The Power of Milk

Frank Robinson: an unexpected (for me) connection between sf and assassinated SF politician Harvey Milk.

I read Robinson’s The Power as a kid because I had just seen the film version on TV and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. (I rewatched it recently, and it turns out I was wrong about this. Still, it has a certain interest, especially the hallucinatory “DON’T RUN” sequence.)

The book and the movie center on a charismatic villain who wields an unspeakable and ill-defined power over people’s minds and even the physical universe. I haven’t reread the novel for decades, but I still remember a speech one of the secondary characters makes to the hero about the dangers of someone who is too charismatic, using the example of a compelling man whom he admired when he was younger and the loss of identity this caused. (He follows this with a rather forced, “Don’t get me wrong: I like girls” sort of disclaimer.) The movie retained the speech but shortened it and, if I’m remembering right, weakened it somewhat.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that this nightmare comes out of Robinson’s life as a closeted gay man. Any time he was attracted to a man in his life he’d have had to resist the power of that attraction, cloaking it with dread, possibly intensifying if tainting its power. Any time he surrendered to his feelings he risked damaging his social identity.

The Power must have been his way of writing about this (and, no doubt, other things as well: I’m not saying any symbol has to have just one meaning). He couldn’t tell the truth of his experience directly; he had to transmute it into fantasy.

I’m against oppression in general (I make certain exceptions), but I wonder if, as society becomes more open, our fantasies will necessarily become duller and less intense. There may be less incentive to mask emotional reality in imagination, more tendency to memoirize rather than to fantasize.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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11 Responses to The Power of Milk

  1. fpb says:

    First, one man’s freedom is another man’s oppression. Second, the tendency of popular art is in the exact opposite direction.

    • JE says:

      “First, one man’s freedom is another man’s oppression”

      No, I don’t see this as a general principle. It may be true in particular cases: Bob’s freedom to engage in recreational cannibalism may interfere with Ben’s freedom to not be eaten. But, much more often, securing freedom for one person doesn’t diminish freedom for another. Bob’s right to juggle onions in his spare time doesn’t diminish Ben’s freedom to play darts.

      “Second, the tendency of popular art is in the exact opposite direction.”

      Opposite to what? Memoirizing, or fantasizing (or something else)?

  2. Anonymous says:

    I don’t recall offhand how optimistic you are about people, but I tend to lean the other way. I don’t think it matters how open society becomes, there will plenty of dark little secrets floating around in creative brains to keep us thrilled and chilled through SF literature. (Assuming that’s what drives a lot of writing, which I don’t believe. Some, yes; most, I don’t think so.)

    But that could just be me. I reasonably pleasant, morally stable, ethically unchallenged individual, and you do not want to wander around inside my head.

    –Jeff Stehman

    • JE says:

      You’re probably right–people will have dark sides no matter what society is like. (For some reason I’m thinking about the Krell.) And there has to be more to the imaginative impulse than “the X that dare not speak its name.”

  3. davidcapeguy says:

    I saw “The Power” when I was a kid, and read the book at last, perhaps ten years back, and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I entirely missed the subtext. I semi-liked the movie at the time, and I still remember being creeped out by one scene where a character’s ability to exit a room are taken away from him through mental means. And of course, I always approve of anything with Suzanne Pleshette!

    I may have to re-read the novel, see the movie again, check out what my opinions are this time.

    • JE says:

      The subtext never occurred to me until I read the article… maybe I’m making it all up, but it seems plausible.

      Totally agree about Suzanne Pleshette. I sat through If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium just because she was in it. (The soundtrack still haunts me sometimes, but it was worth it.)

  4. peadarog says:

    I enjoyed this post and I think you must be right about the subtext to the movie.

    • JE says:

      Thanks!

      Now I want to reread the book, though. Apparently he published an updated version in 2000 (through Tor)–can’t quite see how one could seamlessly update a late-50s novel to the new millennium, but it might be worth a look.

  5. james_nicoll says:

    I had no idea he was closeted because the first time I learned that he was gay was from And the Band Played On, where he seemed to be pretty open about his orientation.

    • JE says:

      The Power dates from the late 50s–it would have been hard to be out back then. It sounds from the article like it was a gradual process for him.

      Interesting to see the tributes from Richard Lupoff and Ted White in the comments.

      • james_nicoll says:

        Sure. I just got one little snapshot from a drawn out process and drew the wrong conclusions.

        I do remember that the gay character in The Glass Inferno was interesting for a thriller written at that time but I don’t recall why, except for a vague memory that that character noticed completely different things than the people around him.

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