Review: ‘Limbo’ by Bernard Wolfe

‘Limbo’ was published in 1952 (originally under the title ‘Limbo ’90’, which would of course have been a little way in the future at that time). In many respects, it is somewhat of that time (especially with regards to psychoanalysis and medical care) but the predominant themes it explores still resonate today.

An atomic war has occurred and an international pacifist movement has sprung up in response, whereby men go through voluntary amputation in order to curb their aggressive instincts; however, the prosthetics need a rare metal in order to work and tensions begin to rise over which countries get to mine it…

Now, before I continue, it is worth mentioning that this is one of those books that seems to divide opinion. I think the main threads of that criticism come from the following:

  • Some of the criticism comes from looking at this novel through today’s standards.
  • Some of it through the (all too common) misapprehension that an author who writes of certain beliefs must hold those beliefs, or that a world or character created by a writer to set their story in or to, means that the writer agrees with or supports everything in that world or of that character.
  • Some of it comes from simply not liking the style of the writing.

I shall express my thought about these, in turn!

Seen according to today’s standards, there is little mention of women or their self-realisation or autonomy in the book. There appears to be a deep misogyny – or at least alienation to women – to the main character, Martine. The beliefs that seem to come from Martine were not massively uncommon at the time the author wrote, especially with regards to lobotomy, libido and Freudian psychoanalysis, and though we may find some of the thoughts anathema today, we must be careful of retroactively applying today’s standards to the writings of the past (the Bible would not stand up to the same criticism and no-one is suggesting that should be re-written ‘for our times’ – but that is a separate matter).

One of the criticisms levelled at the book is that it seems the author is ‘using the book as a platform for his viewpoint’, which therefore must include any and all of the ‘bad’ characteristics of the protagonist. What author doesn’t use their writings to try to communicate their ideas? An author who writes of murder isn’t a murderer; an author who writes of war or racism, or war-like or racist characters, is more often that not using this viewpoint as a foil for their own, differing opinions. A writer can write a dystopian world whilst not wishing for our world to become one (quite the opposite), or write a rape scene without wishing that on anyone; conflating an author’s creations with their own, personal selves or viewpoints smacks of a bloody-minded ignorance (or wilful disregard) of nuance and context, an awareness that all readers should have. It is telling that many readers don’t cite the voluntary amputation as morally wrong but instead pick up on other sections.

In terms of the style, this is one I can certainly understand; at times the puns feel forced (and I love a good pun) and the writing so verbose as to be impenetrable, especially when discussing – or ‘listening’ to several lectures on – psychoanalysis. There’s a cringeworthy sex scene that is essentially pages of stream-of-consciousness; it works to get the idea across – that this rational, eloquent man is reduced to such due to the pressures of his libido and biology – but it could simply have been left out with a ‘he had no words’, or some such, and no-one would have minded. Part of this critique is due to the fact that the action is all seen through the eyes of Martine, so that his all-too-human thoughts become our thoughts; many readers feel uncomfortable taking this leap but as an actor, I find it fascinating.

Suffice to say, that I enjoyed the book. It was oftentimes funny and sometimes dull, hard going at times, distasteful or repugnant at others – but that is the point; it makes us question our own morals and drives, and address quandaries that either may not have occurred to us or that we have not wanted to look at too closely. It poses the ‘what if’ question with such force that some readers are totally spellbound and other readers are repulsed.

Like much good sci-fi does.


In the aftermath of an atomic war, a new international movement of pacifism has arisen. Multitudes of young men have chosen to curb their aggressive instincts through voluntary amputation – disarmament in its most literal sense.
Those who have undergone this procedure are highly esteemed in the new society. But they have a problem – their prosthetics require a rare metal to function, and international tensions are rising over which countries get the right to mine it…

Buy now from Wordery

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