Gene Wolfe’s “How the Whip Came Back”

I’ll be honest–I don’t particularly like the short fiction of Gene Wolfe, but I keep finding myself reading it. Go figure.

I first read his story, “The Woman Who Loved the Centaur Pholus,” then “Feather Tigers,” and now, “How the Whip Came Back.” Originally published in 1970 in Damon Knight’s collection, Orbit 6, it’s set in a far future nearly devoid of religious faith and it’s about a UN vote to impress prisoners into slavery for the duration of their sentence.

Wolfe’s prognostication that there would be a quarter of a million Americans in prison in the future is a bit off. Also, it’s interesting that he chose to write the story when he did, but it was a time of criminal offense reform. The United States began to criminalize things that were not once considered felony offensives (particularly in regard to drug related offenses and the introduction of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 during the Nixon administration).

In 1970, there were 196,429 incarcerated persons in US prisons according to the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics Online. That year was actually part of a low plateau following a jump over 200,000 inmates in the years 1958-1965. Since that time, the prison population has jumped exponentially in a near constant upward trend. In 1980, there were 315, 974 prison inmates, 739,980 prisoners in 1990, and 1,461,132 prisoners in 2005.

It’s important to see how these numbers relate to the United States population during those years. Using data from the U.S. PopClock Projection, I arrived at these percentages of prisoners as compared to the total population. In 1970, 0.096% of the population was in prison. In 1980: 0.139%. In 1990: 0.297%. In 2005: 0.493%. This increase is staggering, but the reasons for increased prison populations is a complex issue that goes far beyond the belief that there are merely more criminals today than in the past. Perhaps Wolfe, as others did, recognized that criminalization of previously non-felony offenses would lead to increased prison populations, and therefore, a higher cost to society in maintaining the prison system (however, his estimated costs are infinitesimal in comparison to other budgetary concerns such as defense).

Besides a cultural commentary on prison and the utility of prisoners, this story also features a gendered power inversion. The protagonist, Miss Bushnan, goes from being an observer of the delegation proceedings to having a vote in the treaty that would create a forced, leased workforce of the world’s prisoners. What makes her character interesting is that she’s an American female, and the proceeding needs her approval to move ahead. Furthermore, she’s threatened by the male “American delegate” to vote in favor of the proposal for her sake, and she’d also be given the choice to lease her husband. Ultimately, she decides to vote in favor of the proposal and the story ends with her fantasizing about the type of manacles she will have built to control her husband. Her new found power over a male figure, i.e., her husband, is only possible by the male hegemony giving her that power. Her new power is precarious and unstable, because it may be withdrawn by the male power structure. However, this isn’t an immediate concern of hers at the conclusion of the story.

This is an interesting story with a unique inversion of power politics. I read it in The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories.

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Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.