agree with Thomas Parker’s recommendation that it’s best to space out the stories. Which I mostly managed to do by reading them as I happened to encounter them in used copies of Amazing and Fantastic!

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