Garbage World. Written by Charles Platt and published in 1967, this book is, in many regards, exactly what you’d expect it to be. Most of its exposition can be gleaned from the cover illustration, which (on this particular copy) shows two hunched-over silhouettes lurking amongst heaps of trash while, in the distance, a monstrous spaceship lands against a sky that is rendered in toxic shades of green and orange. But allow me to fill in some of the specifics: Kopra is a distant asteroid that, for the past hundred years, has been used as an intergalactic dump-site for the wealthy civilizations of the neighboring “pleasure worlds.” Kopra is also, however, home to a small colony that survives purely by scavenging the wreckage of these waste shipments, which come via giant space blimps that routinely crash against the asteroid’s surface. Garbage World begins when two diplomats from the pleasure worlds land on Kopra with news of an impending disaster: the trash is too much and will soon outgrow Kopra’s natural gravitational pull, threatening to break the asteroid apart and spread rubbish, filth, and contamination throughout the entire galaxy.
Without spoiling too much, I’ll highlight just a few of the slimy treats that lie waiting for you in 144 pages of this book. A radioactive jungle of over-sized plants and howling packs of wild, mutant dogs. A gargantuan slug that emerges from the depths of an acidic trash-lake. Not one but two separate chapters entitled “Garbage Party.” Not to mention earthquakes, laser fights, and all of the other fun, cartoonish action you’d expect to find in a pulp novel about a garbage planet.
Given its devotion to trash, you might imagine that Platt’s novel would sit comfortably on the shelf alongside something like Last Exit to Brooklyn, or maybe the films of Harmony Korine. But the truth is, Garbage World is more light-hearted and perhaps also more troubling than the nihilistic horror of Gummo or the druggy violence of a Hubert Selby, Jr. novel. Platt certainly doesn’t ignore the bleakness of life on a planet-sized landfill. After scavenging through a recent crash site, one character explains, “Mainly I’m looking for food, but most of what I find isn’t edible. It’s only now and then that there’s a blimp full of stuff rich people thought was unfit to eat, but which is all right for us.” But Platt’s characters also feel, for the most part, like good, well-meaning people, who, despite their unfortunate positions, have managed to remain affable and find comfort in their lives. Not all of the moments that play for our empathy are entirely graceful, but Platt’s writing demonstrates as much humility as some of our greatest fiction authors.
I spent some time skimming comments about Garbage World on Goodreads.com. A couple of readers note that the book feels a bit like a pastiche of 60’s hippy kitsch, and given that it was published in 1967, I suppose that’s a fair criticism. For example, one of the two diplomats, Mr. Larkin, who eventually becomes the villain of the story, is so obsessed with order and regulation that you half-expect the Koprans to start referring to him as “the man.” And 94 pages deep, when two of the characters decide to have sex in a mud puddle, it’s pretty hard not to recall images of free-spirited nudes frolicking in the dirt at Woodstock (despite the fact that the first Woodstock festival wouldn’t happen until two years after Garbage World). Finally, in true 60’s spirit, the Koprans are more than a little bit inclined toward substance abuse (though, rather than dropping acid, they chug down barely-distilled alcohol – much more in the spirit of partying frat boys than in any attempt to “expand their minds”).
But aside from all of this, what I really want to note is the complexity with which Garbage World approaches the culture-clash that its plot revolves around. It’s pretty common, I think, for science-fiction (especially in the dystopian genre) to rely entirely on political allegory, or to betray any function beyond a ghostly voice telling us to “beware.” A lot of dystopian literature tends to over-simplify complicated moral issues, drawing everything in terms of black and white, right and wrong. And these tendencies aren’t wholly absent in Garbage World (again, the story’s villain behaves like a caricature mash-up of a racist cop and an out-of-touch millionaire CEO). But Platt doesn’t let any of his characters off the hook. He troubles things on all sides, and despite some less-than-subtle characterizations, the novel excels in its effort toward a nuanced portrayal of the damaged relationship between these two cultures. For every gesture toward the pleasure-worlders’ privilege and prejudice, there is another toward the viciousness or impracticality of Kopran culture. Early in the novel, for example, we learn that Kopran society is governed through a hierarchical system in which whoever has the largest trash-hoard gets to be the “head guy,” and as far as democracy goes, everybody basically just does whatever the head guy tells them to. One of the major themes, in this regard, becomes the pervasiveness of capitalism, the difficulty of escaping a capitalist system: even in the furthest reaches of the galaxy, power and profit have become inextricably linked, and the Koprans and pleasure-worlders are dependent on each other to a point where it’s nearly impossible to envision any sort of realistic attempt at justice.
There are any number of parallels that a reader could draw between Garbage World and the ways in which economic and geographic oppression exist out in our own world. But, I think, if there is any sort of lesson to be absorbed in Garbage World, it’s one that is expressed quickly and quietly within the first ten or fifteen pages of the novel, shortly after the pleasure world diplomats, in their pristine white space-suits, step out amongst the Kopran garbage fields. They meet Isaac Gaylord, the head guy of Kopra, and tell him about the situation with Kopra’s gravity, the disaster that they are predicting will soon take place. The two diplomats try to convince Gaylord to evacuate the asteroid, and while it’s clear to Gaylord that evacuation would be safest thing to do, he quickly recognizes that the pleasure-worlders wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have their own interests, if they weren’t afraid of their own planets becoming contaminated in the forthcoming trash catastrophe. Gaylord’s response not only sets the rest of the book’s plot in motion, but also carries in its subtext all of the problems that form when one culture imposes its values on another, all of the complications that exist between the oppressor and the oppressed. He says, simply: “You won’t get anyone to set foot off this asteroid in a million years.”
Tyler McAndrew grew up in Syracuse, NY and currently lives in Pittsburgh, PA. His fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Salt Hill, Gulf Coast, and the Nashville Review.