Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

Sympathy for the Devil


7.     Mr. Commissioner Manning

    World order has now been re-established, at least for the moment.

    However, a horrific new weapon has been unleashed, the world is no longer the same, and the problem originally set forth by Manning to DeFries still remains to be answered:  How is Karst-Obre dust – which any nation can make, and which cannot be defended against – to be kept under control?

    The Secretary of State’s suggestion that the US should hold the dust a secret and go its own way has been overleaped by events.  K-O dust has now been used and used again.  It’s no secret any more.

    The immediate answer America arrives at to the problem of controlling other people’s use of the dust –
Throw down your guns, boys; we’ve got the drop on you!’” – is only a temporary expedient at best.  It can’t be relied on to work for very long, as the Eurasian attack demonstrates.

    So, who or what is to be in charge of overseeing the monstrous and deadly Karst-Obre dust and protecting the population of the world from it?

    The Secretary of Labor’s vision of a worldwide democratic commonwealth of nations controlling the weapon has been rejected.  Most of the world simply isn’t ready to handle that much self-responsibility.

    Neither are the people of the United States.  The President rules out unilateral US possession of the weapon because he doesn’t think America is up to the strain.

     As DeFries puts it:

    “We were about to hand over to future governments of the United States the power to turn the entire globe into an empire, our empire.  And it was the sober opinion of the President that our characteristic and beloved democratic culture would not stand up under the temptation.  Imperialism degrades both oppressor and oppressed.”

    The solution that is arrived at is to establish a special body above and beyond all national governments – a “Commission of World Safety” – whose purpose is to control the dust benevolently.  The Commissioners receive lifetime appointments to their post and take an oath to “preserve the peace of the world.”

    The Commissioners are to be backed up by a “Peace Patrol.”  The idea for this body – and perhaps for the Commission, as well, since one depends upon the other – is Manning’s:

    “Manning envisioned a corps of world policemen, an aristocracy which, through selection and indoctrination, could be trusted with unlimited power over the life of every man, every woman, every child on the face of the globe.”

    These patrolmen are to serve in any place except the country of their origin:  “They were to be a deliberately expatriated band of Janizaries, with an obligation only to the Commission and the race, and welded together with a carefully nurtured esprit de corps.”

    Working together, the President and Manning personally select the Commissioners and the initial members of the Peace Patrol.  The very first Commissioner to be chosen, the chief amongst them, is (did you guess?) Clyde Manning.  In yet another effortless promotion, “Colonel Manning became Mr. Commissioner Manning” – yes, that Mr. Commissioner Manning.

    As chutzpah goes, this might be compared to Dick Cheney being assigned the task of choosing the best candidate to run for Vice President of the United States, looking the country over and picking Richard B. Cheney for the job.

    Were it not for his self-selection, Manning would be an unlikely choice for Commissioner.

    It was, after all, Manning who conceived and developed Karst-Obre dust, and men who invent a weapon for the military aren’t ordinarily allowed a determining say in what happens to it after it leaves their hands.  They’re tech people not decision makers.

    But Manning has gotten past this limit by inducing his superiors to aid him in circumventing themselves and then by putting the whammy on the President of the United States.  Though he says that if the dust is ever used the world will be destabilized, he’s insisted that dust be dropped on Berlin anyway and been given his wish.  The result is millions dead in Germany, millions more dead in the US, and still more millions dead in the Eurasian Union – as many as eleven million people in all.

    Manning was prepared for the death toll to be much higher.

    The casualties in New York would have been worse if that Black Death rumor hadn’t worked so well to empty Manhattan, and if the fleeing people hadn’t shown such admirable restraint while waiting in line to use the bridges and tunnels.  And had it not been for that lucky dusting of Ryazan, millions more Americans would have died and the US would have lost the war.
    Another eight-and-a-half million people could have been killed if England hadn’t decided to surrender, and London had been taken out as an object lesson.  And if the Pacific Fleet had sailed on to Japan to dust its six largest cities, a further fifteen million people might have died.

    Apparently, Manning understood that the initial death toll from use of his weapon might be as many as forty million people or even more, and accepted the possibility.  What’s more, he’s foretold the death by dust of three-quarters of the population of the earth if his plan for a military dictatorship imposed by force isn’t adopted.

    Not only is everybody in the world already suffering nightmares thanks to Manning, it seems that Manning is capable of killing every one of us in order to save us all from the genie he’s let out of the bottle.

    True, in his new role as First Commissioner, he will be restrained by the oath he swears to preserve the peace of the world.  But such an oath is subject to interpretation.  He’s also a man who has been known to take an oath and then break it.

    In view of Manning’s responsibility for the existence of Karst-Obre dust, his willingness to use it and indifference to how many casualties it causes, and his personal history of insubordination, we have to ask whether someone like him, who looks on the dust as a loaded gun held to the head of every man, woman and child on the planet and is prepared to use it that way, is the best possible choice to be the person in charge of worldwide oversight of this weapon?

    Would the US Senate be likely to confirm the nomination of this man to be Head Fox in Charge of All Chickens?  He’s stirred up some bad feelings.

    Manning has doublecrossed powerful people in the course of his rise to power.  By ignoring standard operating procedure and the chain of command, he’s offended and angered others.  Because of him, millions of people are now dead and millions more like DeFries have been condemned to die a lingering death from cumulative minimal radiation poisoning if not from cancer.  Life as usual has been radically disrupted, untold numbers of people have been displaced from their homes, and billions of dollars have been lost.

    Manning has to have made enemies along the way.

    By this time, he must be a highly controversial figure, this Army officer detached from his command.  Or is he really a congressman?  This unofficial Cabinet officer.  This mysterious man who lurks in the President’s attic and creeps forth to whisper dire things in his ear.

    Whether the colonel who invented the dust and then pressed for its first use has any business acting as Secretary of Dust, let alone being made World Czar of Dust, ought to be under question.  Manning may not have gotten the credit he deserves for the dozen devious things he did to prepare for the Four-Days War, but he’s in a perfect position now to be given the blame for anything and everything that’s gone wrong at home and abroad since the war between England and Germany suddenly got so out of hand.

    Can he escape all responsibility for the actions he’s taken?

    Under circumstances like these, it seems unlikely that Clyde “Devil Dust” Manning’s confirmation as the most powerful person on Earth could have been nearly as uneventful a matter as the narrator would have us believe.

    This is one more crucial transition that DeFries slides past.

    When Manning moves on to his new post as Commissioner, DeFries goes with him yet again.

    From his beginnings as just another high school teacher with an interest in politics, DeFries has now traveled to Congress with Manning to be his secretary, followed him into the Army to serve as his adjutant, and sat at his elbow in Cabinet meetings.  Each new place that Manning has gone, DeFries has been right there beside him.  

    It’s not clear what special skills he possesses that make him so useful, but his continuing presence appears to somehow be essential to Manning.

     Nothing is ever said in the story about the home lives of these two men.  Is either of them married?  With all the job changes they make, did their kids complain about being forced to switch schools again?

     Or perhaps they’re bachelors, which would explain why both of them are able to pack up and move at a moment’s notice.  We might even imagine their living arrangement as resembling that of lifetime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his Assistant Director, Clyde Tolson, who shared a house together and were buried in adjoining graves when they died.

8.  Who’s on Top?

    Even after the establishment of the new oversight agencies, it still remains an open question who actually controls the dust.

    Is it the Commission of World Safety and that new aristocracy, the Peace Patrol?  Or are they just a front for the United States of America?

    From the point of view of the rest of the world, it would be difficult not to think so.  For all their nominally international and disinterested nature, the Commission and the planetary police both wear a Made in America label:

    They’re the result of an initiative put forth by the United States at a moment when the US has exclusive possession of the weapon and has demonstrated its readiness to use it.

    The first Commissioner to be chosen is the US Army officer who invented the dust.  He and the President of the United States pick the rest of the Commission.  

    The majority of the Commissioners are American.  And it’s the US Senate and not an independent international body which confirms their selection.

    Even the arms, ammunition and aircraft of the Peace Patrol must be given to it by the United States.

    Ultimate authority appears to remain with the US President.

    That’s an illusion, however.

    In fact, Manning is in charge, just as he has always been.  DeFries may keep suggesting that the President is a strong and savvy master of politics.  He may characterize him as “a good President.”  But what he actually shows us is somebody who is putty in Manning’s hands and does everything he wants him to.

    The President falls under Manning’s spell from the moment the colonel is shown into the Oval Office for their first one-on-one meeting.  If Manning says dust should be dropped, the President drops dust.  If Manning suggests the President leave town, the President heads south.  And if Manning tells the President that he thinks it might be a good idea if he were to be placed in charge of overseeing the dust, the President names him First Commissioner.

    It’s Manning who calls the tune, and it’s the President who dances.

    Years pass with the President doing whatever he can to lend Manning assistance in the transfer of control over the dust from the United States to the new agencies that Manning directs.

    The radioactivity in Washington was short term, and has abated, and the capital has been re-occupied.  However, the emergency controls that were established in the US prior to the Four-Days War have never been lifted.  Even after six years, commercial aviation still hasn’t been allowed to resume operation.
    Given America’s privileged position, the economic and political restraint observed by the US has been remarkable.  DeFries says:

    “The President was determined that our sudden power should be used for the absolute minimum of maintaining peace in the world – the simple purpose of outlawing war and nothing else.  It must not be used to protect American investment abroad, to coerce trade agreements, for any purpose but the simple abolition of mass killing.”

    To every appearance, America continues to run the world.  In actuality, however, it’s been engaged in a gradual process of ceding all of its special advantage to the Commission of World Safety.  How this has been managed without active opposition within the US isn’t explained.

    But then, before the shift of power can be made complete, the comfortable working relationship between Manning and the President comes to an abrupt conclusion.  On February 17, 1951 – a day that conceivably might be the sixth anniversary of the dusting of Berlin – the President is killed in a plane crash.

    The narrator tells us no more than this.  He never says a single word to suggest that foul play was involved.  However, I think questions have to arise any time a plane with an important political figure aboard falls out of the sky.
    In this case (and let me say again that DeFries never suggests it) my first guess is that the person behind the fatal crash was the Vice President of the United States.  

    We’re told that the Vice President was a compromise candidate placed on the ticket to preserve party unity when the President was re-elected in 1948.  He was an opponent of the legislation which originally brought the Commission of World Safety into being.  DeFries calls him a confirmed isolationist.

    But that's not true.

    At least, what I take the Vice President for isn’t someone who wants the United States to keep the dust a secret and go its own way in the manner that the old Secretary of State did, but rather somebody who sees America as having a power advantage over the rest of the world, and who can’t bear to stand by and watch the President give it all away.

    The first thing the new President does after he’s sworn into office is to send for Manning.

    DeFries expects to accompany him to this meeting just as he always does.  But Manning tells him he has another job for him to do.  He opens his safe and removes a sealed envelope containing orders that were apparently prepared some time ago in anticipation of a moment like this and gives them to his assistant to execute.

    For once DeFries won’t claim our attention because he was present at some pivotal historical moment only to skip over what was actually said and done when it comes to telling us about it. This time – even though he wasn’t there himself – he’s able to tell us more than he usually does.

    When Manning arrives at the White House, it’s to find the President waiting for him with an entourage of bodyguards and supporters.  If I read the new President as a proponent of American private interest and not an isolationist it's because one of the allies he has at his elbow is a House committee chairman who wants to re-establish commercial air travel, and another is a Senator who would like to use the Peace Patrol to safeguard American-owned assets in Africa and South America.

    The new President attempts to assert his authority over Manning.  He reminds him that he’s still a member of the US military by addressing him as “
Colonel Manning.’”  And he informs him that he’s relieved from duty –  something which perhaps might more usefully have been said to him back in the old days when he first got out of line.

    It’s too late now.  Manning tells the President that he’s to be addressed as “
Mr. Commissioner Manning’” and says that his appointment is for life.  It can’t be rescinded.

    When the President tries to place him under arrest, Manning points to six bombers in the skies over the Capitol.  They’re piloted by members of the Peace Patrol, none of them American.  Unless Manning is given his way, everyone present is a dead man.

    It appears that DeFries has carried out the orders he was handed.

    Thanks to the former President, the United States has turned over all means of resistance.  And the new man lacks the nerve and sense of social responsibility necessary to call Manning’s bluff by having him shot down in his tracks as the threat to the world he’s demonstrated himself to be.  

    Instead, just that easily, the new President gives in -- although, as usual, we don’t see him do it.

     We may find we have to reconsider.  Judging by who ultimately benefits from these changes in power and by the fact that DeFries doesn't tell us the truth about who and what the Vice President really is, perhaps it wasn't he who caused the old President's plane to crash after all.

9.  The Cheese Stands Alone

    The American President’s capitulation represents the surrender of everybody.  Now that Manning’s disguise has at last been cast aside, he stands revealed as Big Cheese of the World.

    This last self-promotion to military dictator of the planet has to be the least likely of the many unlikely promotions that Manning receives in the course of this story.  It’s a big leap from pointing at half-a-dozen bombers overhead to establishing your authority as supreme ruler of the world and making it stick.  But as far as DeFries is concerned,  we can just consider it done.

    How Manning manages to dispense with the other Commissioners and take sole control of the Commission of World Safety is not revealed to us.  But maybe there’s no need.  In the six years the Commission has existed, we haven’t heard so much as a peep out of any other Commissioner.

    Beyond the Commission, however, Manning’s power base isn’t obvious.  It’s not clear what people, organizations or nations would have reason to support him or why anyone would choose to obey his orders.  And the lack of challenge to his assumption of authority isn’t explained.  He’s in charge now, that’s all.  

    Henceforth, Manning is to be military dictator of the world and the Peace Patrol will serve as his handpicked enforcers.

    DeFries says:
    “There were incidents thereafter, such as the unfortunate affair at Fort Benning three days later, and the outbreak in the wing of the Patrol based in Lisbon and its resultant wholesale dismissals, but, for practical purposes, that was all there was to the coup d’etat.

    “Manning was the undisputed military dictator of the world.”
    But now that Manning has gone to such effort to make himself ruler of the world with the power to tell everybody what to do, how does he use this authority?  What is his ideology?  What are his programs?  What edicts does he make?  

    That we aren’t told.  Manning’s accession to undisputed power is as far as the story goes, as though this was the point it had really been aiming for all along.

    All that remains in DeFries’s account are a few paragraphs of summation and a final bid for sympathy for Manning.

    He says:
    “Whether or not any man as universally hated as Manning can perfect the Patrol he envisioned, make it self-perpetuating and trustworthy, I don’t know, and – because of that week in a buried English hangar – I won’t be here to find out.  Manning’s heart disease makes the outcome even more uncertain – he may last another twenty years; he may keel over dead tomorrow – and there is no one to take his place.  I’ve set this down partly to occupy the short time I have left and partly to show there is another side to any story, even world dominion.

    “Not that I would like the outcome, either way.  If there is anything to this survival-after-death business, I am going to look up the man who invented the bow and arrow and take him apart with my bare hands.  For myself, I can’t be happy in a world where any man, or group of men, has the power of death over you and me, our neighbors, every human, every animal, every living thing.  I don’t like anyone to have that kind of power.

    “And neither does Manning.”
    Poor Manning.  Forced to run the world all by himself because the prospect of K-O dust in the hands of others who just might be tempted to use it isn’t acceptable to him.  And never mind that he himself is the person responsible for the dust and its use in the first place, or that he’s quite ready to use the dust again to back up his authority now if anyone tries to challenge it.

    The poor man is dying, too.  He might drop dead as soon as tomorrow.
    We haven’t heard a word about Manning’s heart since Congressman Manning set off at too brisk a pace for the War Department to listen to a no-strings-attached job offer the Army Chief of Staff wanted to make him.  And his heart disease hasn’t visibly slowed him down for a moment at any time since.  It’s only now, when a little sympathy is desired, that the precarious state of Manning’s health is being brought up again.  But we won’t quibble about that.

    The unfortunate part is that there’s nobody to succeed Manning as dictator of the world.  Certainly not DeFries, who not only is dying himself, though taking a good long time about it, but who's never shown a sign of being anything more than a convenient tool.

    If Manning truly is concerned for the good of all, it’s not clear why he’s taken no thought for who is to be in charge after he’s gone, especially since if he were to start on a search tomorrow he might live long enough to find a responsible successor.  Things being what they are, however, his lack of provision for the future is just one more unfortunate circumstance the world is going to have to cope with when he’s dead.

    The nearest Manning has to a plan of action is to perfect the Peace Patrol and make it self-perpetuating and trustworthy.  If he could manage to do that – and it’s by no means certain that he can – then the Patrol might be able to keep a lid on things.  But Manning needs twenty years to bring this off and there’s no guarantee that he has that much time.

    He’s also hampered by the fact that everybody in the world except John DeFries hates him.

    DeFries would like us to know that Manning’s been misunderstood.  The true purpose of his account has been to show a world which doesn’t properly appreciate Manning how things appear from his side.  

    The person really at fault is the man who invented the bow and arrow and set off the arms race in the first place.  (If DeFries could only get his hands on the bloody bastard, why, he’d murderize him, he’d tear him limb from limb, that’s what he’d do.)  

    Manning, in his wisdom and benevolence, has just been doing what’s necessary to keep the problem under control.  If he had his druthers, he’d really prefer that nobody had the power of death over you and me, our neighbors, every human being and every living thing.

    But if someone has to do it, well, he’s tough-minded enough for the job.  He’ll do it even though he’d really rather not.

    That’s DeFries’s story, at least.  

    But if he’s right in saying that every story has another side, then we have yet to hear the other side of this one.  DeFries may be aware of what everybody else in the world thinks of Manning and why, but we can only guess.  His version is the only one we’ve heard.

    We may never be able to say exactly what has happened.  However, by taking things slowly and not allowing ourselves to be hustled, it has been possible for us to assess the likelihood of the account that DeFries has given us.  

    He may imply that we’re lucky to be able to get the inside story from him at a moment when he feels a need to tell it.  He may be folksy and confiding.  He may be certain and plausible.  But he’s a partisan with all the verbal moves of a con man.  

    Over and over, when exactly what happened matters, his story has gotten vague.  Again and again he’s set us up for one thing but delivered something else and then moved right along as though nothing had happened.  And he’s told lies – lots of lies.  

    By his own admission, he has no soul.

    So what are we to believe?

10.   Manning’s Nature

    If the events of this story have been nothing but a series of accidents, imperatives and improvisations, as DeFries would like us to accept, then what a strange and unlikely trip it’s been to watch the metamorphosis of Clyde Manning, retired early from the Army with a heart condition and reduced to addressing women’s clubs, into Mr. Commissioner Manning, master of dust and ruler of all.

    However, if that was his goal all along, then he finally got where he was aiming to be.

    But which of the two is it?

    Why Manning behaves the way he does is a mystery.  Aside from DeFries’s crucial murkiness and uncertain reliability, again and again in the course of the story there’s a difference between what Manning says and his real intention:

    When he addresses those women’s clubs after he’s first retired from the Army, he’s suave and urbane, and makes an excellent impression.  He’s just dazzling them with charm.

    When Manning answers the inquiries of a political search committee looking for a candidate to replace a two-bit chiseler in Congress, he allows them to think he’s a liberal.  He’s only feeding them what they want to hear.

    He flatters Dr. Karst by telling her that he sees interesting possibilities in the medical research she’s been pursuing.  He really means he perceives the basis for an unprecedented weapon of mass annihilation.

    Manning tells DeFries that if the weapon he’s made should ever be used, the world will be destabilized.  Shortly thereafter we learn that he’s talked the President into using it anyway.

    And he assures the Cabinet that he would willingly lay down his life in order to achieve global democracy.  But this is just him striking a pose for effect.  All that we are shown is Manning making unilateral decisions for everybody in the world.

    DeFries presents Manning as a genius of common sense responding to changing circumstances by doing what needs to be done – as though he had no responsibility for the new conditions that he’s reacting to.  However, if we judge Manning not by what he professes, but by what he actually does and its result, he looks very much like someone who's been aiming to make himself dictator of the world all along, following a path as straight as a dog’s hind leg to get there.

    The most mundane explanation I can offer for him (and it’s clearly insufficient) is that -- like Robert Heinlein at the Naval Academy -- Manning was assigned to engineering at West Point and not placed on the command track.  He always had dreams of being in charge, but was never allowed to be.  He’s resentful about that, and this is his way of showing everyone better.

    Dr. Karst accuses him of being a warmonger -- someone who learned to love the stench of rotting corpses on the battlefield or maybe somebody who'd been too late for the Great War and now is trying to catch up.  And Manning does proceed to kill a lot of people just to demonstrate he can.

    But there’s more to the man than someone who merely wants to run up the bodycount as efficiently as possible.  He’s got a vicious streak, as well.  Something in Manning takes active pleasure in the pain he causes.

    He links Dr. Karst’s name to the horrific weapon he makes from the medical dust he co-opts from her knowing that nothing could be more excruciating to her than to be "honored" in this fashion.  DeFries says he doesn’t know whether Manning ever told her what he intended to do with the dust he’s permanently attached her name to.  I believe he did, which is why she committed suicide after Berlin.

    DeFries declares that there are some people who see Manning the dictator as a traitor and a mad dog.  This has to be a specifically American reaction.  It takes people from the United States to perceive him as a traitor.
    It’s certainly true that Manning breaks the military oath he’s sworn, violating the US Constitution rather than defending it.  He casually sets off a war which results in the death of millions of American civilians, a war that would have been lost had it not been for luck.  And ultimately, he even stages a coup d’etat which overturns the American government.

     Yet, he’s not the usual kind of traitor to the United States who betrays his country for money, for sex or because of allegiance to a foreign power.  Manning isn’t greedy for money, he’s got all the sex he’ll ever need at home, and his only loyalty is to himself.

    Should we take him for a mad dog, then – solitary, antisocial, rabid and ready to sink his teeth into any available target?  There’s no question that Manning is ruthless enough to kill eleven million people in the space of a few weeks and not care if the number is higher, or that he’s prepared to set a series of events in motion which will either make him world dictator or knock humanity back to the Stone Age.

    Within the context of the story, his readiness to be this excessive – doubtful and dangerous though it might seem to us – appears to be the only reason for the extraordinary support he’s given.  Manning wants to develop a horrifying weapon, see it used, and make it his excuse for taking over the world.  And because he does, one person after another bends himself out of shape to see that he can.

    He might be a trickster figure like Loki, the Norse god of discord and mischief who hangs out with the gods of Asgard and plays games with their heads but who owes them no allegiance and is destined to stand against them in the final battle.

    It’s certainly true that everyone in this story who trusts in Manning eventually gets betrayed by him.  He’s got the power to mess minds, even over the phone and at secondhand.  People in authority unaccountably do whatever he wishes.  He has a particularly tight hold on the psyche of the American President, who prides himself on his ability to spot a phony, but is never able to spot one in Manning.

    There's even a whiff of sulphur hanging about Manning.

    He defiles DeFries, corrupting both his body and his soul.  He takes a simple-minded schnook of a high school teacher who only wanted to see a dirty congressman voted out of office, and before he’s done with him makes him a crucial figure in the development and the pivotal agent in the first use of an archetypical weapon of mass annihilation that Manning himself calls “
devilish stuff.’”

    If that were not enough, Manning hands DeFries the order to initiate the coup which makes Manning dictator of the world.  And DeFries carries out this little chore for him.

    Of course, he doesn’t tell us this directly.  DeFries never comes right out and admits to us that even though he’s been passing himself off to us as “an ordinary sort of man who, by a concatenation of improbabilities, found himself shoved into the councils of the rulers,” in fact he's the person responsible for putting Manning in power.  If not for him executing Manning’s orders, the coup could never have happened.

    Poor deluded DeFries!  Robbed of what little soul he ever had by Manning.  With the blood of millions on his hands, thanks to Manning.  A traitor to the United States because of his greater loyalty to Manning.  Now slowly rotting all over from radiation poisoning, courtesy of Manning.  And in a world united in hatred of Clyde Manning, the only person with anything good to say for him.

    But then even the Devil needs a defender.  It’s a job.

    What a diabolical story this is!  If Manning really was the Devil all along, and not just some prematurely retired military man daydreaming about what he might have been and who he might have done if only he'd been given the opportunity, it would explain a great deal.

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