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by David R. Bunch

Essay by Ted Gioia
David R. Bunch, who passed away in 2000 at age 74, may be the
best kept secret in New Wave sci-fi. As far as I can tell, only two of
the hundreds of stories he wrote are still in print. These two tales,
included in Harlan Ellison’s pathbreaking 1967 anthology Dangerous
Visions, served as my introduction to Bunch’s work.  And what a
stunning introduction they were—in an all-star collection, filled
with the stars of 1960s sci-fi, Bunch’s two brief tales impressed
me more than any of the other illustrious narratives.

Ellison himself clearly recognized Bunch's

exceptional talent. Bunch was the only contributor
to have more than a single story accepted for
the volume. In his intro to one of the stories,
Ellison noted that Bunch was "a writer whose
work I admire vastly. And a writer who has,
oddly enough, barely received the acclaim
due to him." Looking over the assembled talents
who participated in Dangerous Visions—a cast
of free radicals that included Philip K. Dick, J.G.
Ballard and Samuel R. Delany—Ellison added:
"Bunch is possibly the most dangerous visionary
of all those assembled here."

I was so struck by Bunch’s whimsical and

outlandish prose style and arch attitudes, that I
decided to track down more of his work. This proved much harder
than I anticipated. Bunch only published two short story collections
during his career, and both of them have been out-of-print for
decades. A few second-hand copies are available from online
retailers, but are usually sold at astronomical prices. I did some
online snooping and found that, for some puzzling reason, several
copies of Bunch's most famous work Moderan were available from
booksellers in Spain at only modestly outlandish prices. I placed
an order from a librería in Granada, Spain. When my copy of
Moderan arrived a couple weeks later, I opened the package in
eager anticipation—only to learn that it I had just purchased an
(out-of-print) Spanish translation of Bunch's book. At this point, I turned
to US sellers of overpriced, beat-up, out-of-print sci-fi paperbacks,
and after shelling out a sizable chunk of change, I finally acquired
Bunch's Moderan in English.

Yes, it was worth the time and trouble. Bunch didn't play by the same

rules as most of his peers in the genre fiction field. Moderan is written
in an extravagant first-person style that attempts to emulate the
speech patterns of a robot-and-human mashup from a future dystopia.  
Every sentence and paragraph of this book has been polished to a
fine metallic finish, and while reading it I found myself compelled to
recite certain passages aloud, just to savor the odd cadences
and phraseology.  

Here our narrator talks about the scientific breakthrough of Moderan

society—which consists mostly of quasi-men who have replaced the
majority of their flesh parts with advanced metal components. The
most privileged members of the society are more than 90% metal.  

"As steel men we were essentially but extensions of what man has

always been. The essential man had been extended, I'm trying to say.
The essence of normal man was and is and always will be the feeling of,
'I AM the greatest and most deserving thing in ail the Universe and I

should have preference wherever I go.' This is true collectively and
it is equally true individually. There was never normal man so lowly but
what he, if given the smallest smallest chance to rise, would start
regarding himself as a winner for sure. The domain of his aspirations
will have no NO ceiling and no NO walls: The whole universe will be
his pumpkin, his and his alone. A ghastly, slimy, ungodly contrivance
he, in many ways, is. But he has, let's face it, one saving grace. He is
to be counted on to be his ghastly, rotten, slimy, true-bad self until the
end. He is reliable, let us say, in that his total badness is assured. And
in that he is godly."

Unlike almost every other dystopian sci-fi book,
Moderan lets the rulers
of the degraded future society speak for themselves, in their own words,
and in defense of their own actions. For this to work, Bunch needs to
impart a degree of hidden irony and double-meaning to virtually
every paragraph in the book. Yet he also gives his warlord narrator a
touch of a poetic sensibility, and even a bit of human sentimentality. By
any measure, this is virtuoso performance—and I can’t think of more
than a half-dozen sci-fi authors of the era who could have pulled it off
with such finesse and persistence. The end result is an odd but
convincing combination of humor, social criticism and psychological

The closest book to
Moderan, among the other futuristic works of its
era, is Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, released around the
same time that Bunch began publishing his Moderan stories. Like
Burgess, Bunch realized that the conceptualization of a different kind
of society ideally involves the creation of a different kind of language,
a new body of speech patterns. Burgess's wordplay is largely indebted
to Joyce and other experimental authors of the first half of the 20th
century. Bunch's sources are harder to pinpoint, but his futuristic
metal men sometimes remind me of medieval chroniclers in their
language, at other times their words resemble the belligerent taunting
of skinheads at a British football match right before the rioting and
hooliganism get out of control. To emphasize the effect, Bunch liberally
uses exclamation points and all capital letters. Yet he also mixes in

sweet metaphors and quasi-Shakespearean imagery. The finished
product is sui generis, a way of expression that exists solely within
the pages of this book.

The philosophical content in
Moderan is almost as fascinating as
the work's linguistic effects. The name Nieztsche  does not appear
anywhere in this book, but clearly his fingerprints are all over its
dystopian society. In Moderan, the sword is truly mightier than the
pen—and supersized bombs are mightier than either. The practical
result of the melding of advanced metals with flesh is that the
'improved' citizens of Moderan are almost indestructible. This new-
found invincibility inspires them to devote most of their energy to
warfare and domination. Many of the most poetic passages in the
book are devoted to singing the praises of various weapons and
their consequences. Behind all this bluster, Bunch makes a case
for peace and fellowship—but only by presenting this over-the-
top counterexample.  

The only clumsiness in this book is due to its origins as separate

short stories. Bunch made some token efforts to create the appearance
that Moderan is a novel not a collection of isolated tales. But he
didn't successfully integrate the separate works into a flowing,
holistic narrative. As a result, the connecting passages don't
adequately connect, and the individual sections are marked by
repetitions and occasional contradictions. In most of the stories, the
Moderan civilization is devoted to warfare, but in a handful of  
'chapters' the narrator adheres to much different priorities, aiming
to spend as much time as possible meditating over deep philosophical
issues. Another cavil: too many of the stories here repeat a predictable
plot of a visitor coming to a warlord’s stronghold and sharing a
more humanistic and traditional viewpoint. The ensuing dialogue
between worldviews is fascinating, at least at first, but not after
the fifth or sixth repetitions. Even with these flaws, Moderan is a tour
de force, worthy of praise (and a return to print); but it would have
been even better if Bunch had exercised some judicious editing and

Although I offer these tiny gripes about the book, my main
complaint is targeted at the parties who have kept this work

out-of-print for decades, and haven’t salvaged more of the
hundreds of stories Bunch published in magazines during his
lifetime. Make no mistake, David R. Bunch was a big-time talent

even if he only left behind a small-time reputation. He can't
change that now, but we can…and should.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book,
a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: September 19, 2014
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction

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